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Facing off with Richard Tognetti

Features - Classical Music

Facing off with Richard Tognetti

by Francis Merson on August 29, 2012 (August 29, 2012) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
So what does the ACO's charismatic leader really think about music, orchestras and politics?

Read details of the Australian Chamber Orchestra's 2013 season here.

Richard Tognetti is an opinionated man in the wrong business. As the artistic director and leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, he can express himself musically to his heart’s content, yet concert protocol frowns upon turning to the audience mid-cadenza to talk about what’s really on your mind. Which is why I have showed up, brandishing the promise of conversational carte blanche, at the Sydney beachside pad Tognetti shares with his partner, fellow ACO violinist Satu Vänskä.

The ACO’s publicist Mary meets us at the door and asks the photographer and me to remove our shoes. I’ve been warned about the snow-white wooden floors of Casa Tognetti (Vänskä’s Nordic influence). Richard is napping, and so we tiptoe inside in our socks like we’re playing a parlour game. I’ve also been warned about several topics that make Tognetti angry: classical music as elitist; the concept of heritage art; funding cuts for orchestras; the Strad tests… I make a mental note to ask about all these things.

But it’s Tognetti who sneaks a barbed question in first as we’re setting up for the photo shoot. “Was André Rieu not available this month?” he grins as he strolls into the living room. I notice he’s the only person in the room wearing shoes.

I’ve never had a proper face-to-face conversation with Tognetti before, but I’ve seen him countless times on stage. So many times, in fact, that sitting down to chat with him feels like breaking the fourth wall.

At 44, Tognetti looks younger than his age and breakfast-cereal-commercial healthy – which probably has something to do with the surfing and scuba equipment strewn on his back porch. This youthful vigour is also the calling card of the ACO, whose musicians are all younger than Tognetti. 

“That’s not a conscious choice,” he insists, as we sit facing each other in low-slung armchairs. “There’s no age limit at the ACO or anything. People join the orchestra because they like the whole package, so it becomes a self-perpetuating thing.”

If Tognetti doesn’t perpetuate the image, he has certainly helped sculpt it. As an upstart 24-year-old, he ditched the orchestra’s penguin suits soon after taking over the ACO back in 1990. The musicians now wear pure black outfits that make them look like hip waiters at a Neil Perry restaurant. This minimalist tailoring is then subverted by the outré haircuts of the male musicians: cellist Julian Thompson’s unruly bouffant, violist Chris Moore’s ever-morphing mohawk… Tognetti’s own hair could have been styled with surfboard wax.

The very first of the 1990 Tognetti decrees was more crucial: the violins and violas were made to stand, as though each one is a soloist among soloists. Standing not only frees more sound from the instruments, it also makes it easier for musicians to communicate with each other. It’s visually as well as musically engaging: the ACO musicians exchange glances and smile as they play, each moving autonomously yet in sync, like the many limbs of some vast, musically attuned cephalopod.

Note the contrast with most Australian orchestras, who have inherited the British tradition of string playing – rigid arms, straight back, no swaying. Another dissimilarity with symphony orchestras, where feuds between players can fester for years, is the close, collegial atmosphere that seems to permeate the ACO.

I ask how that friendly vibe transfers into matters of interpretation. “Well, it’s my interpretation – someone’s got to interpret the music; it’s my job as artistic director. It’s still collegial, absolutely. But being collegial doesn’t just mean it’s all positive and glowing. That’s just as destructive to the music as if you’re at each other’s throats.

“But if in rehearsal someone’s making a valid point about what’s on the score, then I’ll embrace it and we’ll discuss it and I’m quite happy to have my assumptions and decisions threatened with a thorough analysis of the score.” 

Talking to Tognetti is a stimulating, but rather intense, experience. He’s hunched forward on the edge of his armchair and staring straight into my eyes like he’s trying to read something inscribed on my retinas. He weighs his words with punctilious care and also politely dissects whatever I say. There’s nothing unfriendly about it – he’s eminently charming – but it’s the conversational habit of a man addicted to exactitude.

