Aussie Rules: The Australian Chamber Orchestra
Proud Australian party animal and pop fan Richard Tognetti thinks classical music should be explosive. Time Out stands well back
The actor Russell Crowe tells of how, at a party, his friend the Australian violinist Richard Tognetti played some solo Rachmaninov on a Stradivarius, then handed him the instrument before climbing up a cliff to pick up an electric violin, shred some Hendrix, smash the instrument and leap fully clothed into a swimming pool. When presented with the anecdote, Tognetti listens with a boyish grin and then shakes his head. 'It wasn't a Strad,' he says, amused at the memory.
The winsome 46-year-old musician has been the leader and artistic director of the Sydney-based Australian Chamber Orchestra since 1989. Something of a wild child and high school drop-out, he found his metier in the violin, ruthlessly shaping the ACO into a thrilling, world-class ensemble and personally going on to win awards for his solo Bach recordings. It was a shrewd appointment, for Tognetti is a selfconfessed quintessential Australian - laid-back, unpretentious, refreshingly candid and an obsessive surfer. He is also fiercely proud of his country and its culture, particularly the music (the ACO has played over 250 works by nearly a hundred Australian composers). 'You know it has been amazing watching composers develop over 20 years,' he enthuses. 'The only way they can develop is if they write music and get it heard… get to sharpen their tools on a live orchestra. And this is an amazing time. People still claim they don't like contemporary music, but we are surrounded by it and there is amazing music going on. To deny yourself that is a form of cultural insanity.'
Tognetti slouches in his hotel armchair, looking suitably casual in
jeans, crumpled blue shirt and green trainers. As one of Australia's leading cultural ambassadors, he appears to know all the others, notably Crowe, whom he taught to play violin for the film 'Master and Commander', and comedian Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everidge). 'I am a very close friend and his biggest fan,' he reveals
with a slightly embarrassed giggle. And which character does Humphries usually inhabit at his dinner parties? 'Barry Humphries the incredibly erudite, articulate, well-informed, highly educated, autodidact Australian,' he replies proudly.
The ACO has a core of 17 international string players, who are
conspicuous in that they perform standing. It is a young and good-looking outfit, and though Tognetti jokes that their appearance is down to plastic surgery, he is keen to assure that if members needed to sit they could and that there is 'no eugenics going on'. The outfit is playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday, presenting Tognetti's arrangement of Grieg's String Quartet, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No 1 (with Simon Trpceski) and Mozart's Symphony No 40. For the final piece, the string ensemble will be embellished with the required brass, winds and percussion.
The players boast an exceptional collection of exquisite period instruments. Superstitious about not discussing tales of stolen and dropped violins, Tognetti becomes hushed and mystical about the provenance of his own 1743 instrument. 'It is a Guaneri del Ges˘. The last violinist to play it - who, unlike me, had the honour of owning it - was in a car accident… and the violin survived but he didn't.'
Based in Sydney, the ACO travels the length and breadth of Australia.
A recent domestic tour called into Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne,
Perth, Sydney and… Wollongong. Hang on, Wollongong! Isn't that
where he is from? He enjoys the idea that he has contrived to play there even though it is unknown to me. 'Wollongong is a town, which is not so tiny, just out of Sydney,' he explains with a smile. 'And it suffers like a lot of towns by being too close to Sydney. Not much comes and they don't put much on themselves, so I thought it was necessary to go and fly the flag.'
For some musicians, having a string ensemble of just 17 might be
regarded as limiting, but not for Tognetti. 'It is a restriction that
creates a liberation,' he explains. 'If you are a symphony orchestra you can always access five trumpets and do Mahler symphonies. On the other hand, you are not forced to be original and that is the beauty of the chamber orchestra - I am forced to really think outside the box.'
On the question as to whether he is first among equals or the conductor with violin, the answer is clear. 'Look, I am the director,' he asserts, revealing a steely core. 'Somebody's got to make decisions and study the score and if you've got 17 people claiming we should all play it this way or that way, there is not enough time.
If someone has a strong idea about something I'll try it out, but I am the constant, I have been there the longest, it's my job. It's an expensive baton, let's put it like that.'
Although he always uses gut strings, Tognetti has no time for 'historically informed' playing; he is just interested in creating an engaging sound and is happy to use amplification if it improves the
acoustic of 'the sacrosanct space of the concert hall'. He also professes an admiration for pop music. 'A lot of classical music is schmaltz,' he says dismissively. 'I don't think it is as serious as a lot of pop music. The first time you hear a Beethoven symphony it really knocks your socks off; by the hundredth time you are comparing
recordings. I get frustrated with myself when I start doing that. It
should always be explosive in some form, otherwise it becomes comfort music. We have classical musicians calling pop music flippant. Come on, so much of classical music is flippant - the la-di-da set wanting to have comfort music.'
That said, he has no time for commercial crossover - dressing up classical to look like something it isn't. 'Yeah, like Bond [glamorous
female crossover quartet]. I was asked about them and I said “I like my pornography a bit harder.” If you want sex, pop music is the perfect forum. I don't think you need to sex up classical music. Pop should be slightly nasty and dirty; keep it like that, I like it like that; I like punk to be quasi-political, anarchistic and rebellious; and I like my shut-up-andlisten fine-art classical music to be somewhat reverential - so you can sit there and listen to just sounds.'
The Australian Chamber Orchestra plays at Queen Elizabeth Hall, as part of the Shell International series, on Tue Nov 29, 2011. www.southbankcentre.co.uk