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Lark sizzles in new Torke concerto, electrifying New London audience

New London -- The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra was on fire Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center, and violin soloist Tessa Lark appeared to be the spark.

A crowd of 700 at the Garde gave the most extended standing ovation of the season to Lark, who came onto the stage with a shimmering dress and broad smile before absolutely tearing up the joint with a concerto titled "Sky" by contemporary composer Michael Torke, who wrote the piece co-commissioned by the ECSO after being inspired by Lark's energetic playing.

Lark has an unusual background. A Kentucky native and daughter of a veteran bluegrass musician, she is an acclaimed fiddler in addition to winning the 2012 Naumburg International Violin Competition. And "Sky," inspired by Irish reels and American bluegrass, was right in her wheelhouse.

The piece, which followed a dramatic performance of modern composer Joan Tower's "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman," started with an Appalachian hoe-down, and from the music stands on stage that soloists usually eschew to Lark's aggressive stomps that delivered the final notes of particularly awesome runs, it was clear this was not to be just any classical concert.

Yet she brought real beauty and sensitivity to the legato sections, particularly the slower second movement that had the contemplative sweetness of a hillside serenade. Particularly engaging in the second movement was a gorgeous duet between Lark on violin and ECSO piccolo player Clare Nielsen.

But the third movement created a whole other personality with its bending of notes into rarely heard glissandos and a frenetic pace that at one point had the soloist jumping backward with both feet up in the air - in high heels. The third-movement cadenza was thoroughly enjoyable with its impossible runs and sizzling playing that left the audience feeling like it had survived a high-wire act.

With the audience hoping for more as the standing ovation continued on for what seemed like several minutes, Lark came back on stage for an encore, playing the famed fiddler song "Do Round My Lindy," which she sang along to in a delightfully earthy way.

It was a very hard act to follow, but the ECSO did a fine job after intermission of taking the same energy that Lark had exhibited and graft it onto the final piece of the evening, "Symphonic Dances," by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here, the melding of saxophone and oboe sonorities was among the most affecting of the night, and the percussion section that included a bass drum, xylophone, triangle and cymbals also shone through.

The second waltz section with its sweeping melody and pizzicato strings was particularly emotional as conductor Toshiyuki Shimada wrung out every bit of drama from the score.

The third movement was highlighted by some great playing by an exceptional string section. The piece came to a rousing and sudden conclusion as Shimada himself seemed to jump toward his players in the style of Lark to strike the end of an electrifying concert.

Lee Howard, The Day (New London, CT)
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