Her musical talent helped her escape Finland. Now she’s making waves here

By Amanda Hooton

Satu Vänskä at Bells Beach in 2008 with (from left) ACO artistic director (and now husband) Richard Tognetti and surfer Derek Hynd. Surfing was one of the first things she embraced in Australia, along with the sun: “It felt like it never stopped shining – every day, for years!”Credit: COURTESY OF SATU VÄNSKÄ

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WHAT’S YOUR ultimate surf music? “1 Giant Leap’s 2002 debut album: In 2004, a surf movie called Blue Horizon was in the cinemas, which my friend Derek Hynd was involved in. I had only started learning to surf a month earlier and it was the first movie I saw in Australia. I loved listening to this album on the long bus ride on warm sunny afternoons between Sydney’s surf breaks and the city. It sounded so free and timelessly surfy.”

About 10 years ago, Satu Vänskä went surfing with her partner Richard Tognetti and surf legend Derek Hynd. Vänskä is fine-boned and elegant, and looks more suited to a European salon than a surf break – and on this occasion they were at Margaret River, a region renowned not for elegance but for the mass and heaviness of its wave. “It’s a big surf location even when it’s moderate,” says Hynd, a laconic ex-world no. 7, “and that day there were these occasional very deep sets coming in. I saw one coming – double overhead, swinging in – and I tried to send Satu further round.” He pauses, and I wonder how much time there was for conversation out there in the deep green heave. “Satu rides this Hawaiian gun board – very long and sleek, as befits her style. It’s a 10-foot board, and I remember it was only half the height of the waves. Anyhow, the major piece of the set went right over the top of her, and she disappeared.” Another thoughtful pause. “She was in the shallowest water, right over the reef. I remember Richard and I sitting there for quite a while. But she came up like a champion.”

This isn’t Vänskä’s only surfing war story. There was a day, for instance, that she was hit by a wave “and that beautiful gun left a fin embedded in her right forearm”. Hynd’s memory is that she went to hospital with it still wedged there. But “she just shook it off.” Even Hynd, who lost the sight in his right eye to a surfing accident in 1980, sounds impressed. “There’s something very powerful in her backstory.”

To the outsider, Satu Vänskä doesn’t look powerful, precisely. As is true for many beautiful women, she seems taller than she is, with long limbs and flawless skin. She has small, delicate-looking hands, though they must hide tendons of steel – hands, for a violinist, are engines of power. She also has a very determined jaw, a forthright manner, and a surprising line in deadpan jokes. Over the course of three or four months, I see her perhaps a dozen times: in two long interviews, at half a dozen performances of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and ACO Underground (the “chamber-punk” collective she founded in 2012) and in three rehearsal sessions. As a musician she is super-focused: in one rehearsal, for César Franck’s violin sonata in which she is soloist, she runs again and again through the same series of phrases, the ACO revving around her like a perfectly conditioned engine, looking so intent that it’s a physical shock when her face relaxes, breaking into a smile. At no point, in no encounter, does she seem like someone who is preoccupied with – or even notices – her own beauty.

She may be the only one who’s oblivious. In the 19 years since she arrived in Australia – the exotic young European violinist, hired as assistant leader (now principal violin, a role she shares with Helena Rathbone) to Australia’s most globally renowned orchestra – audiences have been fascinated by her. Partly this is the result of her playing, which Steve Moffatt, a long-time classical music critic who writes for Limelight, describes as “impeccable”.

“It’s amazing how resilient you are when you’re young,” says Vänskä. “You make these big decisions for yourself and the consequences are very dramatic, but you do it because you have this fire burning into you.” Credit: Peter Brew-Bevan. Gucci silk organza shirt and leather pencil midi skirt. Styling by Jolyon Mason. Hair and make-up by Katie Angus.

But, less desirably for her, there has also been an element of celebrity-style interest in her private life, not least because less than two years after her arrival, Richard Tognetti, artistic director and famously talented driving force of the ACO, left his wife, with whom he had a young child, purportedly to be with Vänskä. In 2005 and 2006, a gale of rumours swirled around the couple, but nobody from the ACO or the inner circle of their lives spoke in public, and neither of them ever said a word.

