By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.
There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.
Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!
Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.
Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.
These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.
For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.