When I ask Tognetti outright if he’s a perfectionist, his answer betrays him. “I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist. I never achieve perfection so…” I point out that striving for endlessly receding goals is what perfectionists do. “I’m just trying to think of a better word… Obsessive. Am I obsessive? Yeah, absolutely!” 

All this contradicts the laidback image of Tognetti as effortless virtuoso/surfer dude, one I first encountered some 20 years ago. My high school teacher stuck up a poster of Tognetti posing with a surfboard, in the hope of instilling in 14-year-old boys the implausible notion that a classical musician could be cool. Meeting Tognetti some 20 years later, what I find genuinely cool is not the image, but the unwillingness to play the game. While most artists I talk to are in it for self-promotion, a conversation with Tognetti is an intellectual ice bath.

For instance, when I tentatively ask whether his habit for making arrangements might be toying with the composers’ wishes, he slaps the question back at me: “Can you give me an example of a composer giving an explicit demand that people shall not arrange?” As I grope around my brain for an example, I can hear the rumble of Tognetti’s revving up. “I mean, let’s investigate based on research. Of course, there are letters from composers bemoaning that an arrangement has been made. I think that’s quality control; I don’t think it’s integrity control. And now if it’s quality control, why aren’t we also talking about bad performances rather than just bad arrangements?” 

He has a point: hearing four people playing Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet badly is worse than hearing the ACO play an arranged version well. And there’s a rationale behind all the arrangements the orchestra plays: the paucity of music written for string ensemble. OK, there are the Serenades of Tchaikovsky and Dvorák; Sibelius’s Valse Triste… but not much more besides. This is the curse of the chamber orchestra; it’s a convenient size for touring, but the native repertoire is severely restricted. The ACO is the ensemble equivalent of the viola: reliant for variety on music imported from other instruments.

Tognetti tells a story of being invited to play at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – on condition they wouldn’t play any arrangements. “And I said, ‘Fine, here comes Tchaikovsky’s Serenade again’. And the manager said, ‘No, there’s lots of repertoire! How about that wonderful chamber symphony of Shostakovich?’ ‘You mean the one made by Rudolf Barshai based on the String Quartet No 8?’ And he went very red-faced.”

Tognetti’s ability to convert orchestral (the Adagietto from Mahler 5) and smaller chamber pieces (Schubert’s Trout Quintet) into ACO-friendly fare has become the orchestra’s lifeblood. And Tognetti says he had arrangements on the brain even before he moved back to Australia after studying in Europe. “I remember lying in my bed in Ipswich, London in 1988 and listening to the Janácek Kreutzer Sonata for the first time. And I could already hear an orchestra playing it.”

This epiphany took more than 20 years to result in a concert program, that took the Kreutzer as its title, which was “one of the best things we’ve ever done,” says Tognetti. Actors recited a dramatised version of the short story by Leo Tolstoy, interspersed by movements of the Beethoven sonata and Janácek quartets. Three great oeuvres were turned inside out – purists be damned – and converted from pure music (or prose) into drama. 

“It’s within me to experiment, to dig, to open up the bonnet and fiddle around with the engine – but not to ruin the car, of course.” Tognetti then quotes Clint Eastwood, whose father told the young actor, “You either progress or you decay, son.” Similarly, when playing Beethoven symphonies, Tognetti says, “There’s got to be that desire to experiment. If you just want to play it like everyone else, you’re doing the music a disservice.

“The idea that ‘we’ve been playing it like this for 25 years because it worked 25 years ago’ will kill the music. It’s as simple as that.” In Tognetti’s musical lexicon, perpetuum mobile trumps status quo every time.

A case in point is the last time I saw Tognetti perform: not in a concert hall but in Sydney nightclub The Standard, as part of his latest experiment ACO Underground, which takes music out of the traditional concert halls which young people tend to shun. On the program was not only the usual Vivaldi and Paganini, but also Nick Drake, Radiohead and a rowdy Finnish folksong. This evening it was Satu Vänskä who ran the show, singing as well as playing, with Tognetti merely shuffling on stage to make up the numbers in the band. With her short dress, Gibraltar-like cheekbones and husky accented English, Vänskä had the air of a femme fatale from a James Bond movie.

