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Tessa Lark Leads Concert Series in Second Season as Artistic Director in Old Lyme


By Clare Byrne for CT Examiner, 9.25.23

The 33rd season of Musical Masterworks will begin on October 14th & 15th at the First Congregational Church in Old Lyme, with violinist Tessa Lark commencing her second season as artistic director. Lark — the first woman director of Musical Masterworks, and a down-to-earth superstar violinist — shared in a phone interview her thoughts on what this role means to her.

“Musical Masterworks is a living breathing entity, and it has been around for thirty-three years. It is humbling to continue the legacy started by Charles Wadsworth — who is legendary in the chamber music scene — and also Ed Arron, who trusted me with this cherished series. It’s a beautiful testament to the art form and the traditions it upholds with living composers.”

Lark is bringing special attention to new composers’ work in this season. Trumpeter Caleb Hudson, harpist Charles Overton, saxophonist Remy Le Boeuf, big band composer Kyle Athayde, bassist Michael Thurber and Lark herself will present original and/or premiere works. These new offerings are interspersed in each concert with established repertoire, including Bach, Dvorák, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, Telemann, Mendelssohn, Corelli, Schubert, Babajanian, and Satie.

Lark’s own earliest musical memory places her in the world of folk music: she is on the swing in her backyard in Kentucky, while her father pushes her with his foot as he plays the banjo. Robert Frederick’s passion for bluegrass — he was both a biology professor and a banjo player — meant Lark grew up as part of a Kentucky bluegrass community, going to festivals, jam sessions, and church concerts.

Lark says, “what I grew up knowing about music: it’s to bring people together.”

When she began studying Suzuki Method on violin at age six, classical music emerged as a core focus. Her studies at Cincinnati Starling Project, New England Conservatory of Music, and The Julliard School formed the foundation of her award-winning professional career. But she has continued to think about music as community-building, especially in her new role at Musical Masterworks.

“This year I am thinking in terms of maintaining the incredible legacy that Musical Masterworks already has, and honoring that, and also keeping it relevant: making sure we are moving forward, bringing in new faces, having the program look like classical music looks in America at large. So it has really stretched me as a human being, maintaining respect for all those things. I am thinking: does the audience enjoy the program, but also does this make sense in the art form as a whole; is it relevant? And will it satisfy the performers? And is it stretching me, too?”

Lark says programming a whole season is an adventure. “It has helped me spread some wings I didn’t even know I had.” How does she approach the task?

“Everyone has their special sauce for this, but I do what a chef calls ‘flavor bouncing,’ where every ingredient in every recipe has to relate in a way amicably with everything else. I make sure all the connections between one piece and another are sound. I’ll connect things literally, motively, historically — even intuitively, if I think it’s going to make a great flow of energy in a concert.

For the season-opening concerts on October 14th & 15th, the “main ingredient” is Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major; Lark is flavoring the rest of program around it — while showcasing her performer’s talents.

“I learned this trick from Artistic Director Emeritus Ed Arron: the beauty of it is you can program your favorite people playing your favorite things. That is what Ed did, and that is what I continue to do. We’ve all played together, in some capacity, over many years. It’s just going to be a very magical weekend. We love hanging out with each other, and we love making music. The respect and admiration we have for each other is a huge part of it.”

Lark’s new compositions on piano, written specifically for Amy Yang, are interspersed with works by 18th century French composer Jean-Phillippe Rameau.

Cellist Alice Yoo will be featured on Dvorák’s Silent Woods for Piano and Cello. Lark says, “I don’t know anyone who plays Dvorák better than her. Even in a piece I know well, tears pop out of my eyeballs when she plays. “

Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Two Violins, Op 71 will bring together violinist Alexi Kenney and Lark. “Alexi is playing first violin on that, and on the Schumann. It will show off his smoke and fire.”

Just before the Robert Schumann finale, violist Melissa Reardon will play three romances by Clara Schumann transposed from violin. The viola brings a different, tenderer sonority to Clara’s pieces. The programming comments on this famous wife-and-husband composer duo — like Robert himself, who included “secret Morse codes” referencing Clara in his work.

Lark has been able to watch the evolution of Musical Masterworks as a frequently invited guest over the last ten years. The first time was nearly a chance encounter: “A violinist had an injury about a week or two before the performance. I had just met Ed Arron the summer before, and he gave me a call and asked if I was free.”

“When I first stepped foot into the church at Old Lyme and experienced the community there — it was so wholesome and welcoming, and I thought, it must be amazing to have a series like this to go back to, year after year. The reception afterwards was in a beautiful home, with wonderful food and drink, but the company was the most important thing: many members have been with Musical Masterworks from the beginning. It is so special to see the loyalty, and how enthusiastic they continue to be about changes within the series, welcoming new faces and new music. It’s unique, because often you hear about ‘founder’s syndrome’ with a series, but it’s had an incredible and malleable life. “

A notable feature in the Musical Masterworks tradition: there are no paper program notes. Instead, the artistic director speaks to the audience, opening windows and context onto the work. It’s a tradition started by Charles Wadsworth, who saw how vital it was for directors and musicians to connect the audience — with levity. He noted in an interview, “The minute people laugh, you can see a difference in those people and what they’re ready for. They become ready to accept what the musicians are doing.”

The First Congregational Church, an intimate venue that reflects the seasons through its windows, is acoustically ideal for chamber music. Lark says, “Every audience member can be pretty close — and hear every detail we’ve worked on. That can’t be said about big concert halls. Performers really cherish that the audience can hear all the details that we cherish about the music, too.”