interview with Tessa Lark: Bluegrass on a Strad

July 6, 2018, 1:26 PM · Is it okay to play bluegrass on a Stradivarius?

The answer, of course, is "yes," but violinist Tessa Lark did wrestle with the question when she started playing the 1683 "ex-Gingold" Strad in 2015, several months after winning second prize in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 2014. First-prize winner Jinjoo Cho had opted not to use it, already having another fine violin on loan, and the priceless violin was offered to Lark.

Tessa Lark
Tessa Lark. Photo by Kate L. Photography.

"I got a surprise call at the beginning of 2015, a few months after the competition happened. They called out of nowhere and said, 'We have this violin back, would you like to use it?' And I said, 'I'm at the doorstep, right now!'" Lark said, speaking to me over the phone from her apartment in New York. "It was quite a beautiful surprise." Lark will have use of the violin until the next International Violin Competition of Indianapolis happens this September, when it will be offered to the next set of laureates.

Lark has been performing all over the world, premiering new music and even writing some of her own. Just last spring Lark received the 2018 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship, and prior to that, in 2016, she received an Avery Fisher Career Grant. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, with an Artist Diploma from The Juilliard School, having studied with top teachers including Kurt Sassmannshaus, Miriam Fried, and Lucy Chapman, Sylvia Rosenberg, Ida Kavafian, and Daniel Phillips.

Playing on the Strad once owned by the great violinist and teacher Josef Gingold -- then subsequently played by laureates of the Indianapolis competition that Gingold founded -- has been quite an experience. When Lark performs with orchestras or in chamber groups, other musicians sometimes recognize the violin, simply by sight or sound. "They'll say, 'Oh my gosh, I remember hearing Gingold play this,' or 'I remember when (2006 IVCI laureate) Augustin (Hadelich) came here to play a concerto with this violin.' It's been a lot of fun meeting people who either studied with Gingold or who knew Gingold, and letting them play the instrument for a while. The smiles just run across their faces. It's just unbelievable, the impact that this instrument has had on the musical world. So it's quite humbling, just to have it in my little apartment in New York!"

Lark has found ways to use the instrument both to honor its legacy and to explore her own artistry and background. The live performance (below) that she recorded earlier in 2018 for Strings Magazine's String Sessions illustrates this well. She played two solo works: a piece written by Gingold's own teacher, the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonata No. 5, G major, "L’Aurore"; and her own composition, "Appalachian Fantasy." In her own piece, Lark takes a song by Schubert and molds it into an Appalachian tune, later weaving in two other fiddle favorites, including "Bonaparte's Retreat," the tune used by Aaron Copland in "Rodeo."

Before playing the "Gingold" Strad, Lark had played instruments such as Strads only for a few minutes at a time, in violin shops. "So this has been my first long-term experience with a Strad," Lark said. "The stories are true: it is a very temperamental instrument and it is difficult to play. I feel that Miriam Fried, who was one of my teachers during my college years, described this particular instrument best. When she was describing Josef Gingold's violin playing, she said, 'It wasn't a big sound, but it was a glorious sound.' I feel like that captures very well the strengths of this violin. The fact that Josef Gingold owned it, played it and cared for it with so much love -- it's all still in the instrument. So it's been an honor, every single day, despite the difficulties of playing it, to play it, explore it and to have that sound under my ear for a few years."

And what about playing bluegrass on this storied fiddle?

"At first I felt bad playing bluegrass on a Stradivarius. But it turns out that it sounds really great on a Strad," Lark said, "and bluegrass music deserves as fine a violin as any genre of music."

As she grew more comfortable taking the Strad into bluegrass territory, Lark even came up with a name for the practice: "Strad-grass." At first she used the term strictly for playing bluegrass on the fine fiddle, but over time "I've decided the definition of 'Strad-grass' is just a diverse musical lifestyle; it's all-encompassing," Lark said. "I just adore so many different styles of music."

Lark's bluegrass music always was developing alongside her classical studies, but for some time she kept it in the background -- even under wraps.