Almost 20 years later, Vänskä still plays for the ACO, and both she and the orchestra have gone from strength to strength. In the next 12 months alone, she will perform as both principal violin and vocal soloist on the ACO’s national tour River and as soloist in Beethoven’s giant violin concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO). This will be her first gig as soloist with the MSO, playing one of the most beloved – and challenging – concertos in the entire violin repertoire. More immediately, her brainchild ACO Underground has just been renamed – tellingly – Satu in the Beyond. The group, which has just released its first single, And There We Sat, is now evolving from doing one or two shows a year to bigger, more regular gigs.

“She’s really got it all,” says Moffatt. “She’s adventurous, she’s theatrical; she seems to thrive in that experimental environment [with ACO Underground] but she’s also a collegiate, compelling chamber musician. As well as playing, she’s directed the orchestra several times, always very successfully. I’ve never seen a dud performance by her, to be honest.”

Despite this professional success, in all her years in this country, Vänskä has only occasionally had the media spotlight anywhere near her. She and Tognetti married quietly in 2014 and purchased a Masonic temple, built in 1917 and originally owned by female freemasons, one block from the beach at Manly. There have been some stories about renovating this building (she and Tognetti installed room-sized interior pods that resemble tiny barns, painted in shades of Finnish grey); and there’s been the odd piece about her best DIY gift idea (transplanted succulents in a pot), or the beautiful violin she plays on loan (the 1726 “Belgiorno” Stradivarius, owned by ACO board member Guido Belgiorno-Nettis and his wife Michelle). But as a musician, there’s been relatively little coverage of her life or career.

Perhaps she never wanted a more public persona. Or perhaps the romantic drama of her early years in this country created a reticence that runs slightly counter to her natural personality, which seems open, even gregarious. As Richard Tognetti puts it, “Unlike many Finnish people, she is naturally loquacious – even without alcohol!” In a single show with ACO Underground – which, despite existing under the ACO banner, has been very much her star turn – she might appear in a boiler suit and sing a starkly beautiful Lutheran hymn, smash through a Paganini caprice and wail out a Pussy Riot protest number. “With a lot of classical musicians, if you take the score away from them they feel a little lost,” says Paul Beard, a music producer and songwriter who’s worked with Robbie Williams and Lily Allen. “But Sats has great musical instincts. And actually, she is very drawn to being a pop star.”

Name a piece of music that takes you back to your childhood. “JS Bach: Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor: This was in one of the Suzuki Method violin books I learnt from as a child, and I remember being so excited to be ‘allowed’ to play something that felt like adult music to an eight-year-old. Of course, I’ve played it numerous times since; it’s one of those pieces of music that stays on and lives with you throughout your life.”

Satu Vänskä had two childhoods. The first was in the isolated countryside of Japan, where she was born in 1979, the fourth of five children, to Lutheran missionary parents. The second was in regional Finland, in the country from which her parents came and to which the family returned when she was 10. In neither place did her blonde good looks help her. In Japan she looked weird to other children but sounded like a native; in Finland she looked like a native but sounded weird.

In Australia, she both looks and sounds unusual – not a single wrinkle at 44, and a Finnish edge to her excellent English. A Finnish accent is hard to describe – its most obvious quality seems to be a kind of emphatic directness. “I hated Finland,” Vänskä explains cheerfully, leading me through the temple (an exercise in historic architectural detailing outside, Zen minimalism and Nordic rural chic inside) one Friday afternoon. “My whole family did! It felt like there was no sun, and it was deserted, no life at all.“

“That is true,” agrees Vänskä’s younger sister Inkeri Vänskä, speaking from Copenhagen. “I think it was hard for all of us in our own ways. But we have a great word in Finnish, reipas. It means brave, but also vivacious. That was Satu.”

Playing at age four in Japan, where her parents worked as Lutheran missionaries until Vänskä was 10. “I remember the excitement and the feeling that I sounded amazing,” she recalls. “And of course I sounded excruciating.”Credit: Courtesy of Satu Vänskä

In contrast to Finland, Vänskä describes Japan as a magical land, in which she lived “over the mountain from Kyoto”, in a village near “a lake, with the mountainous countryside all around, and the little town so busy and the streets very narrow and hilly”.

