Long-time ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti has lost nothing of his youthful passion and daring. By Darryn King.

The ACO’s Richard Tognetti maintains his daredevilry

Australian Chamber Orchestra artistic director Richard Tognetti.
Australian Chamber Orchestra artistic director Richard Tognetti.

In 2013, the international Shark Research Institute’s official log of shark-human encounters recorded 20 incidents, including one involving Richard Tognetti, the artistic director and lead violinist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

“Tognetti was riding the waves for a series of action shots in an extreme sports magazine,” says the record. “He was carrying a $10 million violin with him on the water to feature as part of the daredevil shoot ... Tognetti managed to protect the precious instrument ... and warded off the shark by stabbing it in the nose with the bow.”

It goes on, under the section on injuries: “The chin rest is missing and some teeth marks and splintered particles of wood are clearly visible.”

The incident report was based on a story that turned out to have been an April Fools’ Day joke; the Shark Research Institute dutifully amended their records to clarify the incident hadn’t happened at all.

But the fact the story went up in the first place suggests something of Tognetti’s predisposition for bringing danger and daredevilry to the calmer waters of classical music. When Tognetti was appointed leader of the ACO in 1989, aged 24, he was determined to disturb the sediment of the art form.

For a start, apart from the gravity-bound cellists, he had his fellow musicians stand up. An ACO concert is about bodies in space as much as it is about music, conveying some of the kinetic energy of a dance performance. All the better for the audience to perceive the extra-sensory rapport of the musicians, which Tognetti compares to that of a flock of birds. 

Most impressive of all is ACO’s commitment to tuning into musical frequencies well beyond the classical sphere. The orchestra has performed with Katie Noonan, Tim Freedman, Jim Moginie of Midnight Oil and Violent Femmes bassist/MOFO director Brian Ritchie; reimagined music by Neil Finn, Alice in Chains and Trent Reznor; and performed instrumental compositions by Bryce Dessner of The National and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. After Radiohead wrapped up their 2012 Australian tour, Greenwood lingered behind to birth a new work with the orchestra. In 2014, the ACO joined forces with electronica duo The Presets for Timeline, a concert spanning 40,000–60,000 years of music. For a while, there was talk of giving the outfit a hipper moniker, something more like a band name, but nothing stuck.

When I meet Tognetti, who turned 50 last year, at his hotel in New York, he’s sporting a corduroy blazer over a T-shirt and the agitated hair of the beach bum and honorary rocker he is. He grew up in Wollongong and has, in recent years, become a devotee of finless or friction-free surfing, a style of surfing that, in his words, is about “losing control while attempting to remain in control”. On an ideal day, he and his wife, ACO principal violinist and assistant leader Satu Vänskä, will head out onto the waves and return with just enough time to tune up. 

“The rawness of surfing – bringing that into the refined comfortable experience of the concert hall is a new frontier that I’m really attracted to,” he says.

Tognetti is in New York with the ACO on a brisk, three-stop North American tour performing the latest iteration of The Reef. The immersive multimedia show, first presented in 2012 and revised since, is a deft encapsulation of what the orchestra does best, with a mixtape of a program encompassing Ligeti, Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich, plus several of Tognetti’s own compositions and arrangements, all augmented by gorgeous visuals of the desert, the coast and feats of wave-riding derring-do, courtesy of cinematographer Jon Frank. It generates unusual and unsolemn sounds from an audience, too: whoops, gasps, laughter.

The Reef is a marriage of the two diametrically opposed worlds dear to Tognetti: classical music and the grittiness of his Wollongong roots. As a sprawling musical journey, it also reflects Tognetti’s voracious and omnivorous musical appetite. As a young violinist, studying under the tutelage of William Primrose, he was listening to Meat Loaf, Kiss and Pink Floyd, with a special fondness for the evolving movements of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. 

On his first day as a student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, someone handed him a cassette tape containing tracks by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and archetypal prog rockers Yes. Tognetti instantly made the connection between the swirling keyboards of Rick Wakeman, Hendrix’s guitar heroics and Vivaldi’s furious cadenzas. “I had one of those Pentecostal experiences,” Tognetti says. “I thought, ‘Wow, how could you deny yourself this extraordinary music?’ And I couldn’t see the difference really.”

1 . ‘Element of surprise’

In the early ’90s, Tognetti got hooked on the primal power of Nirvana and Alice in Chains, whereas much of the artsy dissonances of classical modernism left him cold. To this day he delights in unleashing the full diabolical force of Alice in Chains on an unsuspecting classical music audience. Tognetti’s arrangement of their heroin-laced howler “Them Bones” barges into The Reef, sandwiched impolitely in between Bach and Rachmaninov.

“I like the element of surprise,” says Tognetti. “You’re in a concert hall and suddenly you’re having a very strong and emotional reaction to the music.”

In recent years, Tognetti has developed an appreciation of Macklemore, Kendrick Lamar and present-day hip hop – discoveries made via the listening habits of his 10-year-old son, Leonardo – and been turned on to the electronic music innovations of Squarepusher. He makes a point of picking up musical tips from backstage techies.

“I personally can’t help but be a bowerbird drawing on all types of music,” he says. “It brings you into the modern world. I am a modernist in the sense I am quite positive about what goes on in the modern world, I’m not like Brahms clinging to the romantic notion of music, lamenting that nothing new will ever happen in it ever again. I’m just not like that. Music evolves.”

Not that Tognetti minds the purists. “Purists are great. If everyone’s a radical, it makes my job harder.”

Sitting in the back of a cab rolling into Manhattan’s midtown, Tognetti turns to get a better view of the signage outside Madison Square Garden. “Black Sabbath!” he says.

