Violinist Tessa Lark remembers composer Michael Torke’s question:
“If I wrote a bluegrass-inspired violin concerto, would you perform it?”
“He says, I answered ‘Sure,’ but I’m pretty sure I said, ‘Duh’, ” Lark said last week.
But there was one hitch: Torke, who has been composing about 50 years, was not fluent in bluegrass. He could hear the echoes of old timey fiddle and banjo but he was not sure how to get it from his head to the paper in a way that was authentic and true to the genre.
So he turned to Lark, the Kentucky native for whom he had written a bluegrass-inspired violin-piano sonata called “Spoon Bread” in 2016. She was from Kentucky; she grew up on bluegrass. Surely she had some ideas of who and what he should be listening for to better understand bluegrass.
“It has been a really special endeavor for me. It was the first violin concerto written for me with me in mind, which is a huge honor because I love Michael’s music so much,” said Lark, who will perform “Sky”with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra twice this weekend as part of the orchestra’s “Symphonie Fantastique” concert.
The TSO is one of 11 orchestras — 10 in the United States, one in Europe — that eventually signed on as co-commissioners of the piece. The Albany (New York) Symphony performed the world premiere and recorded the piece in August; the recording came out last month.
Torke said “Sky” has flashes of Irish jigs alongside bluegrass with its lickety-split fiddle runs. Torke composed banjo picking patterns transcribed for violin, which means you hear cross rhythms and cross patterns that are complex sounding coming from a violin but would slide off a banjo.
There’s some very rapid string crossing, with fourth- and fifth-notes that summon the twangy Appalachian sound. Then the piece gets supercharged with rapid bow changes that call for popping from string to string.
“It’s all these very subtle things than what you usually see in violin and all these fun, rhythmical challenges and maintaining this joyous spirit,” she added. “There are a lot of techniques that in subtle ways are unlike anything else I’ve approached in my musical training,” Lark said of the work. “It’s been a lot of fun to work on this piece and perform it and to have the composer alive and working with me. It’s been a really special journey.”
In bluegrass music, fiddles and banjos are amplified, but in classical music, it’s all about projection. So Torke had to write the piece in a way that the soloist, playing bluegrass style, can rise above a large orchestra.
“I wrote music and tried to keep the orchestra out of her way so she could project,” Torke said, noting that while the piece is rooted in bluegrass, “Sky” is still a classical piece.
“Our dream was that I would write a concerto that all the fiddle players would want to play. And wouldn’t that be a great crossover thing. In fact I don’t know if they have the technique or the instruments to do it so we had to give that up,’ he explained.
Torke, whose parents live in SaddleBrooke, will be in the audience for the TSO’s concerts on Friday, Oct. 25, and Sunday, Oct. 27.
The cornerstone of the concert will come in the second half when the orchestra performs Berlioz’s “Synphonie Fantastique,” a piece that Leonard Bernstein once called a “musical expedition into psychedelia” because of the five-movement’s hallucinatory and dream-like nature.