As the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal violin, Satu Vänskä teases astonishing music from her centuries-old instrument. But away from the stage, Vänskä’s musical tastes march to a very different beat. “You know what’s really sad? You can go through your whole life without ever hearing ’90s grunge. Not to mention Bach or Mozart. Or 1970s popular music. If we want to keep our art form alive … we try to bring back music in everyday conversation, so you can encounter something and awake that curiosity.” By Kate Holden.

The high notes of ACO violinist Satu Vänskä

Satu Vänskä.
Satu Vänskä.
Credit: Ben Sullivan

Satu Vänskä was raised by strict Lutheran parents, and they taught her early about human frailty. “It’s kind of an egalitarian idea,” she explains, “a great leveller: that from the time you’re born, you’re sinful. There’s nothing you can do about it; you’re bad.”

Sitting in the sunshine of Sydney’s Circular Quay now, she shrugs. “It makes you accept the idea that people have the capacity for terrible cruelty, and then you stop being so shocked about it.” We are speaking about music as a refuge from an upsetting world, and the womb-like sanctuary of the concert hall. She sometimes worries, in these warm, wooden arks of human goodness and beauty, that they might attract violence. But, although she recanted her faith at 13 and now describes herself as a Lutheran atheist – “because you can’t undo your upbringing, you know?” – she has always known both the flaws held in the bosom of humans and the defiant solace of one of humanity’s best endeavours, the making of music.

For years as principal violin in the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and before that in European orchestras and as a soloist, Vänskä has stood on stages in windowless auditoriums and played her heart out to make beauty. Close to her at all times is the greatest Lutheran artist, J.  S. Bach. “In this world of narcissistic vulgarity everywhere,” she says in her throaty Finnish accent, “it’s quite amazing to be a musician: to pick up a violin in the morning and be able to play some Bach. You’ve got this connection; you’ve got perspective: historical perspective, aesthetic perspective, you’ve got, you know, brain perspective” – she taps her head – “it’s something that’s survived, been tested and found true.” She’s smiling. “Every moment that I’m playing the violin, or practising, or rehearsing with the orchestra, it’s like a holiday from contemporary life.” But it’s not about otherworldliness. Not one of her acclaimed colleagues in the ACO, she emphasises, is the product of the elite satin-hair-ribboned private tuition imagined by philistines: they are without exception graduates of public music education. The world of classical performance, Vänskä declares, is unfashionable not for its privilege but for its delayed gratification, its requirement for engagement, and the long labour needed to play its instruments.

That Lutheran ethos is embodied acutely in Bach’s music: “Hard work is something that’s really important; you keep at it, and you find some kind of beauty in that state of being an imperfect human, rather than it being all about ecstasy.” Instead, inner reconciliation is the reward. “Almost you get the ecstasy internally. I find something really comforting about that, because it’s somehow much more realistic. I’ve never met anyone who’s learnt an instrument who regretted it.”

Failing at something, and making a fool of yourself in maturity, says Vänskä, who learnt surfing as an adult from husband and ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti, is probably the best thing you can do for your own self-growth and your brain. “It’s not a great drama to fail, that’s what you find when you start learning.”

Vänskä, who was raised by her missionary parents in Japan, has been holding a violin since she was three and a half. Isn’t it unusual for a tot to be given one? She looks puzzled. All her colleagues in the orchestra received their first instruments before the age of six.

Now, 30-odd years later when she appears onstage with her exceptionally skilled and virtuoso colleagues, lethal in black, shoes polished, blonde hair wonderful, her strong fingers scrabbling over the strings of the 1726 “Belgiorno” Stradivarius and solos soaring, there could be few things as impressive. The tableau is immaculate, and highly pressurised. “In a way, what I don’t like about our profession, what is difficult about it, is that it’s so caught up in the idea of perfection. The music that’s been written, a lot of the time, is so perfect. We’re playing a Mozart symphony this time: it’s completely perfect. Everything in its place.” Any error will glare. “But being caught up in perfection, it is sort of boring.”

With such expectations, critics will pounce on mistakes, audiences will complain. She learnt to cope early with these stresses: her excited first performance at three, a Christmas song, emerged as screeching whines. “So,” she smiles, “that was the first of realities and disappointments in life!”

Thus, practice every day. “And that was good, just having the habit, learning. Of course there was a lot of banging doors and kicking and screaming ‘I don’t want to’; that’s what kids do. But inherently I just loved it, you know? I just loved it. I can’t remember much of it but I just remember loving the physical thing of playing violin, and I still do.” Since she was loaned the “Belgiorno” Stradivarius last year her playing is even more delicious: “You’ve gone through the work of learning to play something, learning the physicality of it, the sound. And then you’re given an amazing violin to do it with – it’s like you’ve been given heaven and the moon.”

Vänskä, today at a cafe near the ACO’s headquarters, appears relaxed and comfortable in chic flat shoes and a linen suit, her gaze candid and alert; soon to go into an afternoon of rehearsals with the orchestra, which is preparing for a concert of Mozart then an international tour. She came to work on the Manly ferry over the golden harbour from her exquisite home, quite probably after a dawn surf. At this moment, it has to be said, she appears alarmingly perfect.