In this Studio Ghibli landscape, she and her siblings – Inkeri, an older sister and two older brothers – boarded at a school for missionary children during the week, and returned on weekends to a home that was also the local Lutheran church. “With so many in a sibling pack, we had to just get on with things to survive,” says Inkeri.

Vänskä seems to have enjoyed the full house, the constant action. “We were the only foreigners in the town, so there was a lot of curiosity,” she recalls. “Mum would give Western cooking classes, and she was often invited to speak about how Westerners bring up their children. There seemed to always be a lot of old Japanese ladies coming and going.” She grins. “I think some of them just thought my father was handsome.”

Music was important to the whole family. All five children played instruments; Vänskä’s handsome father was a trumpet player; her mother a pianist and singer; and both grandfathers played violin. (Inkeri Vänskä, indeed, is the principal second violin with the Royal Danish Orchestra.) As a child, however, it was Lutheran church music – the beautiful hymns, and the transcendent music of Johann Sebastian Bach – that struck Satu Vänskä. She became fixated by the violin before she turned two, and at three, her parents gave her a one-eighth-size instrument for Christmas. “And they told me, you know, ‘You’ve got to do your practice and take it seriously,’ ” she says. “My parents always took things very seriously.”

“To perform – it’s like a pure dopamine hit. And also, I decided [as a child] … playing violin would give me a way out of Finland.”

I have a daughter who plays violin, I say, and I frequently tell her she’s got to do her practice and take it seriously. So far, this appears to have made absolutely no impression. Why was Vänskä different? She laughs. “Well, I remember doing a small concert when I was about four, and I played a Japanese folk song, and I remember the excitement and the feeling that I sounded amazing.” She laughs again. “And of course I sounded excruciating. But even so, it has always been a really joyous kind of a thing, playing.”

This joy has never left her. Even now, “to perform – it’s like a pure dopamine hit. And also, I decided pretty much as soon as we arrived back in Finland that playing violin would give me a way out of Finland. I could go and study abroad, I could have access to international places. I was very determined to go as soon as I could.” The year she turned 17, she won a place with one of the world’s most acclaimed teachers, Ana Chumachenco, and left Finland to study in Germany.

She was glad to go, but there was pain as well as relief in her departure. “From about 13, I was rebelling against the extreme religiosity of my family,” she explains. “And that was very hard, for me and for them. Everyone is hurting. You, because you’re not understood and you feel so isolated; and the people who love you, because they want to save you, are frightened for you.”

She was the only one of her siblings to leave the church in their youth. “It was definitely the most formative experience of my early life,” she says wryly. “Now, of course, everybody is middle-aged and mellowed-out and pretending that it wasn’t that bad after all.” She smiles and rolls her eyes. “I was there! It was that bad! But it’s amazing how resilient you are when you’re young. You make these big decisions for yourself and the consequences are very dramatic, but you do it because you have this fire burning into you.”

What music most reminds you of your life in Germany? “Anton Bruckner: Symphony No.8 (Munich Philharmonic Orchestra with Hans Knappertsbusch): When I was studying in Munich, I was introduced to the extraordinary Germanic musical tradition and its great symphonic repertoire. Playing works by Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, to name just the obvious two, certainly exposed my (somewhat still juvenile) brain to great structure, and many strange and wonderful musical concepts.”

Vänskä‘s audition to join the ACO took place in late 2003, when she was 25. In retrospect, it sounds both strange and wonderful. She was living in Munich, and the orchestra was on tour in Europe, so the audition took place in Bregenz, a city on Lake Bodensee in a tiny pocket of Austria close to the borders of Germany and Switzerland. Richard Tognetti still remembers the day, and recalls Vänskä’s playing as “virtuosic, very precise but spirited. She played Sibelius, of course, the great Finnish composer, and I thought she was really next-level. I remember she didn’t prepare her excerpt as well as she could have.”

