#metoo in Classical Music – The Case of Lara St. John

Bayerischer Rundfunk Interview with Lara St. John concerning the Curtis Institute Source:https://youtu.be/_fRncl_HRbg

She is one of the most renowned Bach interpreters: Canadian violinist Lara St. John. Since this summer, however, she has caused a stir in the classical music scene which is not due to this fact. The 48-year-old has made a trauma public. She accuses her former conservatory in the USA of having hushed up sexual abuse. She claims that her teacher molested and raped her when she was a young girl. Her school, however, failed to react when she sought help. In the meantime, other victims have also come forward. 

Stephan Lina met Lara St. John in Munich. 

Music J.S. Bach. Violin Concerto No. 2, Adagio (Lara St. John)

From child prodigy to powerful woman. Lara St. John is considered a phenomenon in classical music. Even at preschool age, the 48-year-old Canadian stood on stage, winning prizes, being discovered even as a child, and was accepted as a student at 13 in the 1980s at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, one of the most renowned conservatories in the USA. Today, she runs her own record label and performs all over the world. A storybook career, one might think. But since this summer, it has been known that this career was almost destroyed before it really began.

As a teenager, says Lara St. John, she was sexually harassed, raped and then blackmailed to remain silent by her teacher at the Curtis Institute. Her teacher, Jascha Brodsky, threatened her with consequences against her and  her brother, also a student at the Curtis Institute, says Lara St. John. It took a very long time until she dared go public. One reason: the social climate has changed. Sexual harassment is no longer considered a gentleman’s offense which is simply ignored:

St. John:

“It was partly to do with the #metoo movement, which had gained a lot in importance. Things were changing, mostly in North America. But most importantly, I had reached a point where I was convinced that I could do this. Even if I never played another note, I would not have to starve. Before, the main goal was to survive. Now I have security. Also, the climate has changed. Had I gone public earlier, people would not have listened to me, even five years ago, the way they did this year. “


The bombshell came a few months ago. The newspaper Philadelphia Inquirerhad spent months on intensive research, speaking to those responsible at the Curtis Institute, to lawyers, other victims and witnesses. The accused teacher was no longer able to comment, as he had died. However, what became clear was that Lara St. John was obviously not the only victim. 

For years, those responsible did not seem to want to know what teachers did with their young female students behind closed doors or to whom psychological pressure was being exerted. For Lara St. John it was also a major effort to reveal herself in a scene where everyone knows everyone else, where networks make or break careers:

St. John:

 “Well of course, it’s a very small profession. And if you go public with such an issue, everyone knows. I had to overcome this fear too, this sense of shame. And it was a tough year, a tough summer. But I am convinced: in the end it is going to be worthwhile. Not just for me, but for a lot of other people.” 

Particularly, Lara St. John hopes that she can encourage other young women and girls not to be silent, not to become victims. In the meantime, almost all US conservatories have committed to stop looking the other way when suspicion arises. However, St. John says that further change is needed; that the power structures in classical music must be altered. There, it is mainly men who decide on careers and the professional livelihood of young artists. To this day, according to her, there are old boys’ networks and a wall of silence which aid and abet abuse:

St. John:

“I think that is part of the problem and the reason why victims wish to remain anonymous. Look at the accusations against Plácido Domingo. There are accusations from 20 women, and only two of them went public under their name. And those two are retired, so they have nothing more to lose. My goal is that all 20 can come forward without fear of retribution. But we are not there yet. However, I hope to be the little snowball that starts the avalanche.” 

Lara St. John is particularly disappointed in her former school. The Curtis Institute hired lawyers to investigate her case, but obviously little came of it. To St. John, this is unsurprising, as she herself had the same experience when she was a teenager seeking help:

St. John:

“Curtis’ reaction in 1986 was: they laughed at me. The dean at the time {Robert Fitzpatrick} asked me who would be believed: a little girl or a respected teacher of long standing. When it came up again after ten years, I was told that there was no reason to make a big fuss. However, when the former dean wrote a blog and made himself out to be some kind of patron and protector of children, I finally had enough. I wrote a nine-page letter to the school. It contained in graphic detail what had been done to me. And… the school….did nothing.”

Lara St. John is also working on a film about her story. She has received numerous letters from other female musicians who suffered abuse. They are shattering texts about suicidal thoughts, self-recrimination and trampled dreams. Some of these young women were put off music forever.