The Australian Chamber Orchestra has announced a wide-ranging 2019 season, with the centrepiece the return of the orchestra’s collaboration with photographer Bill Henson, Luminous.

“We’ve done quite a run of bespoke projects, we could put a whole festival together just with them, so I’ve been urged to relook at Luminous for years. A lot of people thought we hit the ground running with that,” Tognetti tells Limelight. “Bill Henson simply is one of the great artists on the planet – I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that – and incredibly musical.”

Australian Chamber Orchestra, ACO, Season 2019, Richard TognettiRichard Tognetti. Photo © Jason Capobianco

Luminous premiered in 2005 and the orchestra last performed it ten years ago. “There are some images in there that are incredible,” Tognetti says. “They take you to a place with the music that is very hard to affect and build. I think even though it was [Henson’s] first foray, he really understood the space that is required for the brain to process image and music.”

“I think Bill Henson stands as the quintessential opposite to agenda-driven post-modern bullshit,” Tognetti says. “There’s a return to modernism, where there is structure and there is unencumbered beauty.”

“The technique that Bill has, that every photographer worth their soul identifies, should be celebrated,” Tognetti says. “So when you combine all of that and his extraordinary listening regard for music, it’s worth keeping this project alive.”

The performance will be updated, with singer-songwriter Lior joining the ACO. “The first time we had Paul Capsis, he obviously brought a certain cabaret style, and then Katie Noonan brought something more dream-like. Lior, we’ll see, maybe a richness to the vocal tapestry. But Satu will probably also be singing as well – so that depth of voice.” Tognetti says.

While some of the repertoire will change, Tognetti describes Pēteris Vasks’s Distant Light as “immutable” – that and Aldred Schnittke’s Trio Sonata will remain on the program. “We’d be nuts to tamper with the Schnittke and the Vasks,” he says.

Since the first iteration of Luminous, Henson’s work became embroiled in controversy – in 2008 the opening of an exhibition of Henson’s work was cancelled and the Police seized a number of images by Henson depicting nude adolescents (the New South Wales Department of Public Prosecutions later recommended that no charges be laid and the Australian Classification Board gave the images a PG rating).

“He found himself in the middle of a post-modern political bonfire, ‘Yeah, kill him, burn the witch’ but once he got through it – unscathed, no harm, no one came forward, there was no #MeToo movement there – you could reassess him,” Tognetti says.

And the violinist put his money where his mouth is, with a Henson photograph hanging in his home. “After [the] ill-informed and incredibly destructive Kevin Rudd called his work ‘absolutely revolting’,” he explains, “We just went out and said, ‘we’re buying one’.”

Luminous tours in August, but around it is a season that ranges widely across the territory the ACO has marked out for itself, opening in February with a concert of Arvo Pärt and JS Bach. “Even though Bach was criticised in his time for using old-fashioned, out of date overworked contrapuntal means,” Tognetti says, “he can write the best simple melody and he can write Style Galant, and just with very simple means affect very strongly. That’s what Arvo Pärt realised he could do when he found his new bell-ringing style – and of course the regard for some extra-terrestrial deity. So it’s clear why they work well together.”

Also on the program are Peter Sculthorpe’s Djilile and Estonian Russian composer Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum.

Grigorjeva is one of seven female composers on the ACO’s 2019 season. “We’re not just into positive discrimination for the sake of it,” Tognetti says. “There is a hole in the history. There was a lot of misogyny – Schopenhauer was pretty damn nasty about women – and there was a sense that the high art of writing music was out of reach for women. We don’t need to trumpet the cause too much, but if there’s a female composer and it’s worthwhile having a go, we’ll give it a go.”

Italian violinist Lorenza Borrani will direct the orchestra in March in a program that opens with her arrangement of Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata and will feature the Australian premiere of Dobrinka Tabakova’s Such Different Paths, finishing with Beethoven’s Opus 135 Quartet.