The ACO’s 2022 national tour of River, in which Vänskä was principal violin and vocal soloist. She “stumbled into singing accidentally” when Tognetti asked her to performvocals for a recording.Credit: Nic Walker

“I probably should have done more preparation,” laughs Vänskä. “But I was working the next morning, so I caught the train down to the audition, then rushed back to Munich. I had no money, so I was always working: on movie scores, doing gigs [including playing for famous groups like the Munich Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra]. It was very long days, because while I was a student I was also practising six hours a day and trying to learn German. But it was also a very special time because I was in an excellent class [with Chumachenco]. Many of the students already had solo careers, and they were all older and better than me, so it was really the best thing ever.” She looks like she actually means this. “Ana was a wonderful teacher, maybe the best teacher in the world at that time: so, so strict” – she laughs – “but warmly strict.”

It must have been daunting, nonetheless. “Well, there was one day when a very famous violinist, who’d come from America, had the lesson before me, and then after me there was another really famous violist who’d had a solo career since she was 13. After the American left, I went in and said to Ana, ‘Oh my god, I feel so inadequate. It’s humiliating that I come and play after her.’ And Ana said, ‘Don’t worry. She might have some things that you don’t have. But you’ve got everything else.’ ”

She pauses, looking almost Australian in her discomfort with praise. “It is very nice when a teacher gives you that kind of encouragement,” she says finally, “because you kind of know inside, ‘I’ve got something to give.’ You know? My teacher in Finland was the same. The biggest compliment he could give was ‘The more talented you are, the harder you have to work.’ But that is a big compliment: there’s no point being tough on someone who can’t rise to the challenge.”

She did the ACO audition because it was a challenge. She knew of the orchestra only vaguely, but a musician friend she trusted, Croatian-Austrian pianist Dejan Lazic, had just performed with it. “He told me, ‘If a job ever comes up with the ACO, you should go for it: you would really like it.’ So I thought, ‘Let’s try how this goes.’ It was an adventure.”

Unbeknown to Vänskä, however, the ACO was still reeling from its last adventure in foreign applicants. Richard Tognetti tells the story of hiring an English violinist for Vänskä’s position called Laurence Martin and then discovering, via a flurry of midnight faxes from Martin’s “referees” in Europe, that he was “a complete and utter fraud”. Tognetti sacked him on the spot, but unsurprisingly, the thought of hiring a replacement was a worry. (In a truly horrifying end to this story, Martin was found dead several years later in Birmingham, having tried to cut his own head off in the bath with a circular saw.) Vänskä, with her rock-solid bona fides, her live audition and her lifetime of careful training, must have seemed a miraculous contrast.

Performing with ACO Underground, her “chamber-punk” collective.Credit: Stephen Blake

For Vänskä, oblivious to all this, the role at the ACO was also miraculous. She arrived in Sydney on trial in 2004, her first staff appointment at any orchestra, still only 25. “I remember she couldn’t believe she would be put up in a hotel,” says Tognetti.

“I was like, ‘What is this place?’ ” recalls Vänskä. “The sun’s shining; it’s so beautiful. And I was, for the first time also, on a fixed salary. So I had free days.” She laughs. “It was different. Yes. Really different.”

What piece of music is a result of your life in Australia? “And There We Sat [Richard Tognetti, vocals Satu Vänskä]: I stumbled into singing accidentally. Richard needed some vocals recorded for his music, and asked me to do them as he thought I’d sound at least better than him. In my childhood, singing was a daily activity at home and in the church, but I never thought I’d end up doing it later on. I’m totally self-taught, but I enjoy the directness that one can project on stage, looking in the eye of the audience.”

These days, there are three things that strike Satu Vänskä about her first five years in Australia. The sun, first: “It felt like it never stopped shining – every day, for years!” Second, the surfing. “When I first moved to Sydney, I went a lot to the northern beaches with Derek [Hynd, whom Tognetti introduced her to] and discovered there’s a big part of Australian culture involved with surfing. So I saw this country in a really unique way.” These days, despite her intrepid history as told by Hynd, “I’m a champagne surfer, you know? I want the nice waves with no people on.” She laughs. “I have become picky.”

The third thing was “of course, the ACO, and Richard, and all these things”. She frowns. “And whatever else was going on; whatever situations there were that would’ve been, you know, difficult – they always paled, they were always to one side of the incredible music, which was all the time going on.”