"Classical music -- and classical violin in particular -- is such a demanding journey, with demanding training," Lark said. "I was devoting most of my time to learning classical music -- that was my main love, growing up....But bluegrass and other styles were always there. I was going to the Mark O'Connor fiddle camps when I was younger and always dabbling in different styles."

Lark was born and grew up in in Richmond, Kentucky to a family of music lovers and amateurs. "My mom took piano for nine years during her childhood and my dad plays bluegrass banjo, to this day," Lark said. "There is a lot of music-loving going on in the family, but no professionals."

Surrounded by a wide variety of music at home, Lark started picking out tunes from the radio on her "Muppet Babies" keyboard when she was still in diapers. As a toddler she started adding in some left-hand as well, and her parents took note.

"I played mandolin when I was four years old, before I ever played the violin, and 'Boil 'em Cabbage Down' was the first song I ever learned, which is a good replacement for Twinkle, Twinkle; there's a lot of similarity between the two in terms of playing music for the first time," Lark said.

By age six, "I wanted to play piano really badly, but we didn't have a real piano in the house," Lark said. A local piano teacher advised that it would be easier to acquire a violin than a piano. "I decided to go ahead with that," Lark said. "My parents said that I declared myself a violinist after my studies began. I never looked back!"

Lark began violin as a "Suzuki kid," studying with Catherine McGlasson for about six years. "She also supplemented my Suzuki training with these Fiddle Club books, so there was some bluegrass going on at the same time."

She also played in her father's gospel-bluegrass band. "They still play to this day, they're called the Narrow Road," Lark said. "My dad jokes that I retired from the band when I was 10 because they were all 'old fogies' and I didn't want to play with them!"

At age 11, Lark started commuting to Cincinnati for the Starling Preparatory Strings Program with Kurt Sassmannshaus. "That's an all-day Saturday program, so I woke up early on Saturday mornings every week and -- bless my parents -- they would drive me there every weekend," Lark said. "It was an unbelievable program -- and it still is -- with music theory, chamber orchestra, chamber music, private lessons, eurhythmics and so many performance opportunities. It was just crazy, you'd get to play movements of concertos, to solo, to play recitals, to prepare for competitions if you wanted to participate in those. There were even international tours, as well. I gained invaluable experience from that."

"(Sassmannshaus) is so good at setting a technical foundation," Lark said. "And without ever saying it out loud, he encourages so much individuality out of his young students. He would allow you to explore different interpretations, and I'm so grateful for that. But the biggest gift that he gives his young students is that he really has an unbelievable method for practicing efficiently. Of course, he has the very popular, which was especially revolutionary at the time it was launched; he saw that trend before it happened."

"He's a huge advocate for slow practice, as many of the greatest violinists are," Lark said. "He was a teaching assistant for Dorothy DeLay, so he got a lot of his theories from her and from his father, (Egon Sassmannshaus), who also is a prominent German violin pedagogue. So he had a lot of these methods for practicing any technique that you would encounter in all of the major repertoire, and he'd have a very clear way of explaining it to a young student. It was a fool-proof method: if you did what he said, you were going to get there! So that was exciting and inspiring, to work under him."

At the same time, "the Mark O'Connor Fiddle Camps absolutely shaped a lot of my upbringing, in terms of playing other styles," Lark said. She attended three or four of the camps as a young teenager. "He was a major influence of mine, as was going to his camps and meeting all the different living violin legends there of all walks of life and styles." In recent years she worked with O'Connor to record a track for his O'Connor Method Book 4 -- the duet Faded Love, which they played together.

Once she arrived at the New England Conservatory to study classical violin at the college level, Lark continued to seek out opportunities to play different styles and to improvise.

"From a young age, I learned the lesson that you have to throw yourself into uncomfortable situations to get to know a different style of music, especially if you have become fluent in another style," Lark said. "And it gets harder and harder, the older you get, to put your ego to the side and jump in and -- to be bad at something! in order to improve. I still feel that way very much when I play jazz or other styles with other instrumentalists, but it's the only way to improve. I've been doing that my whole life."

