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Interview: Violinist Tessa Lark Discusses Her Career and Her Upcoming Performance at the Phillips Collection

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Don’t just call Tessa Lark a crossover artist. The fast-rising classical violinist may also be known for playing at jazz clubs in New York and elsewhere, and for her country fiddling at bluegrass festivals. But Tessa’s Kentucky roots and her deep curiosity about world cultures feed right back into her “serious” repertoire in a way that other classically trained musicians can only hope to emulate. So much so that leading current composers like Michael Torke and Avner Dorman have been specifically writing sonatas, concertos, and other pieces for her to premiere, while Tessa herself is leaping into the compositional sphere with her own new works.

Violinist Tessa Lark. Photo by Kate L Photography.

Appropriately, Tessa Lark’s upcoming Washington performance is at what is consistently the city’s most adventurous and engaging “classical” series, the Sunday concert series at the Phillips Collection. Prior to Tessa’s appearance with pianist Roman Rabinovich in the Phillips series on Sunday, December 10, I spoke with her by telephone from her home in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

David Rohde: I know you’re from Kentucky, but specifically where? Since you went to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, were you from the Cincinnati area or further away?

Tessa Lark: I’m from just south of Lexington – Richmond, Kentucky. It was a two-hour drive to Cincinnati when I started participating in that program. I started going there when I was 11 years old. The Starling program is what the pre-college program is called in Cincinnati. It happened every Saturday, so it would pretty much eat up my weekend. I would go up there and have a Saturday morning private lesson, music theory classes, eurhythmics classes, string orchestra rehearsal, and some chamber music as well.

Going back before that, when did you start playing the violin?

I started when I was six years old, and I started with the Suzuki method.

Did you love playing the violin from the beginning, or is that a misperception?

No, not at all. I have adored music my whole life. I played mandolin two years before I played the violin, and my father plays banjo, so I was always intrigued by what he was doing with his friends. And I had a toy keyboard when I was really young, and I would pick out tunes that I was hearing on the radio. My parents noticed my interest in music from a very young age. So the violin was my toy, in essence. I just loved playing it and I loved practicing.

When you went up to Cincinnati those weekends, was the entire day spent on, quote-unquote, classical music, or did you have a chance to branch out from there?

Yeah, there’s no quote-unquote about it; it was strictly classical. My teacher there, Kurt Sassmannshaus, is wonderful about teaching his students about the business of classical music too. And he has been a supporter of my playing bluegrass music in recent years, so that’s very wonderful. But his expertise, and amazing wisdom was in the classical realm. So that Saturday was devoted entirely to classical music.

Violinist Tessa Lark. Photo by Mitch Weiss.

You have a very “speaking” or narrative voice across the entire violin. Some violinists, you can tell, they just don’t care down there on the G string as much, they can’t wait to get up to the high notes.

 In my early teens, I took three weeks of cello, which was a lot of fun. To this day, the E string [the highest string] is not my favorite string on the violin!

But it seems to equal everything out and help tell stories. Did your teacher contribute to that?

My favoring the low registers of the violin, I think that’s just my own taste. But you can look up some of his teachings online at violinmasterclass.com. He made this website long before YouTube was as popular as it is, so it was really revolutionary. It has a lot of quick videos on different techniques and aspects of violin playing. Mr. Sassmannshaus is unbelievably clear and succinct with his methods. He would tell me to do something or practice something in a certain way, I would do it, and I would see the results. When I got to conservatory I noticed that a lot of students didn’t actually know how to practice. They were very talented and they got to where they were from that talent, but I had a teacher who really helped me figure out how to be efficient all across the board.

The Starling program offered countless performance opportunities. That might be the most amazing gift that he gave me as a young person. I had a lot of time on stage with my nerves in front of an audience. You can practice as much as you want to in your own room, but you really have to get on the stage to learn how to deal with stage fright.

Then you were accepted to the New England Conservatory (NEC). What was it like for someone from Kentucky to go to Boston for college?