As the punters stood there holding beers instead of concert brochures, the most striking contrast with a normal subscription concert was neither the venue nor the program, but the youth of the audience. It was the first ACO concert where I haven’t seen one of my father’s tweed-bedecked golf buddies. It was a risky gamble for the ACO that seems to have paid off.

Violist Stephen King, who took part in Tognetti’s ACO experiments for for nine years before joining the Australian String Quartet in 2011, admits “There were some things that you mightn’t imagine would work, but when Richard got his hands on them – it was like a Midas touch. So everyone learnt to just go with it.”

Tognetti also has a knack for striking gold of a different sort: the $16 million or so worth of 
Guarneris, Strads and Guadagninis the ACO counts in its instrumental arsenal. Tognetti himself plays a 1743 Guarneri del Gesù valued at $10 million, bought by an anonymous donor. If that figure makes you baulk, Tognetti offers some handy comparisons: “How much money did Kerry Packer lose in one night in a Las Vegas casino? Four Del Gesùs… People who complain about the price of violins have no idea what they’re talking about.”

On the subject of instruments, I can’t resist bringing up the recent double-blind test in which two Strads and a del Gesù were proved to be inferior to modern instruments. In one of the kookier meetings between science and music, violinists were kitted out in welding goggles and perfumed scarves before playing, to ensure they had no idea what instrument they were holding. Of the 21 violinists, most opted for new, inexpensive instruments over the million-dollar relics.

“It’s a joke! It’s a complete joke!” Tognetti almost bounces from his chair with indignation. “That thing about the scarves is a complete fallacy – you can’t smell the difference between a new and an old violin. And we don’t even know who was playing. You have to hear these instruments in a hall, for a start. If you put Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Stradivarius, my del Gesù and a modern violin in a hall together, anyone would be able to hear the difference. We’ve done our own tests, but where the people listening in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House were blindfolded. Do you think we wanted to pay all this money for violins that sound exactly the same?”

Tognetti smiles at the absurdity of this suggestion, but it’s a slightly anguished, I’m-stuck-in-a-Kafka-novel kind of smile. He’s convinced he’s right about this, but is also trapped in a society that thinks only a madman would spend $10 million on a piece of wood.

When I next talk to Tognetti, about a week later, his mind is far away from such things. Literally. He’s in an airport in Atlanta on an 11-concert American tour, which culminates at Carnegie Hall. This sparks a reminiscence about how the name “Australian Chamber Orchestra” was once a barrier between the orchestra and international success. “A Japanese entrepreneur told me 20 years ago there’s no way we’d ever get to play in Japan with that name, because Australia is a country that’s not viewed as very cultured.” In 2000, Tognetti even toyed with giving the ACO an entirely abstract name, like that of a rock band. (He declined to give me the shortlist.) 

It’s only in the past five years that the ACO has acquired brand magnetism beyond what Tognetti calls the “strange island” of Australia. The Times of London has called them “the best chamber orchestra on the planet”. Time Out New York dished out a quote that was plastered all over Sydney’s buses during the ACO’s 2011 subscription drive: “Tognetti’s bad-ass classical band”. 

Clarinettist and head of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) Paul Dean says the ACO has been an international icebreaker for Australian musicians. When Dean was touring North America with the Southern Cross Soloists in 2008, he was surprised at how “everyone took Australian music-making very seriously, because the promoters and public were used 
to the high level the ACO had been bringing for years.”

Tognetti’s latest US tour, meanwhile, is making him conscious of certain advantages Australia lacks. “In America, you think you’re going to be playing in some total shithole, but you turn up and there’s an incredible venue and a really dedicated audience. You can’t find that in Australia. We just don’t have the population.”

Not that Tognetti is negging his homeland; he just has a peculiar habit of criticising things he also tirelessly endorses. For instance, after leading an ultimately triumphant campaign to save the Wollongong Town Hall from demolition, he caused outcry last year when he called the city “a dark, troubled place… full of downtrodden people”. Sure, you can support a cause without being blind to its faults, but Tognetti espouses an almost naïve belief in intellectual honesty. 

