Barnes Music Festival, south west london

Review: Opening Concert: Journeys Across Europe 

March 7 2020: The opening concert of Barnes Music Festival was a triumph, a passionate outpouring of magnificent music that left the audience feeling exalted.

Barnes Music Festival, St Mary’s Church, Barnes

Hugo Ticciati and his O/Modernt string orchestra took a risk by choosing Peteris Vasks’ violin concerto Distant Light. The music is challenging and emotive, the score fiendishly difficult. It is a modern piece that is little known in the UK, and attuned to Scandinavian sensibilities. It was far from being the safe choice of a familiar classic by Beethoven or Schubert.

But the risk paid off handsomely. The audience was literally leaning forward rapt, both by the devastatingly emotive composition and the total artistry and professionalism of the playing.

Vasks turns an accusing gaze on man’s relationship with nature. The piece is filled with drama, challenge and premonition. Edgy skittering violins, doom-laden sonorous double bass, sequences of relentlessly rising chords seem to pose a question that demands an answer. What is that question? The driving intensity of the piece makes you fear that Vasks is questioning whether humanity can survive its own despoliation of the planet. And do the atonal sections filled with demonic energy give us the answer we fear?

There was no conductor. Hugo Ticciati led the performance with a commanding display of absolute virtuosity as first violin. With a glance, a smile, a raised bow, he kept his young ensemble cued to the split second. He showed an impeccable sense of theatre, exploiting the value of a weighted pause to keep a relentless grip on the audience’s emotions. When the piece ended the tumultuous applause lasted for minutes rather than seconds. No-one could stop talking about the performance during the interval. It was astonishing to realise that joining the incredible ensemble were three young instrumentalists from St Paul’s Girls’ School and a cellist from St Paul’s School.

It was a very hard act to follow. Luckily, the first piece of the second half was a performance everyone was looking forward to: the voice of local schoolgirl Anna Haestrup, lead soprano in the St Mary’s Church choir, who has recently been crowned the BBC’s female Young Chorister of the Year. A little husky and hesitant to start as she sang Solveig’s Song, from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, she rang out piercing and pure as she reached for the upper half of her register. There is a great voice for the future. It was endearing to see how attentively O/Modernt watched her, allowing her to set the tempo.

Next came another assault on the audience’s emotions, as celebrated composer and festival patron Roxanna Panufnik explained how in 1999 she had been inspired to complete a song setting written in 1990 by her late father Andrzej. Doubtful whether she should, her mind was changed when he appeared to her in a dream and invited her to improvise alongside him at the piano. The name of the piece, Modlitwa, translates as prayer, and is based on a poem to the Virgin of Skempe. It encompasses the joy of being young, and also a melancholy sense of youth’s fragility. How hard it must have been to interweave your own music with someone else’s, even a much-loved and much-admired parent. How affecting it was to hear.

The concert ended with Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme By Frank Bridge Op 10, an episodic piece with moments of intense drama but without the sustained majesty of the Vasks. The programme notes described how Britten had enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music, but dropped out in order to continue to study with his mentor Bridge, whose looser and less stultifyingly formal style was sneered at in some circles of the British musical establishment. This anecdote seemed to provide the key to the daring musical choices of the concert. Born in Barnes with Italian heritage, Ticciati has chosen to live and make music in Sweden. Although the selections hailed from across Europe geographically, it was Scandinavia’s romantic melancholy and its freer approach to musical form, that supplied the underlying aesthetic that Ticciati and O/Modernt projected so brilliantly. It swept the audience away on Saturday night. Bravo.

Read more about Barnes Music Festival 2020