Review: Lara St. John & Matt Herskowitz

May 12, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

Violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz performed in the finale of Virginia Commonwealth University’s current season of the Rennolds Chamber Concerts, a largely French program centered on the contrasting violin sonatas of César Franck and Maurice Ravel.

Yes, Franck was Belgian and his Violin Sonata in A major was introduced in Brussels, but the composer spent most of his career in Paris and exerted considerable influence on other late-19th and early 20th century French composers. Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major is not totally French in flavor, with its central slow movement echoing American blues.

St. John, a veteran Canadian violinist, and Herskowitz, an American-born, Montreal-based pianist whose career has centered on jazz, made rather brittle work of the Franck sonata, conveying little of the tonal richness and expressive depth of the piece. They were more fluent in the impressionist pastels of the first movement of the Ravel; the violinist treated the bluesy slides of the central movement quite broadly, and played the perpetual-motion finale as the virtuoso showpiece that it is.

The duo’s experience in exploring the music of Eastern Europe came through in their reading of Béla Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 2, as they reveled in the quirky rhythms and tonal inflections of Hungarian and other Balkan folk dances on which the piece was based.

St. John and Herskowitz played two of the pianist’s arrangements of favorite tunes by George Gershwin. They emphasized the sensuality of a slow-tango treatment of “But Not for Me,” and skittered through cross-rhythms in an elaborate take on “I Got Rhythm.”

Their program concluded with Martin Kennedy’s “Czardashian Rhapsody,” a witty reworking of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” No. 2.

Brought back for an encore, St. John and Herskowitz obliged with Fritz Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois.”

This season finale, scheduled as a substitute for a September 2018 concert canceled because of Hurricane Florence, was a matinee – a preview of the 2019-20 Rennolds season, most of whose concerts will move to Sunday afternoons.

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