Last night at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances continued their tradition of presenting the winner of the annual Walter M. Naumburg Award, decided by competition. The 2012 competition winner was violinist Tessa Lark, and last night she gave her San Francisco debut recital with Renana Gutman as her accompanist. As I observed in my preview article, Lark is a native of Kentucky, just as comfortable with country-style fiddle technique as she is with the concert repertoire.
It thus seemed appropriate that the focus of the program she prepared should be the music of Béla Bartók, whose interest in the folk forms of Eastern Europe provided an excellent context for the fiddle side of Lark’s talents. She selected Bartók’s first sonata for violin and piano, which he composed in 1921. This sonata was one of his most adventurous pursuits of atonality, while, at the same time, drawing, like so many of his compositions, on his ethnomusicological field work. Those sources reveal themselves less through themes than through a variety of rhetorical tropes, often rhythmic but sometimes motivic.
From a technical point of view, this sonata is equally challenging to both violinist and pianist. Thus, it is a pleasure to report that both Lark and Gutman were fearlessly confident as they escorted those of us on audience side through the sonata’s many thick textures of sonority and, particularly in the final movement, driving rhythms. For all of the abstraction behind Bartók’s tonal ambiguities, Lark’s approach as a performer prioritized the music’s “ethnic roots,” always seeking out performance techniques to clarify what those less informed about Bartók might easily dismiss as opaque.
This sonata concluded the first half of Lark’s program. She then told the audience that she would offer, by way of comparison, a sample of Kentucky fiddle music. She ripped through a short piece called “Bowin’ the Strings” with the same intensity, precision, and focus she had just applied to the Bartók sonata. The most significant difference was that there was now a clear tonal center (and, of course, the encore was much shorter). Nevertheless, her selection provided yet another case to support the proposition that all music has “roots;” and, for those of us on audience side, the listening experience is almost always facilitated by some familiarity with those “roots.”
At the same time Lark prepared her audience for the more abstract side of Bartók’s sonata by preceding it with the fourth of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Opus 27 set of six sonatas for solo violin. Dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, the sonata, in E minor, has three movements, the first two of which bear the labels of Allemande and Sarabande from the solo violin partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, there is little in this music that reflects Bach’s style. The Allemande is in triple meter with a Lento maestoso tempo marking, about as remote from the dance form for which it is named as one could expect. The Sarabande honors the triple meter of the dance with a moderately appropriate Quasi lento tempo, but the emphasis on pizzicato again makes for a sharp departure from Bach. Most impressive, however, is the concluding Presto ma non troppo, which, with its wacky 5/4 time signature manages to revisit the themes of both earlier movements in a perpetuum mobile onslaught of sixteenth notes.
Lark brought the same poised confidence to this opening sonata that would later sustain her Bartók performance. She did not flinch from a single one of Ysaÿe’s technical challenges. Furthermore, through the clarity with which she delivered the thematic content behind all of those challenges, one could appreciate how the final movement revisited its predecessors in “finale style.” Taken as a whole, then, the first half of the program turned out to be a real feast for the serious listener; and Lark served up each “course” with both determination and elegance.
This made the first half a tough act to follow, and the second half was not nearly as stimulating. The major work was Felix Mendelssohn’s 1838 violin sonata in F major, the last of the only three such sonatas he composed. This work is affable enough in its thematic content, and one could see from Lark’s physical appearance that she was drawn into the expressiveness of those themes. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn showed little imagination in either introducing or developing those themes. Bearing in mind his tendency to work on several projects at the same time (“burning his candle at both ends,” as cellist Bonnie Hampton put it), the listener gets the feeling that, while working on this sonata, Mendelssohn’s mind was on another one of his many projects.
The Mendelssohn sonata was followed by Louis Carembat’s highly imaginative arrangement of the “Claire de lune” movement from Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. Carembat showed great skill in teasing a solo violin line out of the tangle of this thickly textured piano solo, and Gutman was excellent in balancing her own pianism to allow that line to speak for itself. One might have taken this for an encore piece had it not emerged as such a master stroke of transcription.
The program then concluded with Henryk Wieniawski’s Opus 15 set of variations on an original theme. This had all the flamboyant excess of a nineteenth-century encore, complete with an extended introduction that feels as if it takes more time than the variations. Once again Lark performed with all the confidence she had applied to Bartók and Ysaÿe; but it was clear that this was the “dessert course” on her menu.
Nevertheless, “dessert” was followed by a “demitasse” in the form of Jascha Heifetz’ arrangement of Manuel Ponce’s “Estrellita.” Lark brought a quiet elegance to this encore that was both refreshing and gratifying after the excesses of Wieniawski’s exhibitionism. Indeed, the subtlety of Heifetz’ arrangement perfectly complemented the Carembat transcription of Debussy.