The director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra is keen to expand its repertoire far beyond the purely classical realm, writes Christopher Morley.
To say Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, is an eclectic mix of a musician is quite an understatement. Yes, the Australian is a violinist, conductor and composer (the combination is not so unusual), but in his violinist role he performs on period, modern and electric instruments in a wide range of styles.
As a composer his film credits include several surfing productions, and he has collaborated with colleagues from a whole spectrum of art forms.
Quite a mixture, I observe as we begin our conversation from the famous Beare’s violin shop near London’s Wigmore Hall, where Richard is bow-browsing.
“Look, in the main thrust of what I do, playing what essentially we call ‘classical’ music in a chamber music, the fact of the matter is that there is not that much repertoire for a chamber orchestra.
“So that’s why I was forced to be original, if you like, and expand the repertoire. I recently put this massive project on – 42,000 years’ history of music, and we played excerpts, occasionally whole pieces, and there were almost 30 works over three hours, going from our very own indigenous Australian music all the way up to the latest Lady GaGa pop-song, all without any kind of prejudice.
“And what amazed me was the richness and variety and depth of what human beings have created in the 20th going into the 21st century – so contemporary music is astonishing.”
Here in the Old Country we still have little knowledge of Australian composers. Probably the veteran Peter Sculthorpe is the best known, but the younger generation seems to remain under-represented. Does Richard see himself as some kind of apostle for his contemporaries?
“Well, look, we just accept engagements if we’re free, you can’t really do more than that in a way. But the composer Brett Dean is very well represented. The difference in the two, between Peter and Brett, is that you can really see Sculthorpe in the line of Sibelius – and I’m not passing a qualitative judgement here – and Janacek, and any nationalist composer, whether they’re deliberately or accidental, or whatever.
“Whereas I’d argue that Brett is an international voice.
“So perhaps that’s why one has to remind oneself that Brett is an Australian.”
Richard Tognetti and his ACO do a tremendous amount of touring overseas, let alone covering their own vast country, and he is emphatic that “this is an imperative.”
On Sunday afternoon Symphony Hall sees the launch of a huge European tour from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, “especially the first four days: Birmingham, London, Vienna and then Munich. Let’s hope the airlines behave.”
The ACO has played Symphony Hall in the past, and I seem to remember the musicians, apart, obviously, from the cellists, played standing up.
“We still do that, absolutely,” recalls Richard. “As in the tradition of Brahms’ Meiningen Orchestra.
“There are quite a few orchestras now who stand. I always did it because I always enjoy just the liberating feeling of standing.”
Richard always carries his violin around with him, to cram in practising whenever he can. Sakari Oramo, previous music director of the CBSO, used to do the same, mention of which leads Richard to pay tribute to the number of Finnish musicians who have performed with him. “I know all about the music education system in Finland, and I think that’s why so many violinist/conductors come from Finland.”
Talk of violins brings us to a consideration of the number of fabulous, extremely valuable string instruments played by some lucky members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
“We have a fine Guarneri del Gesu of 1743, which I play on loan from a private Australian benefactor, we have a Stradivarius, we have a Guarneri cello, we have a Guadagnini violin.
“You know, even though times are really tough, people who have taken their money out of the stock-market, they were putting it into gold, but I believe that’s plunged now as well.
“But there is one thing – buying instruments. It will always be a decreasing supply and increasing demand. You know, that’s what we try and tell people.
“Australia was a mining boom, making quite a bit of money, so people wanted something of value and are buying instruments which they kindly loan to us.”
We conclude with a discussion of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s visit to Symphony Hall on Sunday. “We look forward to playing,” says Richard, “and I’m sorry we’re not playing any Australian music!”
The programme is an attractive one: two Mozart symphonies (Nos.29 and 40), Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, and the ebullient Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Freddy Kempf and Scandinavian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth the soloists; a big programme.
“Massive!”, smiles Richard.
* Richard Tognetti directs the Australian Chamber Orchestra at Symphony Hall on Sunday (November 27, 3pm). Details at www.thsh.co.uk.