By Brian Wise
It’s not often that a violinist performs a significant piece of American music in New York’s Central Park as its composer is seated steps away, among passing skateboarders, joggers, birds, and several hundred other listeners. But that was the backdrop for Tessa Lark’s graceful performance on June 12 of John Corigliano’s the Red Violin: Suite. Not only was Corigliano on-hand—at a youthful-looking 80—but so was the violinist Lara St. John, who recorded the suite a decade ago and who was evidently keen to hear a next-generation account.
Lark’s performance opened the summer concert series at the Naumburg Bandshell. She was joined by the 20-piece Ensemble LPR, the house orchestra at the Downtown venue Le Poisson Rouge, led by conductor Ankush Bahl.
Earlier in the day, Lark had strolled the park’s Bethesda Terrace, telling viewers on a Facebook Live stream that performing outdoors felt natural to her, having grown up around nature. (An early website photo showed the young violinist performing ankle-deep in a creek near her childhood home in Kentucky.) Now in her late 20s, the New York–based Lark has earned diplomas from the New England Conservatory and the Juilliard School, as well as a growing clutch of prizes, including a silver medal at the 2014 Indianapolis International Violin Competition—on whose loaned “ex-Gingold” Stradivari she performed this evening.
The 25-minute Red Violin: Suite is culled from Corigliano’s score to the 1998 François Giraud film of the same name and uses a haunting chaconne as its organizing principle. As such, each variation poses distinct challenges for the violinist. When the solo part featured a soft, ghostly melody in the extreme upper register, Lark was especially secure, her intonation and tone control pristine.
Some variations turned fast and furious, with heavily accented 16th note and triplet patterns, overlaid with double and triple stops. In these showier passages, Lark ratcheted up the intensity, applying quicksilver bow strokes, perhaps carried over from her work in bluegrass fiddling and Appalachian music. The piece’s heart lies in its darkly soaring main theme that returns at pivotal moments. If Lark’s reading could have benefited from a bit more old-Hollywood schmaltz, there was much to admire in her supple phrasing and focused, amber tone (which was unperturbed even by a wayward clothespin that supported her sheet music, later rescued by conductor Bahl).
If there was one aspect of Lark’s performance that was more difficult to gauge, it was in the realm of projection, as the tinny amplification system muddied the balances. But having previously performed Corigliano’s Red Violin Concerto—which uses similar material on a larger canvas—Lark was a persuasive advocate for this modern but readily approachable music.
The program opened with the premiere of Fanfare & Fugue (for a Fish), composed by Ensemble LPR’s founder and violinist David Handler. Moving from a stately, Handelian introduction to scampering counterpoint with percussive interjections, the engaging score was given a bright, incisive reading. This was followed by Thea Musgrave’s Aurora, presented in honor of her 90th birthday. Composed in 1999 for the Colburn School, the string orchestra piece at times evokes the lush, moody textures of Bernard Herrmann’s Alfred Hitchcock scores.
After intermission, the focus turned to composers whose death anniversaries were marked in 2018. In Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the relatively small forces produced a more sinewy sound than one usually hears; the heightened clarity revealed the music’s textural blend as well as some occasional ragged edges. To conclude, Bahl led a finely shaped account of Debussy’s beloved Clair de Lune, just as the mosquitos were reclaiming their corner of the park.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Strings magazine.