Over the years, the ACO have also become surely the most promiscuous cross-pollinators in all of the Australian arts. As well as Jon Frank’s surf visuals, they’ve concocted meaningful collaborations with cartoonist Michael Leunig, actor Jack Thompson, satirist Barry Humphries, directors Neil Armfield and Nigel Jamieson, photographer Bill Henson, the Bell Shakespeare company, writer and illustrator Shaun Tan, and choreographer Rafael Bonachela and the Sydney Dance Company. 

You get a sense of the source of this impetus from Tognetti’s conversation, itself a broth of interdisciplinary references, moving merrily from an appreciation of the art of Bill Henson to the writings of Bohumil Hrabal, comparing Mozart to Shakespeare and Aphex Twin to Stockhausen, touching on visual arts, politics, surfing – of course – and gastronomy. (One of the newer pieces by Tognetti featured in The Reef is inspired by the writings of Heston Blumenthal, with whom Tognetti is also discussing a collaboration.)

Crossover explorations are central to the ACO, rather than extracurricular. “It takes us out of our comfort sphere, which is imperative. If we don’t observe and consider what’s happening in other fields of endeavour, we run the risk of becoming enclosed and cloistered. We classical musicians already run the gauntlet in the public arena with the risk of appearing entitled to the unenlightened.” 

Regarding the ACO’s rock credentials, Tognetti is sceptical about the orchestra’s power to impart a real appreciation of classical music to hardened Alice in Chains fans. He bristles at the very idea of classical music evangelism. “Beethoven has more than enough fans,” he says. “If nothing else, it broadens our own vista in this increasingly polycultural world.”

On 37th Street, Tognetti takes a tour of the DiMenna Centre, a sonically optimised classical music rehearsal and recording space. He assesses the quality of silence and reverb like a wine connoisseur sampling a syrah. In 2019, the ACO will emerge out of its bunker in Circular Quay and move into the budding arts hub at Pier 2/3; Tognetti is seeking inspiration for a concert hall and rehearsal space insulated from the sounds of “trains and party boats”. 

“We’re not sure what this move will mean,” Tognetti tells me afterward, “but at the moment we don’t have an open space for the public. We really want to make it feel like a public company, which it is, so that people can wander in and out.

“And the flow-on effects of being in an arts precinct are virtually unquantifiable. There’s a transmitted power you get being next to a dance company, or a theatre company, or a writers’ festival. First off, you form a little Chinatown of people of like-minded mentality –before you know it, you’re bouncing off each other.”

2 . New collaboration

This month, the ACO collaborates with Synergy Percussion on Cinemusica, a concert of movie-related music, among them Thomas Newman’s ethereal American Beauty score, the scything strings of Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho, and a Bartók piece associated with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

For some symphony orchestras, playing alongside a screening of Pirates of the Caribbean is a commercial imperative. Cinemusica features no film footage, but the subtextual cinematic connection is still a fast track to an audience’s emotions. “That’s what our job is. To find a portal through which to access someone’s synapses so they can have an emotional experience. To provoke the ear. Anything less and you’ve failed, in a way.”

The ACO’s calendar of commitments has elements of the trapeze and the treadmill: Tognetti and the orchestra will tour Britain and continental Europe in July and August, present a decadent program of Weimar-era music with Barry Humphries and Meow Meow in London and Boston and, in November, Tognetti will be installed at the Barbican in London as an artist in residence. This is in addition to a packed calendar of local commitments, including three concerts in Tognetti’s beloved Wollongong Town Hall.

In between, Tognetti will occasionally carve out the time to take his art into a “corner of his own” – to compose and surrender to what he calls “the relentless non-ending pressure of needing to play well”. 

“Always moving your fingers on a violin. You’ve got to practise. There are no two ways about it.”

Tognetti’s nearly 300-year-old instrument, the Carrodus, is itself shrouded in mystery, romance and general bad-assery. The master luthier who fabricated the violin in 1743, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, was the bad-boy antithesis to the family man Antonio Stradivari: del Gesù died young, was said to have enjoyed wine and “the other pleasures of the world”, and was implicated in criminal activity. 

As if imbued with the character of their maker, del Gesù’s instruments, which are fewer and rarer than Stradivari’s, have a bolder, darker, more rough-hewn sound – an “impetuousness”, says Tognetti – next to the fine, penetrating sheen of a Stradivarius. They require and reward a firmer touch. Tognetti’s particular instrument survived a car accident in the 1950s – its then-owner was less fortunate – and was gifted to Tognetti by an unnamed benefactor. 

Tognetti also entertains the theory that his instrument may have been lost at the betting tables by early 19th-century violin virtuoso and avid gambler Niccolò Paganini, whose most famous instrument, Il Cannone, was crafted from the same wood as the Carrodus. Equipped with gut strings that, as is Tognetti’s preference, authentically creak and crackle at times, the Carrodus is the perfect embodiment of the ACO spirit – shark attack or no.

“An elderly woman once came up after the show and said, ‘I knew Beethoven was a great composer but I never thought he could sound like that.’ I loved that. Revelation might come in Beethoven to someone who’s never heard Beethoven before. It might come in a Kendrick Lamar song.”

One of my suggestions for the interview was to pay a visit to a nearby dealer and restorer of rare and fine instruments, a few blocks from Tognetti’s hotel. Instead, Tognetti leads the way to a food court for a Nutella-filled crepe.

“Revelation comes in the most unlikely places,” he says.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2016 as "Strings attached".

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Darryn King is a New York-based arts writer.

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