What does the ACO’s charismatic leader really think about music and politics? A no-holds-barred interview.

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.

To read more, pick up your copy of the new-look June issue of Limelight, on sale May 16.