Tessa Lark & Michael Thurber: The Unconventional Yet Phenomenal Classical Duo
Written by Steven Robinson
Looking for a special treat for mom on Mother’s Day? Invite her to join you in Newberry for a FREE community concert featuring nationally renowned violist Tessa Lark and bassist Michael Thurber. Bring a chair or blanket for this concert on Sunday, May 9, 2021 at 3:00 P.M. under the Opera House canopy on Boyce St. next to Memorial Park. This free community event is sponsored by the Newberry Opera House’s Newberry Arts For All (NAFA) initiative.
Violin and bass are not the “peanut butter and jelly” obvious combination of classical musical instruments. But, maybe the unconventionality of the duo of violinist Tessa Lark and bassist Michael Thurber is what makes them so phenomenal.
There are many challenges when it comes to writing for the violin-bass. Michael explains, “our instruments aren’t chordal… you really have to pay attention to the counterpoint and the dialogue of the instrument, the pitches and the rhythms, and it has to be specific and so clear because it’s the only way to get a fuller and blended sound and it’s the only way we can get a sense of harmony.”
While the part-writing for their pieces has been complicated in terms of sorting out ranges and contrast between voices, the result delivers an extraordinary experience unlike any other traditional chamber style ensemble. The Lark & Thurber duo have written and produced the album Invention to show off what a beautiful sound this style ensemble makes and to build upon their theme of genre bending.
Even though both are classically trained musicians, the jazz composition roots of Thurber and the bluegrass roots of Lark had a different idea for the repertoire: do not play just one genre, blend them into a masterpiece. Their music shows a wonderful demonstration of using the medium of classical instruments to play through the American folk tradition while still formally following the greatness of classical composers. Thurber describes why borrowing from different genres works, “You find the bass or a bass-like instrument in almost every style of music from around the world, so in that way there’s this incredible versatility in style having the bass around. Because when people have the bass around it has different associations with people depending on how they grew up… we have the advantage of jumping across stylistic lines and playing different things.”
How did this unique partnership form? They met at a board meeting – believe it or not – a board meeting for NPR’s From the Top. Tessa was thrilled when she first got to work with the program saying “I would listen to From the Top every Sunday on NPR and it was really a thing that I would look up to the kids that were playing on the show and dreamt on being on that stage with Christopher O’ Riley.” Years after Tessa first dreamed about the show, she not found herself having performed on the show, but collaborating with board member Michael Thurber.
The two found collaboration was easy in part due to their similarities: their upbringing in rural states, exploration of music as students of higher learning, and the great synergy found in their community of fellow artists.
Tessa Lark is a classically trained musician with a heart for bluegrass. While she no longer plays with her dad’s bluegrass gospel band, she didn’t forget that training when she expanding her resume at both the New England Conservatory and Juilliard School of Music. She has performed in a wide range of symphonies, orchestras, and philharmonics such as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and that’s only scratching the surface. She has also made debuts at Carnegie Hall and has won several awards and medals for her outstanding skill including Lincoln Center’s prestigious Emerging Artist Award. And, in 2020, she was nominated for a Grammy® for Best Classical Instrumental Solo.
A Lonestar state native, Thurber also studied at Juilliard School of Music and was the first undergraduate student at Juilliard to be accepted into both the classical and jazz divisions of the school. Michael has worked alongside The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public Theater as a composer for their production of Antony and Cleopatra and has also composed for the likes of BBC America and Vanity Fair. Michael is now a professor at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute while still working as a performer where he is often seen in the band on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
On performance day, Lark & Thurber will be playing through selections of their previous works as well as debuting brand new pieces. Enjoy this free community outdoor concert featuring this unconventional yet phenomenal duo.