At NEC, Lark threw herself into a contemporary improvisation course for non-majors, and she also joined a jazz ensemble.

When she was at Juilliard, she collaborated with one of the jazz ensembles, creating a Gypsy Jazz Hot Club de France-style ensemble -- traditionally three guitars, one violin and double bass. "I was the one violin, the Stephane Grappelli element of the band!" Lark said, laughing. "I got to meet and work with Gypsy jazz guitarist Frank Vignola -- he's a living legend. It was a great opportunity. We played some hot swing juicy jazz at Dizzie's, which was a lot of fun."

More and more, Lark has let that "bluegrass" side of her musical personality show in public.

"I think, until very recently, people might have been suspicious of a classical player who also played bluegrass," Lark said. "For a little while, whether it was warranted or not, I was afraid that I would not be taken seriously in my classical music if I was showcasing too much bluegrass. Of course it's totally unwarranted -- some of the greatest musicians alive come from the bluegrass world, people such as Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile -- these people are all so well-respected."

For Lark, she likes to stay as true as possible to whatever genre she is currently exploring.

"I like to present various styles in their authentic, traditional ways," Lark said. That idea is what attracted her to composer Michael Thurber, setting in motion a project that became a rather personal one -- in February she premiered a work that he wrote for her called "Love Letter" with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra in Indiana.

"As you can tell from the title, it's also a love story in general!" Lark said. Both Thurber and Lark are alumni of the program From the Top and that is how they met. "From the Top" had commissioned Thurber to write a piece called Three Musketeers for violin, piano, clarinet, double bass and orchestra.

"I heard the broadcast of the piece, and I just loved the music so much," Lark said. "He is one of the only composers I've heard who truly, successfully puts other genres of music in the orchestral performance setting. Don't get me wrong -- it has been done successfully many times before -- but sometimes it misses the mark. For example, the orchestration is there but the style isn't quite there, or the style is there but it hasn't been adjusted properly enough for the classical instruments. I was just blown away, and so entertained by his music, too. So I called Michael right away and asked if he would write a violin concerto. He said, 'I would love to,' and during that process, we started dating!"

"Love Letter" includes elements of jazz, bluegrass and even some rock 'n' roll. "It's a really fun but serious piece," Lark said. "The most amazing part of it is the third movement, called 'Forever You' -- it's just one of the most beautiful slow movements I've ever heard in the literature. I'm excited to keep playing it! We will be performing it with the Louisville Orchestra in October."

Lark is not alone in her explorations of bluegrass and folk music, through the lens of a classical musician.

"I've noticed that a lot of composers have taken an interest in folk music once again," Lark said. "Interestingly enough, the past few competitions that I've participated in; every single commissioned work had folk fiddle elements in it."

A few examples of this phenomenon include:

...and there are more.

"It's everywhere," Lark said, and she plans to continue working with composers who are exploring bluegrass in their pieces. "I worked recently with Michael Torke on a Violin Sonata (called Spoon Bread) and he's now writing me a violin concerto, which I'm going to premiere with the Albany Symphony in January, then record that. And about six other orchestras so far have signed onto it. I have another project in the works, too, another bluegrass-inspired concerto that will come out in the next season or two."

"So there is a lot of interest there, and that excites me to no end because it is absolutely justified," Lark said. "This is amazing music, and it is relevant. All the great classical music we play of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms -- as NPR reminds us, all of it was once new. And all those composers were inspired and influenced by their own folk music. So this seems like a natural succession, a natural way to go."

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July 7, 2018 at 02:43 AM · Wow, amazing violinist and great interview. One of your best I think.

July 7, 2018 at 03:38 AM · We met Tessa Lark a few years ago and my then 13 year old daughter got to fiddle with her. It was a blast! Tessa is such a lovely and very personable young lady full of lots of class.

July 7, 2018 at 09:39 PM · Yay!

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