Introduced by the witty Eugenia Zukerman, Artistic Director of Hudson Hall Opera House, Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber present an odd couple: when did you last hear a violin and double-bass duo perform a concert of classical, jazz, bluegrass and the intertexture of those genres? They offered a personal mix of all those genres with a few extra innovations. There was a joyful, playful intimacy in their playing, as well as new arrangements of varied traditional music.
They opened with a medley of Bluegrass and Irish jig. Tessa ripped into a J.S. Bach solo violin sonata, then they re-arranged two of Bach’s two-part keyboard inventions as violin and double-bass; this offered a dancing dialogue between the two instruments with the bass reminding the violin’s ambitious soaring that it must eventually come down to the gentle earthy soil of silence. This lively dialectic of victorious descent ironically offered the violin more air currents to soar as the violin segued into another Bach solo where Tessa displayed the wonders of her 1683 Stradivarius that she won (for four-year loan) from a non-renewable competition. (The mandated divorce from her violin will occur next September.)
A lively angular version of Joseph Kosma’s famous 1945 “Autumn Leaves” was next. Edith Piaf’s glorious 1950 hit didn’t stop others from recording the song all around the world and it didn’t stop Tessa and Michael from creating a new arrangement of this legendary song in order to compete with Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Michael was in his rhythmic groove here, but he really blossomed in “Whims of Chambers,” the second cut in the 1956 album of that title by Paul Chambers, former bassist for Miles Davis. Michael grooved in bebop heaven while Tessa amiably riffed with joking aplomb on backup. This was the kind of thing that reminded me of the exuberant playfulness of Fritz Kreisler who loved to re-arrange old classics and Kreislerize them to grand applause.
While classical music in its early days was based upon folk tunes and dances, which “evolved” into sophisticated trends by imaginative composers, reverse engineering composition is also possible. (And some of that happens in modern, classical minimalism.) Tessa presented a medley derived from one of Telemann’s Fantasias, then traced its use as a dance motif in Ravel, but then reverse engineered it into its traces found in Kentucky Bluegrass (her family music), and then traced it back to an Irish reel, “Emily’s Reel,” recently popularized by fiddler Mark O’Connor. This became a Mother’s Day tribute, since this reel was Tessa’s mother’s favorite tune. The implied irony was that this was the original thousand year old Celtic dance tune that Telemann was dressing up in new courtly duds. This was a tour-de-force circle arrangement that only a brilliantly, obsessive mind might construct. And then to play it with such ease—as if it were like merely hand pumping the well outside the old valley kitchen door—was astonishing! A thousand year history of a tune still played today in a nutshell!
Michael was then able to take the lead and lead us to pop culture with a 1925 jazz standard, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which eventually became the theme song for The Harlem Globetrotters, perhaps due to its percussive bounce, ably captured on bass by Michael. That offered a smooth landing to a short intermission.
For the second half opening, Michael re-arranged an early folksy gavotte by the Kiev-born Russian musician Reinhold Glière, whose early lyrical compositions breathe fresh country air and folk dance. Tessa then took the form of a gavotte and created her own marvelous solo, “Tessa’s Gavotte,” which was located more in the head than the stamping foot, which the music was imitating.
Michael began to play bass and was able to encourage the audience to participate in a humorous scat song that concluded with a moving twist of harmony.
Tessa put away her precious Stradivarius, and brought out a French viola. She began with a melody from Schubert and transformed it into its Kentucky-born cousin, an Appalachian ballad; she then appropriated a melody from Brahms that Aaron Copland used as “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in Rodeo, which in turn was really a familiar Bluegrass tune. Once again we were in the Alice Looking Glass world.
To put the audience on their dancing feet, Tessa and Michael plunged into a bluegrass medley that allowed the audience to walk with lighter step. This eclectic duo is a most unusual act with lively stage repartee and music hall mirrors that will put your mind to thinking and your feet to dancing. Catch them if you can! A short video of Tessa Lark appears below.