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Lark Ascending: Rising Violin Star Who Plays a Mean Fiddle

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Tessa Lark’s violin career has been hatching for some time now. After winning the prestigious Naumburg Violin Competition this month, Lark, 23, is beginning to soar.

Lark has already made a name for herself in the violin world, having won several notable competitions and soloed with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Gettysburg Chamber Orchestra and the Santa Cruz Symphony. She graduated last month with a Master’s degree in Music from the New England Conservatory, where she studied with Miriam Fried and Lucy Chapman.

The Naumburg Competition is held every year in New York City, with the discipline that competes rotating year-to-year among voice, violin and piano. Lark is the first American violinist to win since 1960.

A native of Kentucky, Lark brings a distinctively American perspective to the classical music table, doubling as a bluegrass fiddler. Her fiddling experience has not only given her a diverse musical background, but has also strengthened her love for playing classical music. "Bluegrass helps me to remember that music is for enjoying, and that no one’s going to die if I mess up or if someone doesn’t agree with something I do,” she explained. She hopes to find ways to combine the two genres in programming future recitals and concerts.

Lark’s background has also helped her to develop a strong passion for American music, and she tries to play and promote it as much as she can. "The role of folk music and American music in the realm of classical music will always keep growing,” she said.

One aspect of the Naumburg Competition she enjoyed was the requirement of a contemporary American piece, for which she played the first movement of William Bolcom’s Second Sonata. She selected it for the round of the competition in which performers could play any piece of their choosing. She thinks that what most wowed the judges, however, was her performance of Telemann’s Fantasia No. 7.

Lark, who will be performing in a chamber music concert at the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, NY on Friday, is acutely aware of the challenges that her generation of classical musicians faces. She feels that competitions can be helpful in advancing careers, especially when they come attached with performance opportunities. Her Naumburg win, for example, gives her the opportunity to play a recital at Weill Hall on November 28.

However, as she knows, winning competitions isn’t enough, especially with the overall increase in quality among performers in recent years. "Everyone plays the right notes now,” she said. “That’s a given.” And with the growing ease by which musicians can gain exposure via the Internet, the means of building a music career have changed. Lark, for example, has about 130 YouTube videos of her performances. One of her earliest "performances" came through a well-known violin instruction website,, which is run by her teacher at the time, Kurt Sassmannhaus. 

Given the enormous challenges facing classical music, even someone of Lark's talents can find the future daunting. "If this competition hadn't come along, I'm not sure what I would be doing right now," she admitted. However, she is aware of the responsibility that befalls her and her generation of performers to keep classical music alive, and she is confident that they can do so. "Classical music isn't going anywhere because it's too powerful," she said, quoting a friend.

"Right now, I’m trying to figure out what I can do to show everyone how great classical music is. To do that and not just try and 'make it’ as a performer is something we all need to think about.” It is a daunting task, admits Lark, but one that she feels is more than worth undertaking.