Monday, May 23, 2005

Sex and the Young Violinist

A few weeks ago, I asked a newish friend what kind of music he likes. "Classical, especially Bach; rock; some jazz," he replied. The next day I handed him Sergey Schepkin's Goldberg Variations recording and, for fun, Dave Evans's brilliant solo guitar record, Sad Pig Dance. (No, it is not bluegrass; do not believe what Tower Records is trying to tell you. Just buy the record, which is sui generis.) I mentioned that when he was done with those, he could have the great Nathan Milstein in the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Oh, he had a recording of some of those, by Lara St. John, he told me.

Never heard of her, I said. He pointed me to her Web site, where I browsed to the page for the solo Bach CD.

Yes, I was startled by that cover. I took myself over to rec.music.classical.recordings to see what the mavens thought, and also emailed a knowledgable collector friend. I was quite curious about how good a player she was.

There were some positive comments on r.m.c.r., and eventually Bill wrote back:
I was not at all impressed by her "showpieces" CD, nor her Bach solo CD (and I think that I commented to that effect on RMCR). The concerto CD, though, is very, very good. I wouldn't quite put it in the class of my favorites (Grumiaux, Manze for HIP), but it's pretty impressive playing, and she's vastly better looking than either Manze or Grumiaux :-).

And there's the rub. What's going on with the cover of that solo Bach record? What exactly is being sold, and to whom?

Take a look at the photo again. It's not just the pose. It's that she's shot to look like a teenager - or younger - and she was 25 at the time.

Can a female musician be taken seriously when she appears on a record cover dressed in her violin? Is that what the critics and reviews should be commenting on? (And some of them did: "...she looks like a bedraggled nymphet," from Lloyd Dykk; "She looks about 10....maybe 12," from The Globe and Mail.) What on earth were her publicist and the designer thinking, anyway?

Whatever they were thinking, they kept thinking it:
  • The cover for Gypsy features a leather-clad St. John with nothing on under the jacket and a sultry gaze on her face.

  • On the cover of the Bach concerto album, she's tossing her hair about and showing a lot of shoulder.

  • St. John's most recent album, from Sony, has more of the disheveled-come-hither look on the cover (depending on your point of view, you may be just as concerned that it's all "crossover" arrangements of bits of J.S. Bach, aaargh).

  • St. John appeared in Menz magazine (and on the cover) talking about various things, including music, but mostly about other stuff.

I'm curious what kind of career St. John wants to have and whether this style of self-presentation is furthering that. I'm extremely curious about how others see her and her playing. Are those cover photos selling CDs, or...?

It's extremely difficult to imagine a male violinist, even a young and handsome one, being presented this way. Imagine Joshua Bell on a CD cover dressed in his violin - a little difficult, isn't it? (Yes, the violin would presumably be oriented a bit differently.) Can you imagine him or any other male classical player being marketed in this way? It's hard for me to imagine, anyway, and I have to say I'm sorry that a talented player is marketing herself this way.

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