By Brian Wise | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
The goal was to highlight two top-flight string players from two generations, collaborating at the nexus of two rather different genres. But when a UK radio station posted a video on Facebook of violinist Tessa Lark and bassist Edgar Meyer playing Meyer’s “Concert Duo for Violin and Double Bass,” opinions were divided. While a majority of commenters reacted favorably, a few pounced on the headline: “Bluegrass on a Strad.”
“This is not bluegrass,” read one comment, but “an elitist’s rendition of bluegrass.” Another insisted that the music called for “the wail of a fiddle”—not a Stradivari. Still others found the performance to be too crisply executed to meet their ideal for the genre.
“Bluegrass musicians deserve to play Strads just as much as classical musicians do.”
“What made me sad is that these people, in seemingly defending bluegrass, were implying that high quality is not part of it,” a faintly exasperated Lark says in a phone interview from her home in New York City. “In fact, it is very complex.” Putting aside the fact that Meyer’s Concert Duo is not strictly a bluegrass tune, the Kentucky-born Lark bristled at the negative commentary about instrument choice.
“Bluegrass musicians deserve to play Strads just as much as classical musicians do,” she says, noting that the performance actually featured a G.P. Maggini violin, on loan from the Stradivari Society of Chicago. “[Bluegrass musicians’] accuracy is absolutely phenomenal and their ability to navigate different musical worlds is incredibly nuanced.” She adds, “If somebody prefers bluegrass music over classical music, it doesn’t mean they have lesser taste in music.”
The finale from the Concert Duo was an advanced single from The Stradgrass Sessions, a collection of folk-inflected pieces performed by Lark and several luminaries from the spheres of jazz and Appalachian music, including pianist Jon Batiste, mandolinist Sierra Hull, and fiddler Michael Cleveland. Completed amid the global tumult of 2020 and due out this spring, the recording puts a sharper focus on what has been an active sideline for Lark.
“Over the years, ‘Stradgrass’ has come to mean living and exploring distant violinistic styles through a classical lens,” she explains. The term was coined in 2015 by bassist Michael Thurber, her duo partner and now fiancé, after she began performing bluegrass tunes on the 1683 “Martinelli, Gingold” Stradivari violin (provided to her on a short-term loan that ended in 2018).
As Lark has honed the Stradgrass concept—composing the jaunty Appalachian Fantasy (featured in a 2017 Strings Session video) and improvising fiddle tunes as encores—it has become a catchall for other projects. Last July, she presented a video master class for Nicola Benedetti’s Benedetti Foundation, in which she walked viewers through bluegrass techniques including chopping (crunchy off-beat rhythms), drones, and slides (“be a little lazy with your left-hand fingers,” she told viewers). Vibrato, she advised, should be used sparingly, perhaps only in the “high lonesome moments” of a fiddle tune.
Roots in Bluegrass Country
Born Tessa Lark Frederick and raised in the central Kentucky town of Richmond, Lark has been playing classical and improvised music for much of her 31 years. She took up the mandolin at age four, followed by the violin some two years later. By age nine, she was occasionally joining her father, a biology professor and banjo picker, in Narrow Road, a gospel-bluegrass band (she plays fiddle on the group’s first CD).
At age 11, Lark started commuting to Cincinnati on Saturdays for the Starling Preparatory Strings Project, a training program led by Kurt Sassmannshaus. “I would always start every drive with Appalachian Journey and Edgar Meyer’s piece 1B,” she says, referring to the folk-classical crossover album that featured Meyer along with Yo-Yo Ma and Mark O’Connor. “That was my soundtrack to going off on my musical journeys.”
With its mix of delicate fiddle melodies and elaborate arrangements, Appalachian Journey offered a model of sorts for Lark. In her teens she spent several summers at the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp, where she learned the rudiments of jazz from fiddlers like Sara Caswell and Christian Howes. “I was so taken with it,” she says. “I love the idea of crafting your own solos over music. That potential for more freedom was very appealing to me.”