“That’s just the surface!” she scoffs, startled. “But I’m very happy. I have a very happy life. I play in the most incredibly and artistically, musically and intellectually inspiring environment every day. I can’t really complain. I live in the most beautiful area in Australia, with the beach. The sun is shining… Do I feel pressure?” She looks away for a long time. “No. No, I don’t – no. I don’t want to feel pressure.” A gentle smile. “We all get older. That’s what I worry about, my legs not working, when your eyesight goes! Your hearing gets worse! I like to think positively, you know?” The orchestra tours and travels frequently; there’s promotion and shindigging with patrons, constant rehearsals. But, Vänskä says decisively, “I know how to schedule my time. And when I’m home I’m a very introverted person. I have five friends and that’s it. I don’t try to please people. I know how to be polite, of course. You have to, in this job, because we deal a lot with people who are supporting us and being generous, which we’re very thankful for. But you have to know where your personal space is and where your public life stops.”

Sound is, of course, part of both. Tognetti, a famous music nut, composes and obsesses in his home studio between rehearsals and performances. Vänskä, she confesses, will ask a taxi driver to turn the radio off. She jokes, “We musicians, we don’t like music.” But she means background drone. “I feel I don’t have enough music in my life! There’s so much that I’d like to be listening to. And it’s really nice to listen to things you’re not playing yourself, or a different repertoire. Beethoven piano sonatas, for example. It’s not your instrument, so it makes you much less critical.” Their home life is crammed with jazz, experimental electronica. And ’90s grunge.

It’s been on hiatus for a few years but Vänskä’s own directorial side project, ACO Underground, is planned to return. That’s the sweaty, loose-shirted, pub-venue incarnation of the tightly tailored orchestra of the formal stage, combining 18th-century virtuoso chamber instruments with occult electronic contemporary classical arrangements of an eclectic playlist, sweet dips into Weimar or a spectral “Tea for Two”, and Vänskä screaming Nirvana choruses into a handheld mike.

The Underground project, previously held in Sydney cellars on sweltering evenings, is the ultimate abandonment of concert hall etiquette. “It basically started with trying to introduce music to different audiences: people who come to the concert hall but who would like to drink a beer at the same time as they’re listening. I’m sure I would.” And to get them hearing classics that have bypassed the classical audience, and classical icons unknown to the young. “Because you know what’s really sad? You can go through your whole life without ever hearing ’90s grunge. Not to mention Bach or Mozart. Or 1970s popular music. If we want to keep our art form alive … we try to bring back music in everyday conversation, so you can encounter something and awake that curiosity.” She plays the Strad, of course, but has also found herself unexpectedly a vocalist, stilling audiences with her smoky renditions of Radiohead and Dietrich. It’s all part of the ACO restlessness, pushing frontiers, twisting formulas.

“I think Richard and me, we’re both a bit punk,” says Vänskä cheerfully. The punk ethos, basis for grunge in its turn, has always been founded on having a try: unpretentious adventure, as much as demolition. ACO Underground is Vänskä and the orchestra’s loudest dare. “Here we’re experimenting, with different sounds, different instruments, different concepts; that’s not something encouraged in this highly polished, highly marketed world. You can be slammed so easily on it. For not being perfect. That doesn’t bother me. Well,” she grimaces, smiling, “I try to believe it doesn’t bother me. Because we have immense fun, and it seems people respond to it.”

She continues, “And you know, there’s something quite interesting in the modern world: classical musicians and rock musicians have much more in common than anything in market-driven, capitalist popular music, commercial music. It’s so separated now. It’s like chamber music, those old rock bands. It’s now very niche, you have to go and find them.”

Indeed it’s time to find her colleagues for rehearsal, deep in the sandstone strata foundations of Circular Quay’s Bennelong Apartments. No svelte black today; runners and jeans, a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, wrinkled shirts. String instrument cases gape, their million-dollar contents being expertly tuned. “Musicians in general, we do things extremely quickly,” Vänskä says. “Rehearsals are exhausting. We’re lucky we’re incredibly collegial and we have a very inspiring leader, and everybody has a role to play; it’s such a small group. So there’s not one player who’s there being merely useless, no. We all really want to be part of it.”

She scrapes her hair into a ponytail; work mode. The chatter quietens. Tognetti sits, raises his violin, everyone’s bows descend, and the room fills with the most astonishing glow: the third movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25. The music irradiates the cluttered space, the machines of four dozen sets of fingers work furiously – everything stops. An adjustment. The sound is, relievingly, not perfect: strings squeak, some notes are flat. No one cares: this is about the piece, not the performers – not yet.

“That’s the beauty of being a musician in a group like this,” Vänskä had said, above in the sunshine. “You’re part of something bigger than yourself. I didn’t join an orchestra to be a soloist; I joined an orchestra because I wanted to be part of a collective that does something greater than I can achieve by myself. Everyone speaking that language so fluently. It’s really special.” She and her colleagues: the constant dopamine wash of effort followed by effect, working in flow, the emollient of gorgeous music. “Someone told me recently that violinists don’t get Alzheimer’s, so… You’ve got to enjoy it while your physicality lasts, while you can play.”

Rehearsing, her fine face is alert, very still. Some players whisper and joke in the breaks; she is quiet. Her feet in their sandals rest on the floor, but as the music hastens, her fingers agitating on the strings, the neat little arches rise en pointe. She looks for a moment as if she’s going to take off.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 14, 2019 as "Life on a string".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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