As the Australian Chamber Orchestra prepares to celebrate artistic director Richard Tognetti’s incredible three-decade stint in the top job, with a week-long program of digital events mid-June, he seems more than a little bemused by his longevity when he chats to Time Out.
“The thing is, it just happened so quickly,” he says. “It happened out of my control. I didn’t mean it! People would ask me at the very beginning, ‘How long do you think you’ll last?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, five years. What? Five years is just gone?’ There are just so many things to do. And, of course, this moment isn’t the time to change jobs, is it?”
Unusually for a performer, composer and director working in an art form that is often viewed as old fashioned and conservative, he has actively embraced the new, leaping outside of classical bounds by collaborating with electronic musicians and crossover artists. In the process, he's reached new audiences with a fresh perspective on classical music. He’s overseen the creation of striking film projects including Mountain, which screened at the Opera House during the Sydney Film Festival in 2017 to great acclaim. The digital celebration of his work will wrap on World Music Day, Sunday, June 21, with the online premiere of that spectacular performance.
Appointed in 1990, the Wollongong native was viewed as something of an enfant terrible and a shot in the arm for Australia's classical status quo. Thirty years on, now something of an elder statesman of the classical scene, he’s still unapologetically irreverent. When asked about savage funding cuts to the arts, he at first appears sanguine. “I’m not into beating up the government to get their attention,” he says, adding, “There is one thing that I think we could work on, and that is the role of culture and art in this country, and how it should be looked at as part of the ecology and essential fabric. It’s an essential service.”
Good art, he argues, is everywhere. And this is where he gets a sly dig in. “Every time our prime minister, who is doing a terrific job, obviously got his hands burned in the bush fires, you know every time he claps his hands at a Hill Song ceremony or walks past paintings at Parliament House, that’s art.”
With the federal arts ministry missing in action (folded into infrastructure), he wonders if the “feds” are embarrassed to talk about the arts, “in case they turn some voters off? But every voter is surrounded by art. Every time you turn on Netflix, you’re listening to music. And a lot of that is orchestral. Every time your kid fires up a video game, they’re going to be listening to the work of a live orchestra. And I think that this message should get through. We’re not even being acknowledged by the feds. It would just be great if the Prime Minister turned up to something.”
There have been so many highlights across the years, from ACO's first major rave review overseas, published in The Times in 1982, which marked the beginning of an enduringly rich partnership with London's Barbican Centre, to the launch of the orchestra's first film, Musica Surfica, in 2007. That project embraced Tognetti's other great love, surfing. “It cost us $25,000 to make and we toured it up and down the coast of Australia. We filmed it on King Island, and it was such an extraordinary bunch of people, surfers from all sorts of different walks of life getting together.”
The ACO accompanied Musica Surfica live for an audience of 500 kids in the small town of Bellingen and the rapturous response proved to Tognetti the importance of such outreach. “The capacity was 200, yet 500 turned up. As a result, they formed the Bellingen Youth Orchestra. And yeah, we felt that we had a direct impact in the community.”
Cultivating younger listeners has always been a prime motivation for Tognetti; relying on an ageing audience – the typical demographic for classical music concerts – is unwise, he suggests. “Let me say it tongue in cheek, in quotation marks, but a lot of orchestras should really be asking hard questions about their survival at the moment. I mean, you really want to get on playing the same old repertoire, the same old way, with your same old attitudes, on taxpayers money? I don't think so. It’s time to reassess, and so we’re doing that all the time.”
Concerns like this that have led him to seek out maverick musicians of a similar ilk to himself, over the past three decades. Today, the orchestra's ranks – which includes his wife, violin virtuoso Satu Vänskä – is a crack squad of classical innovators. Being in such creatively-aligned company has helped the years fly by, he admits. “At first it was just about getting the orchestra into a state that I felt happy with. Now the orchestra is exemplary. You can’t take your eyes off, but having said that, my colleagues are amazing. I shouldn’t use those sorts of words, they’re empty, but we’re on the same ticket. Creating challenges outside of the classical repertoire, and working with people who aren’t in the classical music world. That’s what whets my appetite.”
Wanna hear what the ACO can do? Tune in and hear all about their digital homecasts here.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.