Tessa Lark: A Violinist Beyond Genre

April 29, 2022

story by Kyle MacMillan
photo by Lauren Desberg

Many classical artists regularly cross into other musical genres and vice versa…

…with each style enhancing and enriching the other—think trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (jazz), string player Rob Moose (indie rock) and bassist Edgar Meyer (bluegrass).

Another name on that crossover list is Tessa Lark, a violinist who has performed in such distinguished classical venues as Carnegie Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw but also likes to return to the down-home worlds of bluegrass and Appalachian music. The Stradgrass Sessions, the title of her soon-to-be released recording, cleverly reflects that stylistic blend, with its mash-up of the word “bluegrass” and the last name of Antonio Stradivari, the famed 17th- and 18th-century Italian violin maker.

“I really loved the term,” Lark said of “Stradgrass” in an interview for the Colorado Music Festival. “It seemed to really fit how I live in music. I was born and raised in Kentucky and formally trained in classical music. My dad plays banjo, so bluegrass was always a part of my life. I always promised myself to keep my integrity with where I came from in life.”

Lark will make her Colorado Music Festival debut as part of the summer event’s weeklong Music of Today series, including works by more than a dozen living composers, ranging from such stalwarts as John Corigliano and Philip Glass to newer talents like Flying Lotus, Stacy Garrop, and Caroline Shaw. The series is co-curated by Festival Music Director Peter Oundjian and celebrated California composer John Adams, who will conduct two of his works.

“I feel like this new-music festival that they are curating is a testament to the times we’re in,” Lark said, “when the music that is being composed today is extremely relevant to the ears that are going to hear it. So, I’m excited to see the audience that this festival draws. I’m excited to hear the music.”

The violinist will be featured July 14 in Samuel Adams’ Chamber Concerto, a 2017 work for violin and a 14-piece accompanying ensemble. The son of John Adams, Samuel has carved out his own high-level career, including a residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2015-18. Also on that program is John Adams’ jazz-tinged orchestral work City Noir (2009) and the world premiere of a new composition by Timo Andres. The next day, Lark and pianist Andres are joined by saxophonist Timothy McAllister and members of the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra for the second installment of Kaleidoscope, which will bring together an array of contemporary chamber works, including John Adams’ Road Movies (1995).

“It’s a major honor to be there and to play his music while he is present,” Lark said of John Adams and Road Movies. “A little nerve-wracking, because I’ve never played his music. I’ve just admired it from afar. It’s just incredible music, and his son is a phenomenal composer as well.”

When Lark, 32, was a child, her parents noticed that she had learned by ear several dozen songs on a toy piano. But because the family did not own a full-size piano, a teacher suggested she start lessons on the violin with the idea of switching instruments later, but the 7-year-old musician declared herself a violinist after just six months of studies.

“And I didn’t look back,” Lark said. “It’s just a very natural thing for me. I don’t ever recall a time in my life when I really had to think, ‘Am I going to be a musician or play violin professionally?’ I’ve lived with it my whole life, and I’ve really enjoyed it.”

In 2001-2006, Lark studied with Kurt Sassmannshaus, a well-known violin pedagogue, in the prestigious Starling Preparatory Strings Project at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and he taught her what it would take for a career as a soloist. After capping that time with her debut with the Cincinnati Symphony when she was 16, she went on to graduate from the New England Conservatory and complete her artist diploma at New York’s Juilliard School.

One of the pivotal moments on her road to a professional career came in 2012, when she won first place at New York’s respected Naumburg Competition, one of several such contests she took part in, and gained some early concert engagements as part of the prizes. “Those [competitions] made a big difference,” she said, “because that was free publicity and attention, which I was really grateful for.”

While Lark likes to draw on her Kentucky background and play cross-genre music, she also performs plenty of the classical standards for the violin as well, and she is even set to take over in July as artistic director of Musical Masterworks, a chamber-music presenter in Connecticut.

“So, I’m just honestly seeking out masterworks from all eras and all styles,” she said. “It’s pretty common now to hear from musicians of my generation and later that people are over the term ‘genre.’ I look for music that I fall in love with and that has a deep message. Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Brahms – that all checks out.”

2022 Festival attendees have two opportunities to hear Tessa Lark perform music this summer at Chautauqua Auditorium during our week-long series featuring Music of Today (Lark performs July 14 & 16). 

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