Interview by Kathryn Hunyor, ArtsPeople
Richard Tognetti & Satu Vanska’s love for Japan
Richard Tognetti and Satu Vanska share a love for more than just music, surfing and each other. Their lives are also enriched by a deep love and connection to Japan.
ArtsPeople Director Kathryn Hunyor first met the pair in the early 2000s when the Australian Chamber Orchestra led a concert tour to Tokyo and she was Cultural Officer at the Australian Embassy. One of the highlights was the ACO’s concert at Kioi Hall, presented by Japan’s top-selling newspaper the Yomiuri, and attended by the then Crown Prince and Princess, now Emperor and Empress of Japan.
Twenty years later, Kathryn now works as a specialist arts consultant to the ACO on market development strategies, to secure an ongoing presence for them in Japan.
In the lead-up to their 2023 Tokyo tour, Kathryn sat down with them both to talk Japan.
You both love Japan, but your personal histories and connections to the country are very different. What does Japan mean to each of you?
Richard: Culture and nature. ‘Nurturing culture’. I haven’t seen as much of Japan as I would like, because when you’re on tour it’s rushed. I’ve been to Nagano, Kyushu, Fukuoka, Osaka, a little on the west coast. So I really can’t say that I know Japan, which I do find frustrating. I want to know Japan more deeply, and I keep saying I’m going to travel extensively there even just as a visitor, but so far it’s alluded me.
But I do know Hokkaido – at least, the south-west part – as we have an apartment in Niseko. We play concerts each time we’re there. We do this as a way to show our gratitude to the local Japanese community. I really like the kindness of the people, and the politeness. There’s a depth and nuance to people – it’s a very nuanced country.
I also like the ceremony. I think that’s what some Japanese people might like about classical music concerts – it’s the sense of ceremony. A formality and respect.
Our ACO concerts in Japan are amongst the most memorable of any performances.
Satu: Japan is my childhood home – my ‘furusato’. I was born there, grew up there. I have many homes – but Japan is the one to which I most consistently return.
My relationship with Japan has changed. It has gone from my childhood home, to a home also in my adult life. I return there professionally and have made friends through whom I have an ongoing connection all the time.
Unlike Finland, where my blood is from, I have much less to do there, other than family connections. I now live here in Manly, Australia, which is an immigrant country, so I’ve come here as a foreigner, whereas in Japan, I grew up thinking I was a blond Japanese girl. So in that sense it’s a very important part of my life.
In many ways it is the anchor culture to me.
Satu, how do you think this early experience in Japan has affected the way you relate to people? I’ve put my girls through some primary school years in Japan and the way they teach respect and other ways of treating people is very different.
Satu: Yes, actually my Japanese friends often comment on it since I’ve been an adult. They say that the way I treat people and ‘read’ Japanese people, is like a Japanese person. For example, reading the hidden messages between people. Japanese communication is very particular. There are a lot of emotional things that they may be saying without being too obvious about it – but the messages are there. I get a lot of comments about that and I do enjoy that a lot because it’s a lovely sophisticated way of communicating.
It’s a very subtle human interaction, isn’t it? And you’re picking up the cues all the time. The weaving in and out of human interaction.
Satu: Exactly. And that’s where you’re finding and tapping into other opinions – you’re not necessarily saying it directly. It’s also in the body language.
There’s a delicacy of body language that you might not have in Australia.
Satu: That’s right.
Richard, when did you first visit Japan?
Richard: 1992 with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
However, one of my earliest violin teachers was Japanese. I was doing the Suzuki method in Wollongong (NSW) with the founders of Suzuki method in Australia, Harold & Nadia Brissenden. They brought out Hiroko Sawa, who was accompanied by her husband William Primrose.
The early Suzuki teachers were like missionaries. She was sent to Wollongong!
She was a tough, fantastic teacher. In tow, came William Primrose – can you believe that? The greatest violist that ever lived! He was in Wollongong teaching privately – and I became one of his students.
Hiroko-sensei was my teacher before I went to the amazing Alice Waten and Hiroko-sensei would get William to come into the room during my lesson – and hours later, he was still giving me a lesson. I was about 9 years old at the time.
So I had this incredible connection to Japan through Hiroko-sensei. And William Primrose had all these Japanese students who would come out and stay with us in my parent’s place.
They lived about 2 minutes’ drive away from our house, so we saw them often and we had Japanese people come and do a homestay with us. So from an early age I was in contact with many Japanese people – that was my Japan connection.
What do you miss most about Japan?
Richard & Satu: Food. Nature. People. The Japanese people and Japanese culture.
