Satu Vänskä is the Australian Chamber Orchestra's principal violinist and one of the only guardians of a Stradivarius Violin in Australia. Born to Finnish Missionaries in Japan, Satu's life has spanned continents and cultures. Beginning violin lessons at age three, her exceptional talent soon took her to Germany where she played for the Munich Philharmonic orchestra alongside some of the most talented musicians in the world. When an opportunity arose to join the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Satu boarded a flight for Sydney and she now calls Manly beach home. A self professed ocean lover, Satu's husband Richard Tognetti has described her as "possibly the best Finnish female violinist surfer in Sydney." We chat with Satu about the global language of music, creative life in Sydney and some of her favorite places.
On your first encounter with the violin
My parents were missionaries in Japan, so music was a big part of life with church hymns. I think both my parents could have been musicians if they had been born into different circumstances; both my grandfathers were fiddlers. When I was one we visited Finland, of course I don’t remember it, but I was told that I saw a violin that belonged to my cousin. I kept on saying ‘I want the violin, I want the violin’ and by the time I was three and a half, my parents finally said, ‘Well, ok, we’ll give you a violin, and we’ll put you in lessons, but you’ve got to do it properly.’
On the power of learning an instrument at a young age
There is something about the connection with music when you give an instrument like a violin to a young child, the way it fires up your brain. It is so creative, so abstract. You just hear these noises and sounds, and you sing and then translate it to your fingers. You can suddenly play these songs with your hands and make the sound yourself. In that sense, playing an instrument like a violin is extremely rewarding for a child, as painful as it is for the people around you, listening to the first attempts. My younger sister’s also a violinist, and my other siblings all started to play an instrument because my parents thought if they could give one thing to their children, it is the gift of learning an instrument.
On the global language of music
I grew up bilingually. At home, we spoke Finnish, but then we were living in rural Japan. I was in this totally dual lingual situation. Music, of course, was the language that kept going in my life from the beginning until now. Because music is a language, you’ve got something in common with people, no matter where you come from — if you’re playing music, that’s the language that you’re speaking. Later on in life, for example, when I moved to Finland as a teenager, it was a great connector to make friends. Then later when I lived in Germany, you have all these student friends from all over the world, but it’s the music that connects us because we’ve all grown up with that and we know the repertoire. There’s something quite beautiful about that.
On moving to Finland from Japan at the age of 10
It was a culture shock. I don’t know what it would be called if you are an alien in your own country, but that’s very much how I felt. That’s how I actually still feel in Finland; the long winter goes for seven months. The cold is relatively easy to deal with, but it’s the darkness that really gets you if you weren’t born into it. It’s almost unthinkable. For me, it was really difficult. At that time, Finland started to receive a lot of refugees from African countries, especially Somalia. My mum likes to remind me that the Somalian kids were saying, ‘this country doesn’t have a sun!’ I said to my mum, ‘I totally agree with the Somalian kids.’ In a way, I felt more comradeship with them than I felt with the Finnish kids because that darkness just never left me.
My parents thought if they could give one thing to their children, it is the gift of learning an instrument.
On what brought you to Sydney
I was in Munich for over seven years, quite a long time. I studied and then I also worked. I played in the main orchestra of the Munich Philharmonic, so I had the opportunity to get to know all the big orchestra repertoire. I always felt that I wanted to be part of something exciting. The idea of being in a big German orchestra with lots of old guys just sitting there in their tails… I wanted to be in something that’s part of the 21st century. The ACO had a reputation in Europe already, and they happened to have a job come up. I applied and sent the tape, did the audition, and the next day they rang me and asked ‘Would you like to come to Australia in January for a three-month probation?’ I said, ‘Sure. I’m there; I’m off!’ I loved the idea that it was far away. For me, it was: ‘Yay, an adventure — go somewhere’.
On arriving in Sydney for the first time
I got to Sydney, and this sounds really strange, but I think a lot of people have this feeling when they land in Sydney for the first time — I landed, saw the sky, smelled the air, and I thought, ‘I’m home’. This is me. I love this. And I’ve felt like that ever since. It was physical. It was a tactile experience. You feel it in your bones somehow. The southern hemisphere is a very powerful place.
On finding connection in the surfing community
The first thing for me when I came here, was that if I’m going to be in Sydney, I want to do something you can only do here because otherwise, I may as well be living in London or Paris. I want to do something unique to Sydney, and I wanted to live on the beach. I met a man called Derek Hynd through Richard — he was my surfing teacher, and he took me around the Northern Beaches. We’d go surf at North Avalon beach, Newport beach, and I’d hear the surfing stories and meet the people. It’s a subculture in Australia and has, for me, been an important part of the experience.There’s something about the ocean — you just jump in and your day is transformed.
On similarities between surfing and music
They both give you adrenalin and that fuzzy feeling; it’s the ultimate delayed gratification. With the ocean, you’re always dealing with something much larger than yourself. Same with music, you’re a part of this big thing that will continue after you’re gone. Especially having an instrument that reminds me of mortality, you know, because the instrument will survive me. There’s that similarity with surfing and music because you are taking part in nature and something larger than yourself — it’s very rewarding and puts things into perspective.
