Music News & Reviews

Kentucky violinist Tessa Lark brings her rising star to the Philharmonic

Tessa Lark performs Friday night with the Lexington Philharmonic.
Tessa Lark performs Friday night with the Lexington Philharmonic.

Tessa Lark comes home to Central Kentucky on Friday night, 10 years after she left to study at the New England Conservatory of Music, to play with the orchestra she grew up watching: the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I’m remembering specifically a concert I heard Nathan Cole play with the Philharmonic,” Lark says, referring to the Lexington native who is now first associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“I remember thinking, he’s also a local guy, and that’s such a great inspiration for me, and that’s one of the moments where I really thought, ‘Wow, someday I hope I can be like him and play a solo with the Lexington Philharmonic.’ So they definitely are the source of many of my early dreams.”

The Richmond-raised, Madison Central High School graduate’s dream will come true when she plays Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto” with the Philharmonic Friday night in one of her old stomping grounds, the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

But that performance will have some stiff competition from another Lark Kentucky appearance this year.

Earlier this summer, Lark went to Danville to give a master class and performance at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts at Centre College, playing for students who were, in many ways, just like her a decade ago.

“I don’t find myself anything special,” says Lark, who earlier this year was awarded a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, an honor previously won by violinists Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, Sarah Chang and Hilary Hahn.

“But these kids, I remember leaving GSA, and I was returning my keys for the place I was staying and walking outside and I hear all of this knocking, and I have no idea what it was, and I turned around and looked up. There were windows at a classroom and all of these kids from GSA were waving goodbye to me, just sort of jumping up and down. It was fun, no matter what that was — if they were bored or hungry or just need to move — it seemed like they were really excited by the visit.

“To this day, one of my favorite memories in life and in music is just to make a difference in somebody’s life in such formative years, especially coming back to a place where I grew up and just being able to relate to them so directly, also not being super old at this point so I can still remember what those years are like.”

Roots in the Bluegrass

Lark was born Tessa Lark Frederick to Bob and Diane Frederick. Her first musical memories are of tapping out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on a Muppet Babies toy piano. A few years later, when she was 6, Lark asked to take piano lessons, but her family didn’t have a piano, and her teacher suggested she learn another instrument, like the violin.

“I kind of gave in and said, ‘OK, fine. I’ll try the violin for a while,’” Lark says. “A few months later, the story goes that I declared myself a violinist.”

And that declaration stuck.

She began studying with Cathy McGlasson, who was then based in Richmond, and learned various styles including fiddling and playing mandolin with her father, a banjo player in the Narrow Road gospel bluegrass group. Lark played on the group’s first CD when she was 9 and on its latest album.

I really thought, ‘Wow, someday I hope I can be like him and play a solo with the Lexington Philharmonic.’ So they definitely are the source of many of my early dreams.

Tessa Lark, recalling seeing Nathan Cole with the Philharmonic

Joining the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras opened her eyes to what other students were doing to further their playing, and at age 11, she started burning up Interstate 75 every Saturday to participate in the Starling Strings pre-college program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

That’s where she took the suggestion that she perform under her first and middle name, the bird name being given by her dad, who also is the retired chair of biological sciences at Eastern Kentucky University.

“Those were formative experiences for me,” Lark says of the Cincinnati program. “I got so much from that I didn’t realize other kids didn’t get to have until they pursue music at a collegiate level.”

What she didn’t do that many elite music students do is go off to an arts academy to study, a decision she credits to her parents. Lark is well aware that a lot of child prodigies are routed into specialized schools and performance careers at very young ages, an experience that she has observed can make the transition to an adult career more difficult.

“I am so grateful that I got to develop as a person and more or less a normal kid, though I did practice a lot, so I wasn’t socializing, as many kids do,” Lark says. “But I think I owe it to my parents that they saw that it might be good for me to have a normal lifestyle as much as I could with this serious interest, before I went on and pursued full-time music.”

The Barber concerto

Having a mid-American upbringing gives Lark an appreciation for the piece that brings her home: the Barber concerto. It was the Philharmonic’s request, and it will be her debut performance of the piece.

“I love Barber being an American composer and me coming from such an American part of the country — I feel, though I am probably biased — but it just feels so great,” Lark says. “The opening of the Barber concerto feels happy and nostalgic, and in a way, it conveys how I feel coming back and playing with the orchestra. It makes me tear up in the happiest way listening to this piece and getting to come back and play it at home.”

Lark will soon be back out on the road, playing the Barber concerto in San Jose, Calif., and performing in Dallas and other American stops before embarking on a European recital tour in 2017.

She has moved from Boston to New York and is now pursuing an artist diploma at the Juilliard School. She says that after graduation from the New England Conservatory in 2012, it felt strange not having the guidance of a teacher, and she enjoys now studying with legendary artists Sylvia Rosenberg and Ida Kavafian.

She also enjoys one of the fruits of her success, playing the 1683 “ex-Gingold” Stradivari violin on loan from the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. In 2014, she was the silver medalist of the competition, making her the highest-ranked American-born winner in the competition’s history. The violin is named for its former owner, Josef Gingold, who taught Lark’s New England Conservatory teacher Miriam Fried.

“Whenever I go anywhere with this violin, violinists everywhere recognize the sound of the violin or they recognize the look of the violin, and there are so many stories of people who have encountered this violin, either through Josef Gingold when he played it or other violinists when they’ve played it,” Lark says. “I never get used to the beautiful sound and the unique personality this violin has.”

She has the violin until the next competition in fall 2018, “when I will cry so severely when I have to give it back,” Lark says.

But judging by the trajectory her career is on, Lark probably has other sweet violins in her future.

Rich Copley: 859-231-3217, @LexGoKY.

If you go

Lexington Philharmonic

What: Season opening concert featuring the orchestra, conducted by Scott Terrell, performing Christopher Rouse’s “Rapture,” Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5” and Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto” with violin soloist Tessa Lark.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $25-$75; $11 students

Call: 859-233-4226