Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber gave us a fascinating, unique blend of classical, folk and their own music in Bach to Bluegrass, the most recent show in the 48th Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts.
After an Appalachian folk dance style introduction featuring bowed bass under a frenetic, virtuosic fiddle tune which blended Corelli with Copeland, Thurber explained that, since there is no classical music at all written for violin and bass duo, he and Lark have rearranged classical keyboard pieces, mined the aural folk repertory and written their own.
Their concert explored all three of these approaches with each item introduced by the performers with self-effacing humour and amusing anecdote and powered by deep scholarship. Their rendition of four of the Bach two-part keyboard inventions (1,2,4 and 8) gave these brief exercise pieces a distinctly non-keyboard flavour, which in turn enabled us to appreciate their structure anew.
Original compositions Cedar and Sage and Weather Vane followed, the first being an evocation of Appalachian folk music with Thurber’s bass imitating the banjo and Lark’s violin producing a unique flute sound using natural harmonics.
Weather Vane was a striking sound painting of the random creaking of metal on metal made by an old weather vane on a shed near Lark’s home in Kentucky. Thurber introduced a third original number, Tom and Nancy, inspired by evenings spent sampling much wine with old friends in San Francisco, and depicting the mornings after as a series of shaky blues phrases on the bowed bass.
Humour extended to the actual music. Lark played Sweet Georgia Brown using Stefane Grappelli phrasing over Thurber’s walking bass and huge rubato to stretch and collapse the timing. She also added unexpected tweaks, ending on an offbeat squeak.
The centrepiece of the evening was Lark’s performance of Bach’s Chaconne from the second partita for solo violin. Playing her Maggini violin with its sweet sound emanating from 400-year-old woods, she noted that the instrument was in fact older than St Peter’s Church, where the concert took place.
Lark played it exactly as Bach had written it, giving us a technically straightforward, unshowy, unornamented interpretation. This had the effect of actually enhancing the emotional impact because of its authenticity. Through her playing we shared anguish and despair as well as eventual resignation and finally, a profound peace. It’s no wonder that the Chaconne is described as one of the wonders of the musical world. To quote Brahms, “On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings.”