The Ashmont Hill Chamber Music series scored something of a coup by bringing rising violin phenom Tessa Lark in for a rare Boston appearance Sunday at AHCM’s usual venue at Peabody Hall of All Saints Church, Dorchester. Together with pianist Jeewon Park, Lark, an NEC and Juilliard graduate offered a program designed to show off virtuoso chops and, one hoped, interpretive ones as well. As it happened, the wow factor predominated, but we’re not complaining.
The pair began with a perennial charmer, the Stravinsky Suite Italienne, which is an arrangement of music from his 1920 ballet Pulcinella. Having ascertained that the ballet was a hit (it is considered the opening salvo in his neoclassical style, but not quite as astringent as that style became), Stravinsky first extracted an orchestral suite, and then several chamber versions—a 1925 violin-piano suite in consultation with violinist Paul Kochanski that went by the name of Suite d’après des thèmes, fragments et morceaux de Giambattista Pergolesi (the connection between Pergolesi and the themes Stravinsky used in Pulcinella is actually quite tenuous), then a 1933 arrangement for cello and piano called Suite Italienne in collaboration with the great Gregor Piatigorsky, and finally, in the same year, this version for violin and piano with the equally great, though today less known, Samuel Dushkin. Each of the suites contains a slightly different assortment of pieces from the ballet, though most of the famous ones were retained throughout. The end result of these collaborations was works that were perfectly suited to the instruments and designed for maximum panache. And with maximum panache was just how its six movements were delivered. Lark immediately seized the listener with a bright, secure tone and bold projection, and Park complemented her well with a smooth and even-keeled articulation. The third-movement tarantella whizzed by without any compromise of clarity, in perfect contrast to the stately and lyrical gavotte that followed. The duo held back the pace of the minuet that opens the last movement, thereby accentuating the high-stepping but never breathless fireworks of the finale.
Lark is not reluctant to acknowledge her upbringing in Kentucky, specifically its eastern bluegrass country. In fact, she revels in it, and continues to play bluegrass fiddle music with local bands. When John Corigliano discovered this, in about 2012, he alerted her to STOMP, an unaccompanied piece he had written two years earlier for student competition. Featuring bluegrass, blues, and jazz riffs, it joined a genre of such distinguished competition pieces as Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie. Time marched by, but Lark has now taken to it, and has begun presenting it over the last year in honor of the composer’s 80th anniversary. It is bravura in multiple senses. While calling for a scordatura instrument with the G and E strings tuned down (Lark used her standard instrument, and why not, as it’s a 1600 Maggini), and gritty multi-stop passagework intermixed with relaxed, bluesy wailings, it is in fact a fine example of a classical toccata. Lark’s rendition—you can see and hear several others on YouTube—was as dazzling as anybody’s but at the same time more empathetic and less showoffy (she did not indulge in hollow shenanigans such as playing it under her arm or behind her back). One feature of the piece (you can guess it from its name) is that the player stomps, in traditional fashion, in the return of the “A” section. For this purpose Lark had removed her shoes, which might seem counter-intuitive, but she provided plenty of oomph while sparing any disfigurement to either her shoes or Peabody Hall’s wooden (and nicely resonant) floor.
The concert was to have included a new sonata written for Lark by Michael Thurber, a bassist and composer in both classical and bluegrass traditions with whom she has collaborated in both genres. Unfortunately, the sonata wasn’t ready in time, so the first half concluded, congenially enough, with Ravel’s Tzigane. Lark delivered the long opening cadenza with vigor and force, but with stellar dynamic control and variation. She was expressive and earthy (she kept her shoes off for this, which we thought was intended to convey peasant solidarity, but we discovered another reason), and once the piano had entered, by turns fiery and brilliant. Her harmonics were impeccable, and her left-hand pizzicato impressive; Park was also impressive in negotiating Ravel’s tricky arpeggiations. Finally, as things really got hot, Lark leaped off the ground to emphasize a turn of phrase (hence the bare feet), giving a whole new meaning to playing saltando.
The generally bright and effervescent first half prepared us for one of the meatiest works for the paired instruments, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, op. 47, Kreuzer. By rights it should be called the “Bridgetower” Sonata as it was written for and first performed by the Afro-British virtuoso George Bridgetower, who by tactlessly besmirching a woman of whom Beethoven was fond, effaced himself from Beethoven’s esteem and the sonata’s dedication. Ferociously difficult (for both players—after all, it was called a sonata for pianoforte with violin obbligato) and, despite only having three movements, it’s also possibly the longest of all violin sonatas, assuming one takes the exposition repeats. Most of the golden age performers whose versions one can find online, such as Oistrakh, Milstein and Szeryng, omit the repeats, which we consider bad form (Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis take them). But the constraints of recording technology and the Sitzfleisch of concert audiences usually win the day, and Lark and Park took the shorter course.
The opening movement, chiefly in A minor, is one of those Herculean, high-middle-period “mighty Beethoven” (to use Laura Carlo’s phrase) undertakings, with stops and starts, propulsive rushes, storm clouds and sudden epiphanies of grace (the way the placid chorale-like second theme comes out of nowhere from the thunderbolts preceding it is quite like the Waldstein piano sonata). Both players evinced passion, power and dynamic variety, yet careful articulation and rounded phrasing. One key problem, though, is that, knowing the composer’s characterization as stated above, the pianist has to be willing to be as assertive as the violinist (relative instrumental weights acknowledged), and in this it seemed that Park was being too much of a collaborative pianist and not enough of a soloist. This was less of a problem in the slow movement, a graceful set of variations, in which the duo struck a fine balance between simplicity and tenderness, Romantic expressivity and Classical poise. We were especially struck by the well-gauged segue from the last variation to the coda. The finale is a study in muscular jollity, rather like the scherzo of the Eroica symphony that Beethoven worked on after finishing this sonata. Again, the pair’s dynamic shaping was superb.
One cannot argue that these young women gave a less than proficient or less than satisfying presentation of the music. What one gleans from listening to the top-shelf soloists at the peak of their prowess is that each has established a point of view about it and has put a distinctive stamp on their version that only they could carry off. It’s no great knock to say that Mesd. Lark and Park haven’t quite gotten there yet; we eagerly await the day when they do, because it bids fair to be momentous.
So after all the barnstorming came encores! The first, an unaccompanied bluegrass medley combined a gazon-bleu number by Lark riffing on a tune from Ravel (something from Tombeau de Couperin ?) with Mark O’Connor’s Emily’s Reel. Park joined for the closer, Mendelssohn’s op. 62 No. 1 Song Without Words Mailüfte (May Breezes).
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.