“It was very clear for us that this was a ‘for life’ kind of thing.”

She is talking, I think, about the period between 2004, when she arrived, and late 2005 or early 2006, when Tognetti separated from his first wife Susie Roberts, a winemaker at her family’s Huntington Estate in Mudgee, NSW. For many years, the ACO had appeared at an annual music festival at Huntington, but 2005 was the orchestra’s last concert there. Journalist Matthew Westwood later wrote of this performance that Tognetti “looked tired, even subdued, and his performance of the Beethoven concerto … [was] uncharacteristic and, at the time, inexplicable”. (Others found it as good as ever.) Within a few months of the festival, gossip columns confirmed Tognetti had moved out of the family home, allegedly because he was seeing Vänskä. The Huntington vineyards were sold soon after the last Huntington concert, and Tognetti and Roberts divorced.

Looking back at this period, amid the awfulness for everyone involved, one can’t help but think the situation must have been fraught with peril for Vänskä, not just personally but professionally. She was only in her 20s, in a new country, without support networks. She had an amazing job – as she says, her first ever salaried job – in which she was determined to excel. And then she fell in love with a guy who was not only married, not only her colleague, but also her boss. The stakes must have been incredibly high. What if the relationship hadn’t worked out? Didn’t she feel she was risking everything?

She makes a temporising movement with one hand. “Well, yeah,” she says matter-of-factly. “What I can say is that it was very clear for us that this was a ‘for life’ kind of thing.” She holds both hands up. “But you can’t judge the people around for not seeing it that way, and not understanding.” So even then, despite the hurdles, she felt certain it would work out? With the job and with Tognetti? “Yes. But then, on the other hand, there was all the [media and orchestra] storm, you know, which was hard. But you don’t really have to take part yourself in that.” She pauses, then adds: “It was testing, in such a small group [like the ACO, with just 17 permanent members]. But then on the other hand, it is such a small group. Many people have gone through life situations: you see people through all sorts of things.”

Performing with Tognetti in ACOUnderground.Credit: Daniel Boud

People who know the ACO do remember a lot of tension and emotion at the time, including anger – mostly directed, some might say unfairly, at Vänskä rather than Tognetti. As someone involved with the orchestra explains: “Huntington was really sutured into the orchestra’s history. And added to that was the fact that many of the musicians were friends of Susie [Roberts], so of course they felt for her. As a result, the whole thing was enormously isolating for Satu.”

Nonetheless, nobody spoke publicly at the time, so in this sense at least, the orchestra stood by its own, including Vänskä. “I think that tells a lot about the sort of tight-knit group [the ACO is], and how seriously we take our work and the music,” says Vänskä herself. “I have a lot of gratitude for the patience and grace my colleagues showed to me during that time.”

When I ask Richard Tognetti about the risks inherent in a relationship like his and Vänskä‘s, when work, life and art intersect – he points out that “all life is calculated risk, after all. And anyone who works in the arts, especially on stage, knows fear. So we’ve all had to develop our own mechanisms for managing that fear, and the inherent risks of that existence.

“Every time I take a risk with the orchestra, I’ve done it with mild to extreme defiance of the organisation itself. Yes, there was some hostility at the time, but hostility and appreciation are parts of life. And the fact is, when there are human emotions involved, you can find yourself driving down a path you wouldn’t otherwise go down.” Thinking back to those early years, he adds: “An orchestra is a philosophical construct, and the people who come into it all alter the narrative. So we all had to recalibrate to absorb [Tognetti and Vänskä’s relationship]. It took time and effort, but we’ve been successful. And if you asked me, do I have any regrets? Is there any way I could have done anything differently? Well, no.”