Oh man, well now sitting here in New York City, I’m grateful that it was Boston first! I had a lot of learning to do when I got to Boston. My teacher there was Miriam Fried. I met her at age 14 at a competition that I participated in, and she was one of the judges. I had a few lessons with her, and she really opened my eyes to a profound musicianship that I was seeking and I didn’t know that I was seeking. And so I went to NEC. I followed her there in 2006.

As a girl from Kentucky, it just opened my eyes to how big the world is and how big the world of classical music is, even though I did do a lot of international traveling with the Starling program. But just to see on a national level what was going on and where I stood amongst my colleagues was a big eye-opener. Like I said, I’m glad that I went to Boston first, because now that I’m in New York I see that Boston is more of a small-town vibe; it’s not a huge city at all.

How specifically did Miriam Fried inspire you?

Miriam Fried was big on using technique as a tool to help you reach your musical voice. She never really talked about technique on its own. I’m a big believer that technique is used to make music, it’s not used to just play in tune and fast and really impressively, but it’s a vehicle to get you to the emotional side of the music. So she would always frame the technique in that way.

She would say, “You should relax your bow arm so the sound is more accurately depicting the emotion that you’re wanting here,” or “The left hand needs to do this to get this type of vibrato which sounds closer to the idea.” That was helpful to me because I come from an emotional place when I’m playing.

In a video of you playing the Prelude to the Bach “Partita in E Major,” it’s fascinating to watch your right hand and how comfortable you are playing the entire thing from halfway up to the bow to the end.

It’s funny, Miriam Fried was a stickler on my bow arm and probably still is to this day, she has one of the most amazing bow arms in the business. I first learned that piece during my years with Kurt Sassmannshaus. I practiced that piece extremely slowly for a long period of time so it’s kind of ingrained into my body. But then with Miriam Fried – I learned that in two different periods of my training with her – she took it to a more musical place. She helped me to find a more virtuosic side of the music and that translated into a better freedom of bow usage.

Wow, slow practice, it’s easy for a musician to feel guilty about that.

Itzhak Perlman told me once – I love this line of wisdom – the slower you practice, the slower you forget! It sticks a lot longer.

In Bela Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, in this terrific video of you from your NEC days, you can really sense the cultural validity of Bartok’s music. Does your Kentucky background cause you to better understand Hungarian or Romanian music? Other violinists play it well but I don’t get the gypsy out of it the way I do with you.

Thank you. I’ve always loved that piece so much. I think the first time I heard it I was 9 or 10 years old. I just loved it because it was really cool music, I didn’t really consider it that it was gypsy music at that time. But I have always been drawn to Bartok’s music because of the folk elements. Though there are many different distinct and detailed nuances in the different styles of folk music of the world, I think there’s a common thread between them. Perhaps my bluegrass upbringing has helped a little with that.

I think anyone with the desire to showcase that in the music could get there with enough study. I got my hands on Bartok’s own recording of himself playing those pieces on the piano, and that was extremely informative to me. A lot of violinists like to take their time with those movements, and it’s very effective and powerful, but when I listened to Bartok’s interpretation of it, his [overall] tempos are much quicker, but then that leaves room for more expression in rubato and time-taking [in individual moments]. I also got my hands on some of the sealed recordings that Bartok had of gypsies on streets who actually played those very tunes. He didn’t really change the actual melodies too much, but then you could see what else Bartok did to make it into his own thing. Just to toe that line between classical and folk, and know where that line really lies.

You’ve tried out the music of a number of contemporary composers. One who comes to mind is Avner Dorman, who was featured in a Phillips Collection symposium in 2015. How do you choose the ones whose music you play?

I’m a big believer in only performing music that you believe in. I just feel like there’s so much noise being made in this world, and so the noise I make I want to be meaningful and sincere. Avner Dorman specifically was commissioned because I won the Naumberg Competition in 2012. Naumberg graciously offered to commission a work for my second Carnegie Hall recital, which was part of the package of winning that competition. They asked John Corigliano [a judge at the competition] for suggestions and he suggested Avner Dorman, one of his students.

