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Composer’s leap into bluegrass ‘bridges two sound worlds’

Composer’s leap into bluegrass ‘bridges two sound worlds’

Lark to solo as ASO premieres Torke’s violin concerto this weekend
Composer’s leap into bluegrass ‘bridges two sound worlds’
Concert violinist Tessa Lark is also known for her bluegrass fiddling flair.
Photographer: photo provided

Most composers work on commission, but Michael Torke, whose new violin concerto the Albany Symphony Orchestra will premiere on Saturday and Sunday, has another story to tell.

But let’s back up a bit for violinist Tessa Lark, who will be the soloist.

“Carnegie Hall was presenting me in a debut recital at Weill Recital Hall as part of their Distinctive Debut Series and offered to pay the commission to have a composer write me a piece,” Lark said. “I’d discovered Michael Torke’s music, so I asked him. He wrote me ‘Spoon Bread’ in 2017, which I later recorded on Albany Records.”

Lark, who gave a stunning recital in 2017 as part of the Troy Chromatics series, is also known for her bluegrass fiddling flair, something Torke knew about.

In casual conversation with recording engineer Silas Brown, he happened to mention the idea of writing a bluegrass concerto. Not only was Brown thrilled with the idea, Torke said, but Lark agreed to it. As it happens, Brown also often records the ASO.

“I called David Alan Miller [ASO music director] because they were looking for another piece besides the three woodwind concertos they’d recorded to fill a disc of my music. So I never had a commission,” Torke said.

Bluegrass is, however, not a style he was completely familiar with.

“So I listened to Tessa’s recordings and she played some of her samples,” he said. “Then I researched old recordings and taught myself a new musical language, which I then developed.”

The result is “Sky, a Violin Concerto.”

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever played,” Lark said. “Michael didn’t know anything about Appalachian music, but he got intrigued with it. He came to understand the deeper meaning of this style of music … its nostalgic sound. It’s not fast or slow. It’s imbued with the history and the hard times of the coal miners. Michael latched on to that.”

For the first movement, Torke applied banjo-picking style.

“The music looks like banjo music. It has strange string crossings, clusters of harmonies and less melodic playing. It’s a different sound world from the violin,” Lark said.

Torke learned from Lark that early Kentucky settlers came from Ireland and that their Celtic tunes were the antecedents of bluegrass, so that became the basis for the second movement. The final movement is bluegrass fiddling in triplet time. He admits the piece is unusual, even for him.

“It bridges two sound worlds,” Torke said.

Lark said the piece is a challenge.

“There are tons of notes, bluegrass licks, pentatonic scales and harmonies,” she said. “But there’s a grand arching idea, which is where the title ‘Sky’ comes from. The concerto is a new sound.”

Lark will record the work the day after the live performances on Albany Records with an expected September release date.

Then, it will be on to perform the concerto with five other orchestras, who have agreed to form a consortium. Other orchestras are expected to join, she said.

As for Torke, this will be the 22nd time he has collaborated with David Alan Miller.

“We work really well together,” Torke said.

Also on the program are Steven Stucky’s “Chamber Concerto” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Miller will be giving pre-concert talks one hour before each performance and at noon on Friday at the Albany Public Library.


Albany Symphony Orchestra

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday;
3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
HOW MUCH: $60-$15
MORE INFO:
518 694-3300; www.albany
symphony.com

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