“During COVID, we were all going, ‘What are we going to do?’ And my first thing was, ‘I’m going to start a cleaning company.’ ”

These days, Vänskä “fills a very special niche in the orchestra”, says Ilya Isakovich, a violinist with the ACO, who joined the group on the same day, literally, as Vänskä. “[When she plays principal violin] she always has to stand next to Richard, and that is not an easy task. You have to be very stable and play perfectly, and you need to react to him all the time; to sense what he is trying to do. She is his right hand – though she stands at his left! – she recognises what he’s about to say before he says it. She helps the whole thing work.“

This is no doubt true – as is the fact that the past, however distant, is always present. “Do some people think she gets special treatment because of her relationship with Richard?” asks Richard Evans, managing director of the ACO. “Well, there can be no more difficult position within any orchestra than being the partner of the artistic director. Orchestras are fiercely competitive places, and the ACO is certainly no exception. Do some people think Satu is given preference when she is featured [in solos, for instance, or in an ACO Underground program] from time to time? Naturally. Is it terrible? No. Is it present? Yes.”

Vänskä herself seems philosophical. “For every person who would’ve thought I was trying to advance my career prospects [by being with Tognetti], there would’ve been another person who thought I was absolutely ruining my career prospects!” she says. “So these things are all in the eye of the beholder. And if you fast-forward to now, well.” She smiles. “We are just another middle-aged couple.”

What piece of music is speaking to you right now? “Béla Bartók: String Quartet No.5 (Takács Quartet): like most musicians, I don’t have a ‘favourite’ piece of music but the music most preoccupying me at the moment is Béla Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet, which the Australian Chamber Orchestra recently performed on a national tour. It is not only frustratingly complicated and fiercely difficult, but also spine-tinglingly mysterious.”

It’s easy to imagine that being a classical violinist – even a gregarious, surfing, boiler suit-wearing violinist – is a pretty rarefied existence: a life of concert halls and capital cities, pursuing an artform that relies on exquisitely refined expertise and equipment. My final interview with Vänskä hardly dispels this impression, since we meet at the ACO’s beautiful new premises at the end of an historic wooden wharf in Sydney’s Walsh Bay. The sun is gleaming through a wall of windows suspended over the water, the Harbour Bridge soars up on the right and the sun outlines Vänskä’s hair in a nimbus of gold. What a life, I think.

In the fortnight since we first met, however, she has performed 13 times in seven cities (including Sydney three times). The travel is tiring and discombobulating, and in each place, before every appearance on stage, she still gets extremely nervous. “Sometimes it’s less, other times more, but we live in sort of a constant state of …” she pauses. “It’s like a high anxiety, but you get used to it, if that makes sense. You just live your life like that.”

In Kyoto in 2018 with Tognetti. “We are just another middle-aged couple,” she says.Credit: Nic Walker

But it must take its toll – and not only on Vänskä. Even today, Inkeri, knowing how nervous Vänskä gets, worries when she watches her big sister perform. “I know in my brain that she’s competent,” she says, “but as her little sister I am always thinking, ‘Please don’t let anything go wrong.’ ” That being said, she remembers seeing Vänskä perform in Sydney about 10 years ago. “And I said to her, ‘You have reached a new level. It is as if you have found home.’ And she just started crying. In every performance, you give a part of your soul.”

Does the intensity ever feel too much to Vänskä herself? Does she ever think about an alternative career path? Vänskä looks surprised, then laughs. “You know, that is such a funny question, because I often think about this. Especially during COVID, we were all going, ‘What are we gonna do?’ And my first thing was, ‘I’m going to start a cleaning company.’ ” She sits up. “I think I am really good at this: I know how to make a good Scandinavian clean. And it’s practical, you know?” This seems to please her in some basic, Lutheran work-ethic way.

I recall Tognetti explaining what I think – with no confirmation at all from him – might be one of the reasons he loves her. “When she arrived in Australia,” he told me, “she romanticised it. She thought it was like the Weimar Republic: this exciting, fragile new world. But of course, it was actually the Howard years, and the arts landscape was completely flat and unimaginative. To be an artistic activist in this country you’ve got to pull yourself out of cultural quicksand, and those who do it are special. She does it.”

Vänskä, meanwhile, haloed by the pounding sun, is thinking of something else. “Actually, of course, I would not be a cleaner,” she clarifies after a moment. She smiles. “To play music with other people: there is just so much joy and happiness. You are feeling it, you’re hearing, of course, and you are seeing: you are in the middle of the music. And there is something that you can’t quite describe in it. You are riding that wave, if I may use that tacky expression. But it is like that. It is sort of like a wave.”

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