I was sent a bunch of Avner’s sheet music and recordings, so I listened to his style and repertoire. I just fell in love with his music. I heard a little bit of a folksy element, which is something that I’m just naturally drawn to. It’s not a requirement or a prerequisite for music I play but I’m drawn to it. Avner, in turn, researched my playing and saw the folk influence that resonates in a lot of my performances. And so he incorporated more of that into the sonata he wrote for me.

And the composer Michael Torke?

He wrote his first violin sonata for me in February. He has a French style of writing in a way, with a jazz influence. It’s very beautiful and very lyrical. I love that he’s not afraid to write with beautiful tonality. He’s not afraid to explore what some people would argue is outdated. He wrote me a piece called “Spoon Bread,” so again he was inspired by my bluegrass influence. Now he’s writing me a violin concerto that I’m going to premiere with the Albany Symphony Orchestra next year. It’s a joyous collaboration, so I can’t wait.

A leading international violinist, Augustin Hadelich, used to play on a particular Stradivarius violin. That violin he used to play is now yours, is that correct?

Yes. He won the Indianapolis violin competition in 2006, and so he played this ex-Gingold Stradivarius made in 1683. The competition is held every four years. I did the competition in 2014 and got the silver medal but got the violin anyway. The next competition is 2018 so this is my final season with the violin.

Violinist Tessa Lark. Photo by Kate L Photography.

People who play Strads say that you don’t pick it up and it automatically sounds good.

Right, it takes a lot of exploration to find all the goods that are in there. This violin is an early Strad, so he [Antonio Stradivari] is still finding his pattern and his style in his violin-making. But it’s still an incredible instrument. The sound is not powerful in terms of volume, but the power comes in its sweetness and warmth and variety of colors.

I’ve never played a violin that has more personality than this one. It has even inspired me to explore different types of repertoire than I normally would because of its very distinct voice. Just technically speaking, the belly of it is more rounded than American violins or French violins. You can’t really dig in as much or the sound will get choked. It’s counterintuitive, if a part of music is really bold and strong I want to dig in and use gravity, but this violin does not respond to that. I had to adjust my physical instincts. It took me several months to get used to the instrument and find the goods that are in there. Sometimes it’s even in singular moments in practice, when it’s just “Whoa!” It’s like excavating and finding a hidden city underground. It’s so exciting and then you’re hungry to find more.

What do you do now with bluegrass? Is it typically encores, or do you ever play in festivals?

It’s a variety of things. I do play bluegrass as encores for concerto performances and recitals. It’s a very natural fit alongside the music of Bartok or Grieg or Janacek. I also play shows with just straight-up bluegrass musicians. It’s also taken me into the jazz realm. I played some gypsy jazz at Dizzy’s Club in New York, and in a recital that I have coming up at Oberlin, I’m pairing a Jascha Heifetz arrangement of “Estrellita,” which is a tune that Heifetz heard in a bar in Mexico the night before a recital, with a Latin jazz piece that I’ve adored. I came to know the piece from a Charlie Haden record called Nocturne. It’s the first track on that – the English title is “At the Edge of the World.”

But the most exciting part for me – besides being accepted by the serious professional musicians of jazz and bluegrass, which is a high honor – is incorporating that music into a classical setting. I’m interested in presenting the music in an authentic way and trying to show the similarities between the classical music that we know and love and these folk forms. So I’ll play the Bartok Romanian Folk Dances and then I’ll play some Appalachian tunes that I learned in my childhood.

Are these things typically announced in your program, or do you add them in?

If I had it my way, I would announce all my pieces [from the stage] and not have a program! It’s something that all pop stars do, you know. It keeps the audience in the performance experience and not just in their own heads and reading. It also gives them a window into the personalities of the musicians they’re listening to, and it brings people into a more immersive and generous experience.

You’re from a medium-sized community, and you play in a lot of medium-sized communities around the United States. What do you see in terms of the audiences there with regard to the current challenges in classical music?

