Hailed as one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world, the Australian Chamber Orchestra is performing Friday night in Bailey Hall at 8 p.m. before heading to Carnegie Hall as part of their North American tour. The concert features a diverse group of composers, including the works of Anton Webern, George Crumb, Arnold Schönberg, Schubert and Schumann. The Sun had the opportunity to chat with Richard Tognetti, the ACO’s first violinist and Artistic Director since 1989.
The Sun: How did you start playing the violin?
Richard Tognetti: I am from a small town in Australia, and playing the violin wasn’t exactly normal. What transpired was that a local gentleman got a scholarship to go to Japan to study this strange, then fairly new method of teaching kids to play the violin and other instruments, called the Suzuki method. Then he came back and inaugurated this teaching method in quite a few schools and it just stuck with me. I just loved it from the first lesson.
Sun: Did you know immediately that you wanted to be a violinist?
R.T.: I can’t remember not wanting to be — let’s put it like that — after that first lesson.
Sun: Describe Friday’s program. Is there a common theme between such diverse composers?
R.T.: George Crumb and Anton Webern, the genesis of that comes from Crumb himself. I rang [Crumb] many years ago; I had the honor of being able to speak with him and asked the composer if he minded if I made an arrangement of his string quartet Black Angels for string orchestra. He obliged and wished me luck. We performed it around the place. Then we were invited to Ojai Music Festival in Southern California last year, and we knew he was going to be in attendance. The idea struck me that we could present part of his Black Angels quartet, mixed in a combustible and synergistic kind of way, with a very similar composer from the Second Viennese School, Anton Webern (1883-1945). I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to get these textures and try to combine them so that they kind of ignite in some way?” They’re not fighting with each other, but they certainly create tension. Both of them arguably work in miniatures. I say arguably with George Crumb because I don’t think he deliberately wrote miniatures like Webern. Also, they’re textural geniuses. I thought, “Well, this would be in the very least amusing and interesting.” So we tried it out in front of [Crumb], and he loved it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s as great as we could get. We’ve played it now in Chicago and Toronto and are looking forward to playing it at Cornell.
Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht speaks for itself and of course sings and resonates perfectly with Webern. That’s a clear line. So much tension builds from the Webern and Crumb that sort of a deafening silence comes out of it. When we go into Maria Schneider’s piece, the first words sung by the incandescent Dawn Upshaw are perfectly still. It’s as though Maria had written this opening with the notion of Webern and Crumb in mind. Of course she hadn’t; it’s just a coincidence. There’s a sweetness that is not present in the Webern and Crumb that creates a relief. There’s an American-ness that somehow comes out of the Crumb that goes into the Schneider. That’s the logic behind this rather strange, daring, ultimately fulfilling program, and of course, I hope that the audience comes along too.
The songs by Schumann, Brahms and Schubert are sort of like a homecoming after the Schneider. Then [Dawn Upshaw] comes out and sings these beautiful and affecting, old school Germanic love songs with hidden messages and exquisite harmonies that we all know and love. Then we launch into the stratosphere with Verklärte Nacht.
Sun: How do you balance being a performer, composer and Artistic Director of the ACO?
R.T.: By working 29-hour days. It is sometimes difficult and sometimes I want to go lock myself up to go compose and practice. Being a performer, you’ve got to tread the boards, unless you can cut yourself off from the world and just be a recording artist.
Sun: What direction do you plan to take the ACO as Artistic Director?
R.T.: It’s the age of the hybrid. 20 years ago, what I was doing was considered a bit not de rigeur when it comes to the performance of early music. I always felt that it was appropriate and suitable to mix modern instruments with old instruments and so therefore I wasn’t a purist about an approach to early music. In Europe it’s very big, this early interpretation and use of early instruments. In America, it’s not, although you have some fantastic musicologists. Australia, for some reason, very early on imbued with these stylistic notions.
Occasionally, I would play with a so-called early instrument orchestra, but I preferred to mix and match. Now it’s the age of the hybrid. So I want to continue this trajectory. I use gut strings. My violin is made in 1743, it’s not in the original set-up, but whenever we play with winds, I try to make sure that they are so-called early instruments. This is a deeply philosophical issue. What is an early music interpretation anyway? Is it from the original performance? Is it some fantasy of what the composer intended? Is it once the performance is kind of settled and you know if the composer was around, that they would have been happy with it? Or is it an amalgam of all those things? Which it most possibly is. Or is it just a marketing device? Or does it have nothing to do with fidelity and just a completely new way at looking at things? As soon as people start using the word “authentic,” I clam up. For example, in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, they originally used quite different instruments to what we use today. In the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s, they had a range of brass instruments in both London and New York because there weren’t enough horns, trombones and trumpets. So they used a keyed bugle instead of a trumpet — I mean what the hell is that now? Do you go back to 1820? Do you go back to the original performance? This is a quite long-winded answer, but the hybrid approach is the most valid for what we do. So I will continue on that trajectory of exploring different ways of presenting music with video, which I very much like. And again we enter into murky philosophical issues; is it media? Is it a development of opera? For the sanity of the orchestra, which has an impact on the artistic trajectory, I want to try to get the orchestra off the one-night stands and more involved in residencies.
Sun: How do you find audiences in Australia and the United States, versus anywhere else you go?
R.T.: I actually think that American audiences can be more gregarious at the end if they like something. The English reserve does pervade the audiences in Australia more. I think there is more of a difference from city to city than country to country. It depends on the size of the hall and the acoustics. I go without prejudice and I relish playing to people who have never heard a classical music concert before. One of the feelings is that they have transcended themselves as a result.
Sun: What projects are you working on?
R.T.: I’m working on a project called The Reef. It’s a work in progress, but this project involves going to a really isolated part of Australia where the desert meets the sea. It involves exotic indigenous music and new compositions that reflect young children’s stories.
Sun: As many symphony orchestras — previously considered the pillars of classical music — are now struggling, with some declaring bankruptcy, where do you see chamber orchestras heading?
R.T.: We’re not an over-funded symphony orchestra on the government drip. Unless we sell tickets, we don’t exist; simple as that. I’ll add a little caveat there that I think it makes you a bit more realistic about art in the modern world. To expect to be on the government drip and that you can play to three people, and that you can get enough money to pay musicians is unfair, and unfair to the taxpayer.
Because we’re smaller, it’s much easier to cope. Chamber orchestras are more of a modern thing. They are a very modern notion. Chamber orchestra didn’t exist till recently. It’s necessary for us to keep on reinventing ourselves, looking at new repertoire and new ways of presenting music, not to be stuffy and be perceived as elitist. I think out of this comes new ways of doing things. Art must evolve. It can’t be just stuck in a museum.
Sun: Silly question, what was it like teaching Russell Crowe the violin for his movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World?
R.T.: Wonderful experience. He was an old friend and he was a terrific student.
Sun: Do you have anything else you’d like to say?
R.T.: I can’t wait to be at Cornell.