The corollary is that when Tognetti is passionate about a cause, he really goes to town. His voice rises from piano to forte when he recalls some of the slash-and-burn arts policies of the Kevin Rudd administration – of which Tognetti was one of the most impassioned critics. “There was the closure of ANAM for god’s sake! And also strong rumours I was hearing that some of the orchestras would be defunded – not to mention Rudd’s hideously stupid, ill-informed, bogan, narrow-minded, offensive attack on photographer Bill Henson [one of whose chiaroscuro portraits dominates Tognetti’s living room]. Some of us were thinking, is it time to jump ship and leave the country? I mean, with ANAM, Brett Dean did leave the country. It was hideous.”

Today, the pendulum has swung back to a government policy that Tognetti describes as “responsible and quietly supportive”. Still, classical music would not be itself without some sense of looming crisis. In Tognetti’s mind, the apocalypse du jour is the redistribution of wealth to come with the new National Cultural Policy.

One of its four major policy goals, set out in a discussion paper, is to encourage the use of emerging technologies to create new artworks. Producers of videogames – and who’s to say a game cannot be an aesthetic object? – may soon be competing for the same funding as the ACO. “There’s just no relationship between these things. Video gaming isn’t about art. 
It’s so tied up with obsolescence in a way art isn’t.

“There’s a fantastic quote. I can’t remember exactly what it is now, but look up ‘Cocteau and fashion’ on the Internet.” It’s a typically off-centre reference from Tognetti, who also name-checks filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki and writer Marcel Proust during our interview.

A few days pass before I get round to typing “Cocteau and fashion” into Google, which comes up the following quote: “Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, fashion produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.” 

“Ugly things which become beautiful over time” could be the catch-cry of a new music outfit. Which gets me thinking… Surely not all the pieces the ACO has commissioned – from the likes of Brett Dean, Moya Henderson and Anthony Pateras – can be to Tognetti’s taste. What does he do when he thinks a piece is ugly? “Often I have to leave my own taste at the door, otherwise we’re cutting yourself off from new possibilities. But sometimes I’ve been pleasantly surprised by composers I wasn’t fond of. New music is an experiment, and so I look at it like we’re rats in a laboratory.”

But what music does Tognetti actually like? “If you take my iTunes playlist, it’s so eclectic it’s simply bizarre. For my project with the Sydney Dance Company I’m listening to a lot of Rameau, which I’m loving – every note is a pleasure. I’m also into the early ambient stuff of Aphex Twin. I don’t know where he found that prepared piano sound – it’s brilliant. I’m listening to Alice in Chains – heavy metal grunge from the Seattle, Kurt Cobain era.” It’s not what you expect to hear from a guy renowned for his recordings of Bach and Mozart, but let’s remember Tognetti is wearing a checkered shirt – a gentrified take on the Cobain flannel – along with an earring.

As for his dislikes, well, he’s reluctant to go there. “It used to be Arvo Pärt. I used to really dislike him. I’d rather play Pink Floyd, but then you can’t play much except for Shine On You Crazy Diamond. And now I like Pärt more, but I far prefer listening to him. He’s a boring composer to play and there’s no room for interpretation. I used not to like Piazzolla, and then we played with the accordionist James Crabb and the light went on.”

His favourite symphony of all time is, I’m surprised to hear, Charles Ives’s No 4. It’s a ponderous existential work, full of clashing piano chords and brass-heavy cacophony – not something you’d expect was anyone’s “favourite”. Ives described the piece as “a searching question of ‘What’ and ‘Why’ which the spirit of man asks of life.” And so on to my big questions: why does Tognetti bother putting all this effort into music? What’s the point of it all?

“There’s something energising about having an amazing musical or theatrical experience. Which is so satisfying when we play in regional Australia, especially to those who have never had a musical experience like that before.” OK, that’s all right for the audience, but what about Tognetti personally? What keeps him committed to the ACO? “I don’t know,” he says with a grin that’s as cheeky as it is disingenuous. “It keeps me out of the pub.”