Lark studied classical violin at the New England Conservatory, followed by the Juilliard School, during which time she entered several competitions and took second prize at the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. An Avery Fisher Career Grant followed in 2016. She also took courses in improvisation and performed with school jazz ensembles. While Lark treats fiddling with an intellectual rigor, she also admires its open-ended, egalitarian spirit.
“There are so many tunes out there that are composed in such a way that the most advanced player and the most beginner player can play them together at the same time,” she says. “You must get to know the playing of the masters and get to understand and be part of a culture. But it is open to absolutely anybody.”
A turning point came in 2019 when Lark was invited to perform with Meyer at the Musica Viva Festival in Sydney, Australia. The bassist praises the rhythmic precision she brings to his Concert Duo, with its zigzagging melodies and rapid-fire passages. “I think that her appreciation of rhythmically based music helped her understand what I meant when I asked for a tighter window than would be routine within classical music,” Meyer says in an e-mail exchange. “A person living entirely within classical music might not be aware of the higher rhythmic standard that exists in some pockets of other music.”
Lark and Meyer are expected to record his string trios in Nashville this year, joined by cellist Joshua Roman.
Among the other songs planned for The Stradgrass Sessions is a rendition of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” recorded with Batiste, who, long before his current stint as Stephen Colbert’s bandleader, was a Juilliard roommate of Thurber, Lark’s bassist fiancé. “We started playing [the tune] in F and had no formal plans for how it would go,” she said of her first meeting with Batiste. “We just played it down and some of the first notes ended up being the track we chose for the CD.”
Lark acknowledges that Foster’s song—about an enslaved person being sold down the river—has a complicated history. “We’re all sort of grappling with what history is and means and how accurate it is,” Lark says. “The piece was anti-slavery and had a beautiful message of peace and community at the onset.”
Learning by Ear
Another new collaborator is Sierra Hull, a noted bluegrass mandolinist whom Lark met at the 2020 Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Scotland. Because of the pandemic, the two women remotely recorded their parts to Hull’s composition Chasin’ Skies and three of Bartók’s 44 Duets for Two Violins, Sz. 98. Recording engineer and producer Silas Brown stitched the parts together. “Her sense of groove and everything was just impeccable,” Lark says of Hull, who learned her part of the Bartók duets by ear.
While Lark is accustomed to playing fiddle music by ear, she wears a classical hat in pieces like Michael Torke’s Sky, a bluegrass-flavored violin concerto composed for her and the Albany Symphony (nominated for a Grammy Award in 2019). Similarly, John Corigliano’s STOMP, a solo piece given its premiere recording on The Stradgrass Sessions, was modeled on bluegrass and jazz.
“Seeing that style written on a page is a little disorienting,” she admits. “Sometimes there’s an extra process that I have to go through to try and understand what the music is trying to convey. So I’ll look at something slowly and then realize, ‘Oh that’s just this fiddling thing that I’ve done before and I’ve never seen written on a page.’ Then, I’m locked in with my instincts.”
Lark’s manager, Marianne Sciolino, says that her freewheeling client has become less leery about conservative attitudes from the classical establishment. She points out that Lark was awarded a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship in 2018 following a recommendation from pianist Mitsuko Uchida, a traditionalist whom Lark got to know at the Marlboro Music Festival (the £20,000 fellowship money has helped to fund Lark’s recordings). And after a number of concert postponements and cancellations this season, a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall is scheduled for fall 2021.
At the same time, Lark is mulling future moves, musical and otherwise. “There are all of these things pointing me to Nashville more and more,” she muses when asked about the lure of Music City. “But I’ve never actually been to the city even though I have so many friends there. As much as we like being in New York, the idea of Nashville sounds really appealing.”
No immediate move appears imminent. But at a time when the concert business has been nearly brought to a standstill, Lark and Thurber are weighing their priorities. “We really worked to keep as much work afloat as we could,” she says. “We also made sure we took the time to reflect more inwardly, which musicians, if they aren’t careful about it, don’t have much time to do.” She adds, “It’s about what we can do to make the most meaningful impact with our music.”