ALBUM REVIEW: Shiksa by Lara St. John

by Rachele Hales


photo credit: Martin Kennedy

Lara St. John is well-known and well-praised for her catalog of previous releases, much of which have focused on Bach. Her latest release, Shiksa, is a collection of music from Eastern Europe with a focus on the Jewish Diaspora. It seems like an odd choice for the Canadian artist until one learns that she’s been collecting music from Armenia, Russia, Serbia, Greece, Palestine, etc since her first trip to Hungary as an 11-year-old girl. The selections on this album have imbued her spirit from a young age and her joy for the culture is obvious on this recording.

Shiksa (the Yiddish for a female gentile) kicks off with “Czardashian Rhapsody,” a mashup of Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” and Monti’s “Czardas.” St. John commissioned the eyes and ears of Martin Kennedy for the new interpretation and writes, “He made the violin part for “Czardashian Rhapsody” as preposterous as possible, expecting me to nix nearly everything. Instead, I kept it all, added some, and asked him to make the piano part even more prominent, because… Matt Herskowitz.” Kennedy’s creation is an energetic showpiece for both performers and a delight to listen to. In fact, St. John and Kennedy stopped by our studios to record this piece live!

Rhapsody soon turns into a downright brawl in track 2’s “Bar Fight (Variaiuni),” which was heavily inspired by a traditional Romanian hammer dulcimer tune. St. John and Herskowitz set their version in the Old West. At St. John’s website you’ll find a great music video of this piece wherein the feud turns into a free-for-all and even Herskowitz gets a punch in… while still playing the piano!

Quentin Tarantino fans may recognize Yuri Boguinia’s arrangement of “Misirlouri,” a traditional Jewish folk song that was covered in Pulp Fiction. Boguinia has built his version around the scale of the tune rather than the tune itself, but none of the distinctive vigor present in most Jewish folk music was lost in this interpretation.

Perhaps the most recognizable piece on the album, Herskowitz himself folded the traditional Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” (Let Us Rejoice) inside his own original melody to create “Nagilara.” The original pokes its head out, but the high-octane arrangement wrapped around it will addle your mind in the best of ways, leaving you dizzy and giddy from all the rejoicing going in in these 8 minutes. Herskowitz writes, “The familiarity of the melody opened up the prospect of new ways of delivering it. I decided to create the effect of a conversation by dividing the tune between the two instruments, with one completing the melodic phrase started by the other – a game of ‘follow the tune.’”

This reviewer’s favorite track is “Oltenian Hora,” a traditional piece loosely based on a song St. John heard on an old scratchy record in Romania. It sounds largely improvised and my hand to heaven she’s hitting notes on that violin that only dogs can hear. It’s zippy, animated, and packed to the hilt with “improvised Romanian violin tricks, twists and turns.” With respect to Herskowitz, it’s St. John’s fierce shredding of the violin that makes this piece a standout.

St. John has carried some of these melodies with her from childhood, others she picked up from barflies and scratchy records heard in her travels. Classical with a bit of gypsy flair, Shiksa has St. John and Herskowitz delivering heritage music with passion, furor, and spectacular extemporization.

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