That’s a really interesting question. I think a lot of getting an audience into a hall is a matter of the relevance of the series in the community, and their ability to properly promote the music. But what I’ve noticed is that whoever gets to the hall, with the promotion aside, everyone loves the experience. A lot of times in these communities, those people are hearing this music for the first time. They’re not jaded from, “Oh, I remember in nineteen-something when I saw this performed by so-and-so.” They aren’t coming in with this sort of big head about it. They’re just ready for a new experience and to take it on as it is, and to hear this amazing music as it might have been heard when it was new. I love performing for an audience like that because as a performer you really are energized by whatever the audience is giving back to you.

You are playing Bartok here in Washington – his actual full-length Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano. Tell me about the piece.

Every aspect of Bartok’s compositions is in this sonata. This piece is kind of challenging for an audience to listen to, but if they stick it out, they’re very much rewarded in the last movement, which is a folk-dance-type piece. It’s virtuosic and exciting – and comical in a lot of ways. But the second movement is some of my favorite music that Bartok writes. It’s sort of disturbing, wormy, horrific music, and also devastating all at the same time. Bartok had an interest in insects, from what I understand. And so in a lot of his music you can just feel the bugs crawling on your skin. It’s absolutely freaky but phenomenal music. The first movement is by far the most abstract, I would say, of all the movements of the music. But there’s so much passion, and because of the atonality and abstractness it becomes a more visceral experience in a way.

I understand you’re a composer yourself.

Yes, fresh on the scene! I only started formally composing a couple of years ago. This is going to be the first time that I showcase a piece that’s entirely my own that’s not an arrangement or a medley of something.

Then we have a historic occasion here in Washington. And the pianist with you, Roman Rabinovich, also composed a new piece for the Phillips concert. I know these are designed to be surprises, but give us a hint of what we’re going to hear.

 I met Roman a decade ago at this point, and we were drawn to each other’s artistic leanings because we both enjoy improvising and sort of being free with musical interpretations, even though we’re very serious in rehearsal about figuring out the inner workings of the music and doing it justice. But he’s very much into improvising. He’s also a phenomenal artist and painter, and I have always been drawn to his style of creative-making. He has used the process of a caterpillar coming into his life as a butterfly as a form to this music, so there’s a great process to behold in his music. There’s a lot of lyricism to it, and a lot of humor to it as well. He just has such a warm sentiment to his whole artistic aura that comes across in this piece.

With mine, of course with my folk upbringing, I can’t help but bring that into the music. But because a lot of my training is in the classical realm, it’s actually a more serious endeavor. I was with John Corigliano recently, playing his “Red Violin” concerto, and he was telling me about his compositional process. He creates the architecture of the piece before he ever gets into the notes, so I took on that method for this piece. I sort of used the human grieving process as my form for the piece. From different musical motives that I’ve been stewing on for my life, I have taken those, and I’ve also used the golden ratio to help me figure out a form for the music. Because of my nature of being drawn to extremely expressive, almost romantic music, you’re going to hear a lot of that, just a pretty emotional ride.

On social media you’ve coined the hashtag #stradgrass. Tell me about that.

I got this Stradivarius a few years ago, and at first, I felt bad for playing bluegrass on it. But you know what, they make fine, fine fiddles, these Strads! I wish more fiddle players got to play them. So instead of feeling bad about it, I decided to name a genre and call it “stradgrass.” It’s an effort to continue what is already happening in the dynamic of the musical world, bringing the validity these folk forms deserve. And I want classical players in America to check out their own American music. Although #stradgrass did start as a joke, it’s become more of a musical lifestyle for me.

Thank you, Tessa!

Violinist Tessa Lark performs with pianist Roman Rabinovich in the Phillips Collection’s concert series on Sunday, December 10, 2017, at 4 p.m. Due to the current renovation of the Phillips, the concert will take place next door at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC. For Tessa Lark’s national schedule, see the concert listing on her website.

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