Soul food

In  Other People’s Words Hilary McPhee describes the long continuing struggle to establish a publishing culture that nurtures and promotes Australian writers. McPhee knew Australian writers brought unique voices, grounded in the otherness of a strange small society at the end of the world. The struggle was to convince publishers, both here and overseas, that these voices were valuable and that the reading public would take to them if only given the chance. Since 1989, Richard Tognetti, the Artistic Director and Leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), has been engaged in a similar struggle to cultivate the possibilities of Australian orchestral music.

It is not a path Tognetti expected to take. These days the ACO is celebrated around the world for combining excellence with a fresh voice. Yet the idea that he would find such success with an Australian
group must have seemed far-fetched to Tognetti when he left Sydney in the mid-1980s to study at the Berne Conservatory in Switzerland.

Like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, Richard Tognetti left highly critical of his homeland. ‘I believed Australia was a cultural desert, that there was no audience here, that not much was happening, that the real possibilities were elsewhere,’ he tells me. Nevertheless, Tognetti was surprised at the end of his studies to discover ‘a sleeping affinity with Australia’. His girlfriend (now wife) was here and he decided to give Australia a go, accepting the job of leading and directing the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Coming home, Tognetti found what he hadn’t been taught before—a tradition of Australian art with a spirit of endeavour, a boldness and freedom that is quite different from a lot of European art. (Think, for instance, of Sidney Nolan, Helen Garner, Percy Grainger and Peter Sculthorpe, and you get a sense of this.) Emboldened, he set out to have some ‘serious fun’, approaching each piece anew, rearranging string quartet and symphony pieces for chamber orchestra, commissioning new pieces from various Australian composers, and pioneering a series of daring collaborations with performers from outside classical music. For Tognetti, this has been no ‘vacuous vision to turn Australia upside down’; rather, it has been a highly disciplined search.

Observing the portraits of Melbourne painter Gabrielle Martin, Kevin Hart wrote:

I am reminded of an old saying amongst poets: ‘Good poets write two poems. Great poets write one poem.’

It is true. My favourite artists do one thing but endlessly contest what they do. That probing of subject is not undertaken to astonish the world by their breadth of vision. It is not done in order to call representation into question. It is pursued because they are called by something that evades being represented in their work. There is always more to say about the curtain’s shadow on a breakfast table, for example. It is always possible to say it more simply. It is always possible to open oneself to a mystery that can be conducted only through the simplest words.

The ACO pursue the inner vitality, the life, of the pieces they play. Musical Renegades—a recent documentary on the ACO—shows how the orchestra takes each piece apart, bar by bar, almost note by note, to see what it reveals, what it hides, what the composer wittingly and unwittingly captured. There is something here of the Gnostic search for the lost sparks of divinity that have been scattered through the world, finding the strangeness and beauty of what others passed over.

Tognetti is alive to the sacred aspects of their task. ‘Concert halls are the modern day church,’ he tells me, ‘and concerts invite us into the indulgence of believing in a universal spirit, call it God or humanity, a wonderful indulgence that relies on discipline, understanding and mutual respect.’ Still, as Kevin Hart notes, artists can never completely grasp what they seek. What they can do is keep searching further and further. It is here that the ACO’s particular form of collaboration is important.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra has been described as an ensemble of soloists. Each player is encouraged to find their voice, each plays with their own charisma and flair. And yet they are also part of a greater whole. The bringing together of difference is a challenging brief, but the rewards are great—shared discovery and the chance to learn more both about themselves as performers and about the music they play.

‘We’re incredibly hard on each other,’ states Helena Rathbone, the ACO’s principal second violinist, in Musical Renegades. ‘Collaborations are an affirmation of what you’re doing,’ expands Tognetti, ‘but they are also a terrific way of hearing honest appraisal … a critic writes from the outside and often is way off the mark in their praise and condemnation. When you play music with others they say very honest things about the connection.’

It is this honest appraisal, this hardness  on each other, that allows the orchestra to keep moving deeper into the life of music. ‘A child learns to talk, constantly grappling with speech patterns and getting appropriate criticism and support and it is possible to continue this into adulthood. It’s a pleasure to work with people in artistic life, it builds your being and there is the challenge of being a single cell in a larger organism.’ The creative impulse needs to be worked out ‘when you are in a room and feeling lonely’, continues Tognetti, but the sharing of differences can help bring the results to life.

The play of differences within the ACO is echoed by their repertoire—in their reinterpretations, their Australian commissions and most famously in their work with people from outside classical music. These are not, Tognetti emphasises, ‘gratuitous’ acts. Rather, in working with the Bell Shakespeare Company, or with Tim Freedman, Michael Leunig, Peter Garrett and Neil Finn, the ACO is bringing together strange things to see what they might teach us.

Next year the ACO will give around 120 concerts, travelling all over Australia and the rest of the world. They will play music from Australia, Europe and South America —joining an accordionist, a violinist, a pianist and a soprano to play classics, forgotten jewels and world premieres.

Having collaborated with Australian actors, pop stars and artists, next year the ACO will collaborate with Australian writers, commissioning Dorothy Porter, Michael Leunig, Helen Garner, David Malouf, composer Georges Lentz and others to create a piece based on Christ’s last words. To make their music as accessible as possible they have increased the range of their youth tickets (which are less than half the adult price) from under 26 to under 30, and plan to travel through country Australia.

The ACO are still on the journey Richard Tognetti started with them in 1989. That was a time when ‘everyone believed that nothing was possible, that there were no audiences’. Tognetti has experienced otherwise. ‘People are the same everywhere, there is more difference between individuals than between groups. There is a universal human condition, everyone laughs and cries about roughly the same things, and artists distil and exaggerate these emotions. The difficulty, the challenge, lies in getting the audience to understand what you are speaking. We have been successful in developing a wonderful audience everywhere, although we could do with some more people coming in Melbourne.’ Yet despite being embraced by audiences here and overseas, Tognetti and the ACO are somewhat isolated in Australia. ‘We’re not encouraging Australian conductors, there are no musical directors at the performing establishments, apart from me at the ACO.

It’s a shame that should be investigated. Why is this so?’

The recent events at Opera Australia provide an example of the difficulties of establishing a new voice in Australia. Last year they ‘just threw out a terrific musical director [Simone Young], who is a woman’. Though it was undoubtedly a complex situation, ‘the historical details pale into insignificance in light of the fact that they lost this person, in light of the bigger philosophical issues.’ More specifically ‘it would seem there was something in the attitude to an Australian, to a woman, an Australian woman … you can imagine an overseas director coming here and being seen as authoritarian and sticking to his guns, whereas she was seen as temperamental and out of control.’

Tognetti feels that if he hadn’t made something for himself he would never have been asked to perform by the establishment. Even now he is rarely asked to perform here. Nevertheless, he has been luckier than Simone Young, luckier too, perhaps, than Hilary McPhee whose publishing company eventually ran aground. Tognetti has learnt that his initial criticisms of Australia were not entirely true, but a distressing paradox remains. While Australia has afforded Tognetti the chance to find a voice that is bold and free, he feels that ‘if I resigned from my job at the ACO I might be forced to go overseas, as I would not be invited to do anything else here’. The work to create a culture and infrastructure that truly nurtures and promotes Australian artists is not yet complete. 

Matthew Klugman is a Melbourne writer.



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