Australian Chamber Orchestra, ACO, Season 2019Satu Vänskä. Photo © Jason Capobianco

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis will join the orchestra in May, performing the Australian premiere of Sally Beamish’s Second Saxophone Concerto and the Villa-Lobos Fantasia for saxophone and orchestra in a concert directed by Satu Vänskä. “People say, ‘Oh, great, you’re doing jazz!’ Well, he didn’t want to play jazz and we’re not a jazz orchestra, so he’s showcasing his talents as an instrumentalist,” Tognetti says. “Then we thought we needed a great harmonically direct work and so we realised we hadn’t done the Seasons of Piazzolla, so Satu agreed to do that – so I think it’s a good mix.”

June will see Tognetti direct a program presenting the music of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, The National’s Bryce Dessner and singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens alongside composers who influenced them – Lutosławski, Penderecki and Szymanowski. While the younger composers have careers outside the traditional classical world (Tognetti hates the word “crossover”) they bring a unique flavour to the concert hall. “Jonny’s always actually been in the classical music world – it’s just supporting that world he happens to be in one of the most interesting and, lucky for them, incredibly well-respected and popular bands of the modern era,” Tognetti says. “I would actually say that – I mean, the veracity of this is to be tested – Radiohead has been infiltrated by Jonny’s classical background more so than his rock world infiltrating – obviously, there are some pretty cool gestures, but he gets them more from playing guitar than from the rock world.”

In contrast, September will feature more traditional repertoire in Haydn and Mozart. While Mozart’s Symphony 25 was made famous by Amadeus, Tognetti asks, “Do people know Haydn’s 39th Symphony, which obviously inspired Mozart?”

Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 14 and the Australian premiere of his own arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo Concertante on the program.

October will see another Australian premiere, with Brett Dean’s Approach (Prelude to a Canon) joining a program of Bach, Kurtág and Marais. Approach had its world premiere at the BBC Proms earlier this month, performed by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. “My friend who runs the Swedish Chamber Orchestra – Gregor Zubicky – he’s been talking about a joint venture for years and years and years and now eventually it’s happened,” Tognetti says. “They got first dibs, but that’s OK.”

Aiko Goto. Photo © Jason Capobianco 

Tognetti and ACO Principal Cello Timo-Veikko Valve will perform the Brahms Double Concerto in November, alongside the Australian premiere of Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo and Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. “The last time we played [the Brahms] was maybe 2010, so it will feel fresh,” says Tognetti. “It’s very dense and it’s always a challenge to perform – it’s not just a pot-boiler. You can feel Brahms’ struggle, and in part that’s why it’s so intense. Pitted against his protége Dvořák, it is interesting how Dvořák just seemed to spin out melody and it all comes so easy to him.”

In addition to the mainstage season, the ACO will perform a concert of Meale, Handel, Respighi, Britten and Vasks (the Australian premiere of his Viatore for 11 solo strings) at Melbourne Recital Centre in June. “It’s interesting with Vasks, because you’re not really sure what style it is,” Tognetti says. “But it’s very sincere. It’s sort of a mixture of Pärt, neo-Romantic – and you know his palette isn’t massive, but what he does is so direct. He’s an anti-modernist of course, but it doesn’t necessarily sound old fashioned. He sort of jumped over the rotting carcass of modernism.”

Violinist Pekka Kuusisto will also direct two ACO Collective concerts (in March and December), featuring the Australian premieres of works by Missy Mazzoli, Andrea Tarrodi and World Premieres by Nico Muhly and Heather Shannon (of The Jezebels fame), while Helena Rathbone will direct the ACO Collective in October in a concert featuring Paul Stanhope, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Elgar.

With such a wide-ranging season, how does Tognetti balance all the different elements? “I’ve always said it’s a bit like curating in an art gallery,” he says. “You’re going to put unlikely and improbably elements together that you wouldn’t normally do, or listen to, at home.”


The Full Season

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine