The sound of Australia

With their mohawks, love of surfing and unusual repertoire the musicians of the Australian Chamber Orchestra stand out—but, argues Alexandra Coghlan, they are interested in music, not gimmicks
October 19, 2011
Richard Tognetti leading the ACO: their technical dynamism makes this small band the equal of Europe’s most respected orchestras

Speaking to Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, ahead of the group’s concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29th November, he tells me a story. Walking around Oxford on the orchestra’s British tour in 1989 he stopped an elderly don to ask for a good local restaurant. Detecting an accent, the man asked Tognetti what he was doing in England. On being told, he laughed. “An orchestra from Australia—that sounds like a contradiction in terms.”

It’s not quite the Jamaican bobsleigh team, but the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) has faced more than its fair share of suspicion over the years. As recently as the mid-1990s the group were advised, straight-faced, by a Japanese public relations executive that if they hoped to sell tickets they should remove two crucial letters from their name, transforming themselves into the Austrian Chamber Orchestra—this despite being described by TheTimes as “the best chamber orchestra on earth.”

Though rarely so explicit, the assumption that new world artists have no business in the hallowed halls of high culture is persistent, and nowhere more so than Australia itself. It’s surely no coincidence that it was an Australian who coined the term “cultural cringe”—a concept Australia’s own politicians and media commentators would have us believe is outmoded, but whose legacy still blights Australian films at their national box-office and sidelines home-grown performers in favour of visiting European and American companies.

Founded in 1975, the history of the ACO is a history of changing Australian attitudes. When the 25-year-old Tognetti took over the orchestra in 1989, it was a group still constructed along European lines, taking England’s Academy of St Martin in the Fields as its model. Stripping tailcoats and even chairs from his musicians, Tognetti reinvented the ensemble as an orchestra of soloists, the liberated energy of their playing mirrored in their physical freedom of movement—at last an orchestra Australian in more than just name.

Daring to tackle all repertoires in an age of specialists, absorbing the influences of the early music movement and its historically informed performance practices, along with contemporary commissions and cross-disciplinary collaborations, Tognetti and the ACO have since reconceived classical music. Although the headline-grabbing unorthodoxy of the group might attract attention (comparisons likening the orchestra to rock stars are aided by a Mohawk-sporting viola player, Tognetti’s surfer-boy style and passion for the sport, and the physicality of the group’s performance) it is the quality of their music-making that keeps their audiences growing, and their touring concert series for 2012 has already sold over 10,000 tickets.

True to both the traditions of the music itself (though Tognetti despises the term “authentic”) and their own national identity, the ACO undertakes an unusual negotiation in their performance choices. Joyously colliding high and low art, they recently explored the connection between surfing and music in their “Musica Surfica” project based on Australia’s remote King Island. During the day surfers experimented with ancient finless Hawaiian surfboards (“instruments on which they danced”) and at night Tognetti and his musicians—inspired by the same spirit of enquiry and self-expression—jammed together and performed in makeshift island venues.

The orchestra have programmed arrangements of David Bowie alongside songs by the English baroque composer Henry Purcell, they’ve played at Greenwich Village cabaret club Le Poisson Rouge and Dresden’s Lutheran heart the Frauenkirche, and collaborated with visual artists and pop singers as well as classical musicians. Their relentless touring schedule sees them performing regularly not only to Australia’s major cities but also travelling to isolated communities, bringing Paganini into the same breath as Jimi Hendrix in their education and youth work.

But for all this emphasis on the contemporary and the progressive, there’s nothing gimmicky about the ACO. In core repertoire their technical dynamism makes this smaller band—its regular forces comprise just 19 string players compared to the 40 instrumentalists most chamber orchestras employ—the equal of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, despite their stylistic differences. Justly revered among the international musical community, the ACO’s list of collaborators reads like a Who’s Who of performers; acclaimed soloists Steven Isserlis, Melvyn Tan, Imogen Cooper and Dawn Upshaw have all worked with the group, and tellingly many high profile performers return a second and third time.

For many years the ACO’s distance from European and North American centres of culture, its lack of a national tradition of classical composition and performance, were seen as detrimental. Yet what the ACO has achieved recharacterises this lack, this isolation, as opportunity.

While European musicians join a profession with a history, one that they must either embrace or reject, Australian ensembles are still actively forging their identities. Blessed with this creative freedom and an audience distanced from what Tognetti has called the “innate conservatism of Middle Europe,” they can experiment, the understanding of performers and listeners growing together.

Is there such a thing as a uniquely Australian sound or style of playing? Not yet, Tognetti acknowledges during our conversation. But there is a uniquely Australian way of life, one whose openness and irreverent energy is abundantly present in the ACO’s music-making.