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A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

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.

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And St. John picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

Revisiting a Legendary Piazzolla Concert in Central Park

Tuesday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, violinist Lara St. John teamed up with pianist Pablo Ziegler to celebrate the legendary 1987 concert there by Astor Piazzolla, immortalized on the Central Park Concert album. Joining them were fellow nuevo tango enthusiasts Hector Del Curto – rising with gusto to the challenging role of Piazzolla himself, on bandoneon – plus bassist Andrew Roitstein and guitarist Claudio Ragazzi. This had to be the first time an electric guitar playing through a chorus box has ever been broadcast on WQXR (then again, QXR is part of the cool crowd now, as part of the WNYC family alongside hot internet classical station Q2). Arguably, tango is the definitive noir genre, all angst and raging against the dying of the light. As ripe for parody as some tango is, what makes Piazzolla’s work stand out perhaps more than any other factor is that he never went over the top, preferring a constant, aching sense of suspense that the musicians onstage established quickly and seldom wavered from.

As he recounted to emcee Midge Woolsey, Ziegler was making his first return trip to the bandstand where he’d been on that rainy night 25 years ago, unabased to remind that Piazzolla had chosen him for the band because he liked Ziegler’s ability to improvise. Which is still his forte: whether anchoring the songs with a rich chordal approach or embellishing them with jaunty flourishes or raging torrents, he was fascinating to hear, through a set that mixed songs played the last time he’d been here along with two originals: his insistently longing requiem for Piazzolla, Milonga Del Adios, and his long, lushly shapeshifting Muchacha De Boedo. Like Ziegler, both Del Curto and St. John grew up playing Piazzolla, and it showed. Perhaps so as not to trigger any comparisons to the legendary composer, Del Curto played with a rippling, upbeat energy, for the most part leaving the angst to St. John and Ziegler and occasionally the rest of the band.

They dug deeply into the material right from the start, with a brightly glimmering, hard-hitting version of Michaelangelo, then played up the jazz and ragtime aspects of Muerte Del Angel, then brought the lights down with the dirge Introduccion Del Angel, bandoneon and violin sailing over the murk below. They gave Ragazzi the chance to go deep into the shadows with an echoey, distantly menacing solo introduction to the relatively obscure Mumuki, lept and jumped with abandon throughout the shark-fishing narrative Escualo and mined every ounce of noir urban bustle from the complicated arrangement of Tanguedia. Ziegler opened Piazzolla’s elegy for his father, Adios Nonino, with a long, poignant solo, then brought it up with an aching intensity as it crescendoed out. The final two Piazzolla pieces were an uneasy version of the rather avant garde Lunfardo – another relatively rare number from the 1987 concert – and then a fiery, violin-fueled Libertango. The audience responded thunderously; the group, oblivious to the helicopters circling overhead, rewarded them with a hard-hitting minor-key romp whose title was lost in the applause. Most of the musicians on the bill now reside in New York, so while a second performance of this program probably isn’t in the cards, something similar is bound to happen. Watch this space.