Because music is a language, you’ve got something in common with people, no matter where you come from — if you’re playing music, that’s the language that you’re speaking.
On the magic of playing a Stradivarius violin
They are objects of immense value, but they are tools for violinists. For a young musician, with skill, to be able to upgrade to an old Italian instrument, it really opens up doors to your sound and expression. It’s like if you are an author and until now you’ve only been allowed to use 250 words, then you’re suddenly given the whole dictionary. There’s a lot more variety, colour, and personality in the instrument that grows you as a musician.
On the ethos behind the ACO Underground
I always thought I’d like to be an all-round musician. I love being a violinist, but really, you’re a musician. It’s actually healthy for a musician to see if you can take your musicianship to different things; one helps the other. We wanted to set the concert experience that is not in a concert hall. That’s more in a pub or a live music venue. So, it’s casual, you can drink a beer whilst you listen to music, you don’t have to worry about if you’re clapping. We wanted to create our own genre of music, and we still don’t know what it is because some of it is Punk, some of it is Electronica — the combination of acoustic instruments with electronic components.
It’s so important to be experimenting. What really scares me in the world of music, especially classical music, is stagnation.
On traveling as a musician and the little things
Musicians, all of us, make our living by traveling from town to town, country to country, to play concerts. We’re there for one night, next day, boom, we’re off. When we are touring internationally, it’s pretty much the same — one day you’re in Vienna, next London, and let’s put it this way, there’s not that much space for creativity. But you learn to embrace the small things in life like the window seats on a plane or a good night’s sleep, and that is what I miss in this pandemic. When you can’t travel the unexpected things don’t happen to you as much. For example, perhaps you’re walking in London, and you bump into someone you know, one thing leads to the other, and it’s a big adventure. I love adventures.
On finding creativity in absence
I have to say the most creative and beautiful thing about travel is when you go to really remote places like Western Australia, to places like Ningaloo Reef. We’ve gone to Gnaraloo in Western Australia quite a few times. They’re almost spiritual experiences being in a place like that, or a place like King Island is the most luxurious experience, because when you go to a place where there’s absolutely nothing, all you have is nature, the desert, the ocean, and the luxuries that come with that.
I landed, saw the sky, smelled the air, and I thought, I’m home. This is me. I love this. And I’ve felt like that ever since. It was physical. It was a tactile experience.
On your favourite neighbourhoods in Sydney
We lived in Darlinghurst back in the day, and I have to say I love that whole urban area. Sydney still has something that’s slightly gritty to it, and I hope it never loses it completely. What I love about Sydney is the smells, especially around Darlinghurst and Paddington, all the flowers, and the Jacarandas. It’s just stunning everywhere you look, especially the little laneways of Darlinghurst. I love the architecture of the terrace houses around Redfern and Newtown areas in Sydney — It’s unique. And I love Chinatown and Paddy’s Markets.
Because I grew up in Asia, having access to Asian food in Sydney that’s so excellent and available is a great gift.
On sounds unique to Sydney
The Sydney harbor ferries and kookaburras. There are also many birds that sound completely unique to Australia, like a noisy miner.
On exploring Sydney’s history
I recently went to the New South Wales State Library and looked at the permanent exhibition of the artworks. There’s a lot of pictures of Sydney from colonial times, such as George Street and Bennelong — I’m very interested in Sydney’s history.
On recommendations to a friend visiting Sydney for one day
They should catch the ferry to Manly beach first and have a swim. Then walk around North Head and go to Shelly Beach — it’s just beautiful. Maybe take a surfing lesson at Manly beach, and then catch the ferry back via the quarantine station and check that out, or catch the ferry to Watsons Bay, walk through the eastern suburbs to the city, go to Chinatown and have dinner at a restaurant called Golden Century. After that go and see a show at the Old 505 Theatre and listen to some world-class jazz.
With the ocean, you’re always dealing with something much larger than yourself. Same with music, you’re a part of this big thing that will continue after you’re gone.
On music to travel with
I listen to a lot of jazz. What I always have on my phone is a pianist called Wilhelm Kempff playing the Beethoven piano sonatas. I like listening to classical music like that in the most bizarre locations where it would have never been heard — We went to Sumba last year in Indonesia, and I listened to it on a boat. I love listening to Charlie Parker, Blossom Dearie, Miles Davis, those kinds of classics.
On window seat or aisle
Window seat. You’re cocooned there and can just put your head on the side and fall asleep. I love seeing the skies from the plane.
On your next international flight
I think that my first flight post pandemic will be to Japan.
On up-and-coming projects you’re excited about
In February, we’ll be touring and playing concerts in New South Wales. It will be the same program that we had planned to perform in March this year, but it was canceled for obvious reasons. We are starting the year with that particular program because it’s Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa, a piece for two violins and a string orchestra. A very powerful piece of music that I’m performing with Richard, together on stage.
ACO will perform Tabula Rasa, their first concert series for the 2021 Season from 8-14 February 2021, aco.com.au
On Sydney in one word
food and drink
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