Tessa Lark is a fascinating study in contradictions. That may be why she is such a captivating artist. She clearly knows her way around Ysaÿe, Paganini, and Kreisler, yet demonstrates absolute reverence for the music of her Kentucky roots. She’s completely at home standing in front of a symphony orchestra, yet don’t be surprised to find her in a jazz club or a jam session with the likes of bassists Edgar Myer or Michael Thurber. And lest you think there’s an ounce of diva in this Kentucky-bred violinist, you might have been just as flustered as many lucky folks here in Knoxville, Tennessee who just happened to find Tessa playing Bluegrass outside a makeshift vaccine center last week for those in line.Violinist
I was among the socially-distanced crowd at the magnificent Tennessee Theatre who had an opportunity to hear Tessa perform "Sky," the Pulitzer Finalist violin concerto Michael Torke composed specially for her, under the direction of Maestro Aram Demirjian. (It helps to score coveted tickets when one of your closest friends is Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Executive Director and the flutist in your flute quartet.) After a light supper of fried bologna for me, pimento cheese BLT for my friend (when in Rome…), we settled into our theater seats for some true southern comfort.
I will leave formal reviews to the real critics. I’ll simply note that I was as entertained, moved, and uplifted by this Bluegrass concerto as I am on hearing any one of the traditional concertos I grew up studying. As for Tessa, it’s no wonder her recording of the piece garnered a Grammy nomination for her performance. The music, and her interpretation, remind me of the limitless nature of the violin itself and the many groups of people who have cultivated a unique violin style they call their own, be that classical, Celtic, Bluegrass, or any other.
"Sky" has three movements, titled Lively, Wistful, and Spirited. The work was collaboratively commissioned by 11 separate orchestras — a move I think is quite smart in that it ensures a respectable amount of performances upfront. In the composer’s own words, the first movement involves "banjo-picking technique" for the solo violin. For the second movement, my personal favorite, Torke’s source material "was Irish reels, the forerunner of American Bluegrass." And the third movement, "fiddle licks with a triplet feel." Torke wrote his own themes within the style, and "developed the ideas into a standard, ‘composed’ violin concerto." He said that "everything is written out, nothing improvised."
Although I was extremely taken by the entire piece, Wistful is an absolute gem. I could envision it being extracted from the broader work and performed separately, in the manner the second movement (Sorrow) of William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, "Afro-American," has taken on a life of its own, separate and apart from the broader work from which it was born.
Wistful evokes the simplistic grandeur of an Appalachian sky. One can almost see a young girl (a very young Tessa, perhaps) looking upward and wondering what lies beyond her treasured homeland. Torke seems to pull longing from the plaintive open intervals of the Bluegrass style. This is not a piece that simply weaves in Bluegrass themes. Rather, the themes seem to be birthed from the struggle, passion, and seeming isolation of the people who claim them.
True to her seemingly endless contradictions, in her sky-high gold heels and flowered jumpsuit, Tessa looked every bit the concert violinist and down-home girl all at once. I’m not sure if Torke has a marking in "Sky" noted as "ponytail flying," but if not, he should. Further, if a contemporary ballet company doesn’t snap up "Sky" and give it to a choreographer, that would be a missed opportunity. And the choreographer would be wise to put Ms. Lark front and center, as her physicality and energy tremendously enhanced the live performance (as evidenced in the rehearsal clip below).
Bluegrass for All
Stylistic appropriation is a veritable minefield, so I will tread lightly. My hope is simply that this beautiful concerto does not languish because there is a sense it can only be performed by violinists from Appalachia. Tessa has given us a roadmap for the style. We have her recording as a concise and seemingly perfect reference point. Torke has written every note; no improvising required. How wonderful it would be if violinists who do not hail from Kentucky or other parts of Appalachia feel comfortable digging into this joyous music in the same manner they would study the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic styles.
It is only fitting that the concerto was written in collaboration with Tessa and that she will forever be tied to the piece and its musical birth. But I can think of no greater tribute to both Tessa and Torke if the concerto were to open up the Bluegrass world to violinists and concert-goers alike.
Author’s note: Covid restrictions at the time of this concert imposed a 90-minute time limit on performances. "Sky" was beautifully paired with Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony and the concert was performed without intermission.
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