The Australian Chamber Orchestra has announced its 2020 season, Richard Tognetti’s 30th as Artistic Director. The season will include four brand-new works commissioned by the ACO, four Australian premieres, as well as a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with Australian Heldentenor Stuart Skelton and, of course, plenty of Beethoven in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Richard Tognetti. Photo © Nic Walker
Tognetti took over artistic leadership of the ACO in 1989, when he was just 25, and has been in the role ever since. “I keep thinking, well, surely I’m not going to be here in five years time, and then suddenly it’s five years time, and I’m thinking, well, I won’t be here in another five years time,” he says.
But he’s also propelled by projects. “It takes a while to get projects going,” he laughs. “If I pulled out as planned five years ago, then I wouldn’t have been doing Luminous, I wouldn’t have done Mountain and so I’ve got another few projects lined up that I really want to see come to fruition.”
As for celebrating his 30th, the violinist hinted at “a few strange ideas” that will bear fruit in 2021, but there’s just one program consciously marking the occasion. “Working with Anna Melville, my terrific Artistic Administrator, we came up with this concept of a program that really shows ACO in all its various guises,” he says.
Anna Meredith. Photo © Gem Harris
The Four Seasons & Beyond, touring in June and July, features a new commission by American composer Samuel Adams for electric violin and strings, Tognetti’s own composition, Beyond (which featured in The Reef), his string orchestra arrangement of Pavel Haas’ String Quartet No 2, From the Monkey Mountains, and the Australian premiere of Anna Meredith’s reimagining of The Four Seasons, which sees her original music and electronics interspersed with the Vivaldi. “That really tells us the story of ACO under my direction,” Tognetti says.
Beethoven is the other big anniversary next year, and the ACO is celebrating with their second to last concert of the year, Beethoven 250. “It’s weird that we really focus on just a few composer anniversaries,” Tognetti says, citing Mozart and Bach. “We’ve taken a divergent view, we’ve looked at the timeline.”
The concert has resonances with the orchestra’s 2014 Timeline project, and will begin with Mozart’s Mitridate Overture of 1770 (the year of Beethoven’s birth) before marking every 50 years, through Schubert’s Quartettsatz in 1820, Johann Strauss II’s Pizzicato Polka in 1870 (“That’s all we could find!” quips Tognetti), Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending in 1920, George Crumb’s Black Angels in 1970, through to a new commission by Anna Clyne for 2020.
The year will also open with Beethoven. “Most of the symphony orchestras are going to be doing the Ninth Symphony,” Tognetti says, so he’s opening 2020 with the First. “It’s my favourite,” he says.
“It’s like he’s continued Haydn’s line,” he says. “The wit and the humour and the lightness of being.”
The concert will continue with the Second and the Third, Eroica, in which “he really gets into his Beethoven stride.”
In May the orchestra will present a program they were invited to perform at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival – Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. “I was sceptical. Why do this massive orchestral piece?” says Tognetti. “That’s out of our range.”
The version the ACO performed, however, was a chamber orchestra arrangement by Schoenberg (and completed by Rainer Riehn). “It’s almost like Schoenberg sensed that there are certain things that could be revealed by paring back, and there’s this intimacy and transparency that comes out as a result,” Tognetti says. “He left out two things – maybe he didn’t have access to the instruments, I don’t know – but the Mandolin is a very exotic instrument that’s in the original, so we put that back in.”
Christianne Stotijn. Photo © Marco Borggreve
Since there’s trumpet in Wagner’s Sigfried Idyll, which opens the program, Tognetti has put that back in as well. As for Stuart Skelton, who will sing alongside Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, all he has to say is, “Wow, what a hero!”
Another program that takes the ACO into unusual territory for the orchestra is May’s Music to Heal tour, which seeks to harness the restorative power of music. “This isn’t background music, this in a way serves the same purpose as really properly done yogic breathing,” he says of the program, which spans Hildegard von Bingen and Philip Glass to Beethoven and Kaija Saariaho.
For Tognetti, healing and wellbeing are particularly important given the state of the world now. “The world is pain,” he says. “We’ve got a population that’s just totally out of control, we’ve got the rise of populism, we don’t know what’s going to happen to Europe, we don’t know what’s going to happen to the UK, look at mass shootings in America, we’re numbed by daily, almost, reports from the UN on climate change and the right wing have somehow knuckled down to say it’s all baloney.”
But it’s not just the state of the planet that prompted a look at music and wellbeing. “A few years ago my cynical self would have said, ‘Oh, come on, that’s silly,’ but now having just started the yogic breathing, and especially being a surfer, it’s so important.”
The program “invites you to try to utilise the music in a physical way,” he says. “Of course, if you just want to enjoy the extraordinary music, it’s a great program on its own.”
The ACO is no stranger to breaking new ground, particularly when it comes to commissions, and there will be four new works in the 2020 season, by Samuel Adams and Anna Clyne, as well as Australians Melody Eötvös and Paul Stanhope. The will also be four Australian premieres, by Anna Meredith, Terry Riley, Kaija Saariaho and Anna Thorvaldsdottir.
As ensembles around the world are under increasing scrutiny when it comes to the representation of women composers – the BBC Proms, the Cheltenham Music Festival, the Aldeburgh festival and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival recently pledged that half of their new commissions will go to women by 2022, and last year The Philadelphia Orchestra in the US was forced to change its season after it faced criticism for failing to program a single work by a woman – the ACO has programmed music by eight women on its 2020 season. While the ACO hasn’t made any specific pledges, the orchestra has been leading the major Australian orchestras when it comes to programming music by women.
“It’s only because of suppression that women haven’t been able to find their voices as composers,” Tognetti says. “I mean, what, you need to have a male physical make-up in order to compose music?”
“So many composers from the 20th-century were inspired by this one woman, Nadia Boulanger, and so many composers – male composers – went through her studio. But where were the actual female composers? And it’s because they were suppressed, there’s just no question,” he says.
Hugo Ticciati. Photo © Marco Borggreve
The 2020 season will also see several artists make debuts, and the return of some familiar faces. British violinist Hugo Ticciati will make his ACO debut in Music to Heal, while Jonathan Cohen will make his Australian debut as guest director for Baroque Brilliance in August and September. Russian pianist Polina Leschenko will return for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto with Tognetti, while violinist Matthew Truscott returns to lead the ACO Collective.
The ACO’s partnership with the Barbican in the UK will enter its third year, and the orchestra will perform there as part of an international tour that will also go to Japan in October 2020. And the projects that keep propelling Tognetti and the ACO into the future? “I do want to bring the orchestra, under my direction, to a new abode,” he says.
The ACO was slated to move to new premises in 2020, but delays to the rejuvenation of Pier 2/3 – part of the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct project, which Infrastructure NSW is overseeing delivery of on behalf of Create NSW – threw a spanner in the works. (The latest update from Infrastructure NSW, published in July, simply says: “Redevelopment options for Pier 2/3 are being prepared for consideration by the NSW Government later this year.”)
“I would really, really like to see the orchestra move to worthy premises,” Tognetti says. “It will liberate the orchestra. Not that it’s really all dependent on bricks and mortar, but for us to have a really good venue, especially for outreach, so to speak, and for our public visibility.”