Satu: It’s the sort of culture that is so immediately there. It’s immersive, the essence is immediately apparent – and with the smells all the memories quickly return. I feel ‘this is home’ by being surrounded by these things.
Richard: And the snow! The extreme winter you only get in Japan because of the amount of snow. The precipitation is extraordinary. And what comes with that – the change of the people. I love the way people and their behaviour change with the seasons. I’ve been in Hokkaido during the spring flower season which is just so different. I miss that.
What I really miss is the ‘exoticism’ of Japan. We talk a lot about ‘multiculturalism’ but what’s wrong with Japan being Japan? In the multicultural West it’s a very arrogant notion that everywhere should be multicultural. I know it’s very old-fashioned of me, but that’s what I actually love about it – the fact that Japan is very exotic.
Satu: I love doing walks in the countryside. Especially ‘henro’ (pilgrimage) in Shikoku because I was born in Shikoku. And of course Hokkaido because we go skiing there and I love the countryside of Hokkaido. I also love outside of Kyoto – Biwako and all those mountains around Kyoto are very familiar to me.
Which Japanese musicians have you collaborated with in the past?
Satu: We’ve played with harpist Ms Naoko Yoshino and guitarist Mr Yasuji Ohagi.
We have also played with the ‘honorary Japanese’ flautist Emmanuel Pahud. We’ve done many tours with him in Japan which is always lovely – we share a lot of memories.
Richard: Recently we’re also listening to Yoshinori Hayashi a wonderful Japanese electronic musician and composer. He does very interesting things and I really appreciate the depth of his music. I believe he studied under a female classical composer Mika Nozawa, so he’s classically trained but then went into electronic music. We would like to collaborate with him.
Who are your favourite Japanese composers?
Richard: Of course, Takemitsu (Toru). We’ve played his pieces on a tour to Japan (Black Rain). Also, Aiko-san introduced me to Somei Sato – there’s a beautiful piece that Aiko-san used to play. I love the way that he mixes Japanese ‘gagaku’ (ancient court music) with European classical and electronic music.
Thinking about performing in different countries – Australia, Europe, the US and Japan – how is it different?
Satu: I find that Japanese audiences want to learn. Usually before they come to the concert they’ve already done research. That’s where I think the ‘super fandom’ comes from too. There’s an excitement. I find this very unique about Japan. Whenever you do something, people have done their research.
Richard: Some of my most memorable performances have been in Japan.
The only thing that we calibrate is that we eschew the notion of ‘showmanship’. I would like to imbibe myself more in the spirit of Japan and program accordingly.
Satu taught me something about Japan years ago that’s very interesting. If you walk into a Japanese restaurant and they’re playing modern Jazz – but nothing too avant-garde (not bee-bop) – the food is going to be quite authentic. And it’s rare that you find an exception to that rule! So it’s not just audiences in concert halls either – one time we were in Hokkaido, at Chitose Airport and couldn’t fly out because of a snowstorm. We were staying in a pretty ordinary airport hotel, and went into this whiskey bar, and the barman was wearing a bow tie and playing Glenn Gould and Oscar Peterson.
Satu: And he’s got all his vinyl lined up along the wall. This is when I go “I love Japan”. And back to what you were asking before about what I miss about Japan – it’s that. The fact that in Japan you put everything into every little thing that you’re doing. You are subservient to the cause. People don’t only talk about themselves – it’s about what they’re doing. It’s always about ‘what’s bigger than me’? They take such pride in it.
Yes, no matter how big or small, important or seemingly insignificant your job, there’s a pride in doing what you do, well.
Richard & Satu: Exactly.
I’m interested in how the connection and emotional intensity between the orchestra and the audience differs in Japan, compared to Australia, Europe or the US. Is there a different sense of dialogue between the artists and audience in the hall?
Satu: It’s the silences that are so different.
Richard: At first it is a bit surprising if you’ve come from America, because they give a standing ovation at the drop of a hat! I wonder ‘do you really mean that?’. So in Japan it’s surprising at first and you think that their reservation means a lack of connection, but actually it’s the opposite. And so you start being much more aware of the silence, rather than craving the noise of the applause.
I had friends in rock’n’roll bands in the 80s and they had the same experience in Japan. Johhny Greenwood from Radiohead. Midnight Oil too.
Yes but I can imagine the response you then get is a very heartfelt one.
Satu: Also Japanese people can be very niche so you get very different tastes in Japan. They are connoisseurs.
They are certainly connoisseurs, and very passionate devotees of what they like. It’ll be so good to be back performing in Tokyo in 2023. We can finally catch up with ACO’s Japanese friends and fans.
Richard & Satu: Can’t wait.