Review: Lara St. John plays Violin Concerto No. 1 by Matthew Hindson

November 14, 2011, 3:08 PM · After hearing Lara St. John's West Coast premiere of the Violin Concerto No. 1 "Australian Postcards" by Matthew Hindson, I did something I rarely do upon hearing something for the very first time: I ran out at intermission and bought the recording.

I liked it, and I wanted to hear it again.

Lara St. John
Photo by Twain Newhart

Lara was performing with the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Cal. (near Los Angeles), with conductor Sarah Ioannides, who also leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Lara's 2007 world premiere recording of the same work.

I found Hindson's concerto both familiar and challenging; in a musical language that I understand, yet full of new thoughts and ideas. Certainly it sounds modern, but sometimes it's modern like a movie score, and other times it's modern like an edgy new symphony.

As the title suggests, the violin concerto paints three different pictures from Australia, beginning at Kooragang Island with an enormous wind turbine. The program describes "three huge blades on this turbine that move at tremendous speed. Standing nearby, it seems hard to believe that the whole structure won't disintegrate and decapitate everyone, such is its power and speed."

The piece begins with a loud and dissonant rumble, which had me a little worried. I confess, I'm not up to 45 minutes of ear-bending noise. But not to fear, it was just those turbines revving up.

I'd never seen Lara St. John play live, and I was immediately taken with her ability to convey movement in the music, with no feeling of fuss over individual notes. To be honest, I was skeptical that a wind turbine could be depicted in music, but as I let it wash over me, I did get a sense of riding the wind, of an enormous gear winding and grinding into motion, of whirling around in three. The violin is rhythmic and slidey, and the orchestra contributes train whistles, wah-wah noises, even a sort of quack-quack (geese flying by?) At one point the orchestra plays a whole chorus of whining "wah-wahs," kind of like a swarm of flatulent bumblebees, which did indeed conjure for me the image of something enormous winding into gear. This all ends in a big Bartok pizzicato (very loud -- hope this is not the decapitation!) then a spinning bariolage, with the solo violin rolling across all strings against a windy-sounding background. By the end Lara was completely out of breath -- panting! She really gave it all.

Then came the second movement, meant to paint a picture of both the idyllic setting and depressing reality (boredom, isolation, lack of opportunity) of a small down in Tasmania called Westaway. Here the orchestra became more pastoral, the violin more melodic, Lara playing with graceful agility. This movement made use of 29 percussion instruments, and occasionally they got loud. Lara seemed more than a soloist, she also seemed an advocate for this work, the way she knew it so well and channeled its energy. I enjoyed the way this movement was crafted; the violin seemed to speak and create melodies and gestures that were then echoed, amplified or carried over by the rest of the orchestra. The ending faded to niente -- a well-executed quiet moment.

Third movement began with a blast from the orchestra, followed by a tentative pizzicato from the solo violin, who plucked out the melody that would be carried throughout the movement. Then it was off to the races on a jazzy and energetic ride. This movement was meant to showcase Grand Final Day, a celebration of sport, probably Australian football and/or rugby, but I'd swear I heard a "Toreador" quotation in there! This movement was a mad dash, very physical and exciting, teetering between the roaring crowd and the individual display by the violin, which, when the orchestra hushed, would jazz out and show off. In the end came a standing ovation, and audience members walking away, whistling that jazzy tune from the last movement.


November 15, 2011 at 12:05 AM · Very interesting first half or so, but then it devolves into movie music. Feels like Higdon felt he had to pander to "popular tastes" after first "challenging the audience." I personally wish he had returned to the tension of the opening in the "recap," rather than presenting toward the end what one might rudely call (OK I exaggerate, but not too much..) music to accompany an alternative energy ad.

November 15, 2011 at 01:23 AM · I guess I have no problem with movie music; I find it to be some of the most relevant music written these days for orchestra. Also, I don't feel that a composer needs to re-invent the language of music to say something new; it seemed to me that Hindson was able to say something new but make it actually resonate with people. Isn't that the point? If I want to say something new in the language of English, no one says, "Everything has been said that can be said with the English language. Using the English language is derivative and thereby unoriginal and pandering." If I wrote something in Klingon, most people would be baffled, excepting a few avid Star Trek fans.

At any rate, as you can see, I really liked this concerto and think it's worth a listen, worth considering for playing, too.

Here's the LA Times review:

November 16, 2011 at 12:53 AM · I totally agree that Lara's playing is fantastic! Maybe I was being too grumpy about the piece, but it was frustrating that the last half of it did not, IMHO, live up to its inital promise.

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