Satu Vänskä and Richard Tognetti share a passion for music, and each other.
The ACO’s Satu Vänskä and Richard Tognetti share a passion for music, and each other.
HERE IS A COUPLE THEN, WHO LIVE, WORK AND TRAVEL TOGETHER
They are the consummate poster couple: he is the attractive, fiendishly talented violinist and long-time leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), the boy from the beaches who outgrew his wunderkind label to settle into undisputed excellence. She is the captivating Finnish violinist, also enviably accomplished with a voice that could melt the hardest of hearts. Together they live in marital bliss on Sydney’s northern beaches, perform together in Australia’s best concert halls and regularly tour with the orchestra to play prestigious international stages.
But there is one role Satu Vänskä will never invite Richard Tognetti to take on: surfing teacher. “When I came here I wanted to do something uniquely Australian, so I learnt surfing,” Vänskä recalls. “I didn’t know the ocean at all, so it was a fascinating way to get to know a country.” But if Tognetti thought he would be the learned teacher, sharing his own surfing prowess, he was wrong. “You know that thing – never teach your partner to ski? Well, it also relates to surfing,” Tognetti says ruefully. “She was introduced to surfing royalty – Derek Hynd and Tom Carroll are really good friends.” “So I learnt to surf with Derek,” Vänskä adds proudly.
But sharing the stage, the spotlight, the rush of adrenaline, the highs and lows that come hand in hand with performing, now that’s a different beast.
Vänskä and Tognetti grew up worlds apart. She was born to Finnish Lutheran missionary parents in Japan, where she first learnt to play violin aged three. Her family returned to Finland in 1989 and she continued studying, going on to perform with orchestras such as the Munich Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. She moved to Australia in 2004 after being invited to audition for the ACO and was quickly made assistant leader and principal violin. Tognetti grew up in Wollongong, on the New South Wales south coast, and was similarly gifted, studying at the Sydney Conservatorium and later the Berne Conservatory in Switzerland, before being appointed leader of the ACO at just 24. He was subsequently named artistic director, adding arrangements and compositions to his repertoire with a chamber orchestra that continues to be regarded as one of the world’s best. Collaborations with a diverse array of artists, Bill Henson, Michael Leunig and Neil Finn among them, keep things fresh and contemporary.
Here is a couple then – together for well over a decade and married for three years – who live, work and travel together. The perfect recipe for divorce, one might argue? The reality is their day-to-day lives are quite separate. Tognetti’s job is as much about managing people while Vänskä’s is as a member of the tight-knit orchestra. “I think we’re very good at switching off quickly and returning to being a couple,” Vänskä says. Tognetti points out that Vänskä is “just great at being independent, an important part of any relationship” but key to their success must surely be that the masonic temple they call home is separated into male and female quarters. “I’ve got upstairs,” nods Vänskä. “At home to have your own space is important. But other than that we’re quite happy to spend all our time together.”
The truth of it is they gain a huge amount of satisfaction from being in the company of another consummate creative. “We like to perform together, but there’s also a comfort in being with someone who is so brilliant at what they do, you trust their judgement,” Vänskä says. “I’d much rather have her on stage being workmanlike than sitting in the audience judging me,” adds Tognetti.
Vänskä may play second fiddle to Tognetti from a hierarchical point of view, but if there’s one area where she is the undisputed leader it is ACO Underground, a smaller ensemble that takes chamber music to nightclubs, steamy bars, even a Slovenian former porn theatre. Conceived by Vänskä, it fuses Bach with Nirvana, Beethoven with Radiohead, and features regular collaborators Jim Moginie from Midnight Oil, Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
“It gives us the opportunity to present ‘our’ music, playing what you might call classical music in a way that’s much more accessible to people who might never have been to a concert before, younger audiences, giving them access to this rich and wonderful music,” Vänskä says. “It’s her gig, but I get to write and arrange some songs and I looove being asked to do it,” enthuses Tognetti. “And I love the less pressured atmosphere. The rock’n’roll world means [it’s forgiven] if you play a wrong note or even fuck up a phrase or a whole song.”
It was through ACO Underground that Vänskä also discovered her voice, as Tognetti recounts: “I was writing some music and needed a vocalist and knew Satu would sound a million times better than me: my voice is excruciating. So I asked her to sing a couple of notes and I thought: ‘Wow, that sounded pretty good.’ The rest is history.”
Vänskä’s haunting voice went on to feature in The Glide, a multimedia performance combining ocean and surfing footage by photographer Jon Frank with music performed by the ACO. It inspired Musica Surfica, the 2008 documentary film Tognetti cocreated, which won various awards. Tognetti’s first foray into film had been co-composing the score and teaching Russell Crowe violin for Peter Weir’s 2003 movie Master and Commander. Next came The Reef, a multimedia production and a fresh take on music, surfing and film that toured Australia and the world.
Tognetti has now taken it one step further again, with the new Australian film Mountain. Three and a half years in the making, it brings together local BAFTA-nominated Sherpa director Jennifer Peedom, cinematographer and professional mountaineer Renan Ozturk, best-selling author Robert Macfarlane, narrator Willem Dafoe and Tognetti’s score, which drives much of the film. The film explores the human obsession with conquering nature and pushing themselves to the limits, often at risk of death or injury.
It is an obsession this couple can appreciate, in more ways than one. Take surfing, for example. “Surfing is my life. It’s like heroin, except it’s so good for you,” says Tognetti. “It’s an amazing feeling, when you are alive on the ocean. I think we both live off those really big contrasts,” adds Vänskä. Much like live performance. “The silence of the concert hall … you’re a trapeze artist when you’re a violinist, aren’t you?” she reflects. “Things happen all the time – strings slip, you come in at slightly the wrong place,” concurs Tognetti. “Or your husband, who is your colleague, accidentally has his pants tucked into his socks. That’s when the wife in me comes out,” says Vänskä with a laugh, lightening the mood.
And there we have it, marital harmony.