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Wednesday, 20 April 2022
Government House Sydney
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

Bujari gamarruwa

Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura

Welcome in the language of the Gadigal people, the Traditional Owners of the land on which Government House stands. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

A great deal of thinking and planning goes on at Government House Sydney. It is why every event here is seamless and seemingly effortless. Part of the thinking and planning has been how best to engage with the learned community here across a broad range of interests, which includes, but goes beyond the Academy, and how to further extend that to the wider New South Wales community. That thinking was the genesis of Ideas@theHouse which has become a ‘partnership’ with the Royal Society, which has just celebrated its 200th anniversary.

Thought was also given to how to continue to open up Government House to as many people as possible. That thought was very “BC” in concept. Before Covid many things were possible. During COVID, anything ZOOM was possible and so it was that the very first Ideas@theHouse, a fascinating lecture on colonial mapping was given in May 2020 by Emeritus Professor Robert Clancy using his iPad, with subsequent presentations being delivered online by Thomas Kenneally and Greta Bradman in April and July 2021 respectively.

Now in the hybrid world of 2022, we have the fourth presentation of Ideas@theHouse, for the first time ‘live’, and additionally, with livestreaming to a large online audience, whom we also warmly welcome.

Richard Tognetti, maestro violinist, composer, arranger and Artistic Director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra has brought luminosity to a devoted listening audience in Australia and overseas for over 3 decades. Always seriously professional and simultaneously provocative, (I am not going to say precocious but certainly renowned for his artistic individualism) Richard came to critical acclaim early, winning the Bern Conservatory’s Tschumi Prize as top graduate soloist in 1989. He was declared an Australian National Treasure in 1999 and became a member of the Order of Australia in 2010.[1]

You’ll notice from that chronology that amongst his almost daily stellar achievements, Richard tends to attract formal recognition for his truly momentous talent and musical contribution about once a decade. So, it is somewhat intriguing that a little over a decade after the award of his Order of Australia, he has arrived at - well – he has arrived at ‘Nothing’.   

‘Nothing’ as a musical concept is also intriguing.  Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Fourth Symphony during the Stalinist Purges of the 1930’s. To be a composer, a writer, an intellectual in Stalinist Russia was a dangerous occupation. The premiere of the Fourth Symphony, described as ‘one of his most fascinating and ingenious works, both brutal and intricate [was cancelled]. It would go unheard for a quarter of a century, silenced by fear’.[2] What was its meaning that it was shunned for so long? Had Shostakovich, in this great work, achieved ‘nothing’? 

Richard, I suspect would describe music as being a ‘numinous’ experience. However, in the music of Stalinist Russia, there was no obvious sense of the divine. There was meaning: but in seeking out meaning, one had to ask, not so much whether, but how music has meaning, how it ‘speaks ideas’ and more importantly, ‘what ideas?’  In the 1930’s, Shostakovich understood that in a Western audience few would ponder such questions.  But not, he said in Russia – and he added a number of other questions: “Can Music attack evil?  Can it make [one] stop and think? Can it cry out and thereby draw [one’s] attention to various vile acts to which [one] has grown accustomed?  to the things [one] passes by without any interest?

However, Shostakovich found it better not to answer those questions – simply saying ‘I’ve said what I’ve said’.

Igor Stravinsky, who spent most of the worst of the Stalinist era outside of Russia, saw things quite differently. He said:

I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc…. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.[3]

In brief, Stravinsky contended that music should really mean nothing at all. 

With that thought, I will ask Richard Tognetti to come to the stage to elaborate on: “Nothing”*


* Provided by the Australian Chamber Orchestra:

“Nothing” is a show concept the Australian Chamber Orchestra is developing with its partners at Melbourne University and expects to produce in the near future. Following the talk, Richard will engage in a conversation with his interlocutor, Toby Chadd.

Building on a concept originally developed as a part of the 2011 Maribor Festival in Slovenia, Richard has said of his talk:

“Nothing is but a Dream

I’ve been trying to convince people of its miraculous elements for years.

I put it on as a project once, in Slovenia. It had a soprano wearing Nothing.

Barry Humphries even performed the Nothing Nonsense verses of Facade.

I’m remounting Nothing.

You listeners can hear all about Nothing.

Entry costs Nothing. But to leave you have to Pay!”

[2] M.T. Anderson: Symphony for the City of the Dead, Dimitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

[3] Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935, Calder and Boyars ed., 1975, p.53

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