Lara St John and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra perform Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

It’s not every day that a discussion about a violin concerto turns to a conversation about the settlement patterns of Scandinavian immigrants within the Canadian prairies. But for Lara St John, who teams up with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra on Saturday to play the Violin Concerto by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, the connection is pretty clear. 

“The few times that I’ve been to Finland, I sort of look around myself and say, ‘you know, this place just kinda looks like the opening of the Sibelius Violin Concerto!’ It’s kind of bleak, yet beautiful. Cold, you know. It really gives you goosebumps, this piece.”

“In fact, it also occurred to me that Finland looks quite a bit like Saskatchewan,” she continues. “That’s probably why there’s so many Finnish people in Saskatchewan!”

And yes, Saskatchewan also has many Swedes and Norwegians, while Manitoba has a large Icelandic population, given the large influx of immigrants from Iceland into Manitoba in the 1880s.

“[The Sibelius concerto] is evocative of that kind of winter, I suppose,” St John says. “Bleak is kind of the word.” 

For a violinist, the concerto also has another word: iconic. It’s one of the top concertos, St John explains, emphasizing the piece’s status as something that violinists simply cannot wait to perform. Still, what makes the piece a “holy grail,” so to speak, is its difficulty, along with the mental, physical and technical capacity that a violinist must possess before playing it. And playing it well. 

“I learned it relatively late in life, I think, because, when I was a kid, I heard a lot of people play it—how do I put this nicely?—perhaps when they weren’t ready to do so,” she laughs, adding that those performances put a bit of a damper on the piece for her initially.

Still, she did have some good recordings to listen to, meaning that she could still envision how the piece should sound.

“The whole opening, there’s a little cadenza in the opening—everybody just can’t wait to play that, even when they’re kids and stuff. I remember being twelve years old, thinking, ‘Oh, when I get to play that, that’ll be the most wonderful day of my life!’” she laughs.

St John was more into 20th-century music as a kid, and ended up learning the Sibelius on her own by the time she was in her early 20s. The fact that she learned it herself, rather than having someone teach it to her, means that she sees her interpretation as entirely her own.

“I never really did much of what teachers told me to, anyway, but it’s nice to have come from a completely fresh background,” she explains.

Despite having performed this particular several times already, St John explains that the exuberant and fun final movement is very much like walking on a tightrope or doing a trapeze act.

“I never quite know if I’m going to make it through that last movement, so it’s always quite exciting. So far, so good! It’s very on-the-edge, which I like.”

Sat, May 1 (8 pm)
Lara St John and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Winspear Centre, $20 – $69

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Sun, May 2 (2 pm)
Edmonton Youth Orchestra
Winspear Centre, $10 – $15

This final concert in the orchestra’s season will feature solo performances by the winners of the Concerto Competition. Pieces include “Glitter and be Gay” by Bernstein, “Piano Concerto no 1” by Liszt and “Piano Concerto in D minor” by Mozart. The program will also include “Symphony no 5” by Shostakovich.

Sun, May 2 (3 pm)
Cantilon Choirs
Spring is Singing in the Garden
McDougall United Church, $13.75 – $16.75

The choir has five levels, starting with the four- to six-year-olds, and going all the way up to the adult women’s group. The choir will celebrate its 10th anniversary with this performance.

Sun, May 2 (3 pm)
Julian Savaryn and the Edmonton Philharmonic Orchestra
Convocation Hall, University of Alberta, $10

The concert will include classical and popular music by composers such as Beethoven, Haydn, John Williams and Saint-Saens.


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