gets to play on a G.P. Maggini violin. But, as the saying goes, when Tessa Lark took the stage last night at the spectacular Tennessee Theatre with the Knoxville Symphony, she had me at hello. Here was a performer who exuded comfort being center stage. Her demeanor indicated this would not be your average concerto performance — and that started by not programming your average concerto. The work I was anxiously waiting to hear was Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major (Opus 35).I honestly did not want to like her. She’s so young, so talented, so pretty. And, if that weren’t enough, she
During my years of serious violin study, this work was never on my radar. It was certainly not part of the standard concerto repertoire we were conditioned to study. In fact, this was the first live performance of the piece I have heard. To my ears, the work proved to be a truly magical, miraculous combination of Vienna and Hollywood, by a composer with roots in both locales.
Before the music…
I was shocked and delighted when Ms. Lark and conductor Aram Demirjian both took the stage with microphones in hand, ready to speak about the concerto. Maestro Demirjian clearly knew the piece would be new to most of us in the audience, and he took the opportunity to familiarize us with the concerto’s genesis and major themes. Lark played each theme, sans orchestra, and also spoke about the work’s first performance and the circumstances leading up to Heifetz stepping in as the debut soloist. By the time the piece began, the audience had learned these fun facts: The concerto was dedicated to Gustav Mahler’s widow; Heifetz loved and championed the work; its gorgeous themes were gleaned from various Korngold movie scores; and, The New York Times originally panned it as being "too Hollywood."
A concerto begins…
Before I get into the specifics of the performance, let me state that I am not a critic nor do I aspire to be one. My mother used to refer to herself as a "professional listener." I believe I fall into that category as well. I’m related to three conductors and have attended their performances from childhood on. I’m not qualified to dissect or analyze music in the manner of an academician or critic. But I do know what I like and what moves me. And Ms. Lark’s performance of the Korngold concerto succeeded on both counts.
Lark played with a wondrous combination of passion and precision. Her familiarity with the piece made it appear she was generating it organically. There was no pretense nor posturing in her playing. The coordination between Lark and Demirjian was almost balletic in nature. In the final movement there was a brief duet between Lark and concertmaster William Schaub, and the connection between the two violinists made for one of those musical moments you only experience in a live performance.
In a recent article, I discussed Seiji Ozawa’s concept of musical "conversations" within an orchestra. Lark is a master of musical conversation, both in her playing and her overall body language. It was always clear what she was saying and the orchestra responded in kind.
Applause, applause, applause…
A few years back, a vote was taken on V.com about whether it’s ever appropriate to clap between movements of a concerto or symphony. Laurie Niles wrote at the time, "Of course, some movements end with such bombast, they seem to beg for an ovation. I'm not bothered in the least by applause at the end of the marathon first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, for example." We had a similar moment of bombast last night and I, too, was not bothered by the reaction. The resounding climax at the end of the first movement of the Korngold resulted in a spontaneous eruption of applause. (Myself included, and I know better!) It simply couldn’t be helped. Lark appeared to appreciate the acknowledgement and even gave a slight nod and wink to the orchestra. She held the somber mood between the second and third movements, however, and you could have heard a pin drop.
The ovation following the entire concerto was enthusiastic and prolonged. Clearly, we wanted more. And we got it. Just when I thought there might be some unaccompanied Bach in my future, Lark surprised us yet again. She teed up a bluegrass number by telling us she’s from the neighboring state of Kentucky. She then proceeded to play and sing a marvelous tune. Her powerful alto rang out in the theater as she bent both knees and assumed the traditional fiddler’s stance. This young woman is comfortable in her own skin and crystal clear about who she is. Nothing captures an audience more than putting your own stamp on a performance. And Ms. Lark did just that. She was a joy to watch, as well as to hear.
(BELOW: At 5:08 is a the bluegrass number that Tessa did as an encore)
Speaking of watching her, I feel compelled to comment on Ms. Lark's attire. I mention this not as a point of style, but because I find many concert gowns to be distracting and performers often seem uncomfortable wearing them. The gown Ms. Lark wore was simply stunning and seemed perfectly suited to her style as well as the music she was performing. It was a long-sleeved black gown, covered with a beautiful floral design. The bodice was fitted and the skirt flowed. The gown added a dimension to her performance by moving in tandem with the sweep of the music. It was another aspect of her presentation that seemed genuine and deliberate.
Nothing like a live performance…
The opportunity to hear Tessa Lark play the Korngold concerto in a live performance is what got me out of the comfort of my home on a cold and rainy winter’s evening. Driving home after this wonderful concert, I thought about how tempted I had been to simply stay inside with a book. I’m so glad I didn’t.
I have a renewed sense of gratitude for people who seemingly show up for everything. Those energetic folks who populate our concert halls, opera houses, and other performing venues are my heroes. As audiences for classical music continue to diminish, I take heart in young performers like Tessa Lark and Aram Demirjian who strive to offer live performances that are riveting, informative, and inspirational. They are the ones who make it worth our while to get out of the house and into the theater.
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