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Budding superstar brings Stravinsky, Franck, and fiddling to Cincinnati homecoming

For Tessa Lark, performing in Cincinnati on Thursday was “basically coming home.” The violinist, who has appeared with dozens of American orchestras and is a Naumburg winner, among other prestigious awards, made an impressive recital debut at Matinee Musicale.

Cincinnati — specifically, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music — was a kind of second home during her early years. Between the ages of 11 and 18, her mother drove her two hours each way every Saturday from Richmond, KY, to work with master teacher Kurt Sassmannshaus in CCM’s Starling Preparatory String Project, a program for vastly talented kids. She made her Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut at age 16.

Now 29, she plays with an easy virtuosity. But she also charmed the audience at Anderson Center on Thursday with her down-to-earth personality and sense of humor as she spoke about each piece that she was performing with her pianist, Andrew Armstrong.

Her ambitious program opened with Stravinsky’s charming neo-classical “Suite Italienne” and included two masterpieces of the violin-piano literature, Franck’s Sonata in A Major and Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata.

For me, the most stirring performance was of Franck’s glorious Sonata in A Major, which the composer wrote as a wedding gift for Belgian virtuoso Eugene Ysaye. (He would later become music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra).

The first movement was as profound and as beautifully phrased as one could wish for. Lark was attentive to the French style, with playing that was understated, yet somehow also full of emotion. The clear, pure tone of her newly-acquired violin, a c. 1600 G. P. Maggini violin through the Stradivari Society of Chicago seemed especially suited to this music.

The treacherous Allegro movement was a spectacular feat of musical intelligence and technical brilliance for both artists. Armstrong matched the violinist’s playing note-for-note in a musical tour-de-force, which resulted in premature applause at the movement’s conclusion.

Of course, there were two more gems in this sonata to go. Lark approached the “Recitative-Fantasia” with weightless beauty. The duo tackled the soaring finale, a canon, in perfect communion. It will be remembered as one of the great performances this season.

They concluded with a masterful reading of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9, “Kreutzer.” Here, Lark’s playing was intense and impassioned. No two phrases were alike; she seamlessly transformed the color of her sound from white to red-hot.

The Andante and Variations were the picture of refinement and every note was meaningful. At the piano, Armstrong was a sensitive, nuanced partner. Both communicated the sheer joy of the finale, a rollicking showstopper.

Lark also programmed “a little ditty that I wrote,” her own “Appalachian Fantasy,” which she played on a violin strung with only two strings, in the tradition of bluegrass fiddling. She said she was struck by the poignant quality shared by both Schubert’s melodies and the bluegrass music of her native Kentucky.

So her Fantasy began slowly with a mournful tune borrowed from Schubert, accompanied by a drone on one string. It segued into an electric display of country fiddling that used a tune by Brahms as well as “Cumberland Gap” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” (which Copland used in his “Rodeo”). It was great fun to hear.

While in town, Lark is performing two master classes at CCM this weekend. Let’s hope this “budding superstar” appears here again, and soon.

Janelle Gelfand, Janelle's Notes
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