Bare Bach

updated 02/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

BARE YOUR SOUL FOR YOUR ART? No problem. But bare anything else, and watch out. At any rate, that's what Lara St. John discovered last year when her debut album of Bach solo violin works was released with a cover showing St. John, 25, wearing nothing more than her fiddle.

Amid raves for its musical virtuosity (or "irresistible vitality," in the words of the Chicago Tribune critic), the CD has startled some traditional classicists with its semigraphic audacity. "Shocking!" fumes Richard Hetland, music director at a Mesa, Ariz., classical music station, who objected to an artist's exploiting her sexuality and returned the album unopened. Tower Records stores in Seattle refused for several months to stock it.

St. John, who market-tested a similar pose on a poster for a student recital at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1994, remains coyly unrepentant. "It's hilarious what's going on," says St. John (who was not, she maintains, inspired by erstwhile topless cellist Charlotte Moorman, who performed in the '60s and '70s). "This was just sort of an artsy idea to express the intimacy between a violin player and the music."

St. John, the younger child of a basketball-coach father and a music-coach mother in London, Ont., is a onetime prodigy who made her European debut at age 10. She now plays 40 to 50 concerts a year in the U. S. and Canada from her home base in New York City. Her mission, she says, is to persuade young audiences to share her love of the three B's: Bach, Beavis and Butt-head. "I have a problem with the snobbism surrounding classical music," she says. "But there is passion to the music, a kind of eroticism almost."

Okay, forget the almost.

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