Satu Vänskä plays lead violin with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, but outside of hours she leads a strange musical double life. Vänskä founded the group known as ACO Underground, a collective of classical musicians who get together to play more daring and experimental works, finding the point between classical and contemporary music where Stravinsky meets Nine Inch Nails. “ACO Underground is an opportunity for us to really have fun putting different kinds of music together and next to each other, and trying things out in quite improbable ways,” says Vänskä. “It’s the sort of programming that you wouldn’t put on the main stage of a big concert hall, it’s more underground. We’re performing at Oxford Art Factory, which is a much less formal setting – the show is like our little laboratory where we can experiment and play with our more dangerous ideas.”

Like most of the current generation of classical musicians, Vänskä grew up listening to just as much popular music as classical, and these youthful experiences have shaped her adult perspective on music. “I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, and for anyone who came of age in that era, grunge was unavoidable, we all listened to Nirvana,” she laughs. “Every composer and songwriter has their own distinctive feeling, their own distinctive set of emotions they’re trying to express, and I think that’s more important than talking about genre. For example, we played some Shostakovich in our last show, and you could argue that the sentiment behind his music and the sentiment in grunge were quite similar. It’s really interesting the way they can fit together in the same program.”

The program for the next ACO Underground show is as eclectic as always, and Vänskä, who both sings and plays violin over the course of the performance, gives a taste of what to expect. “We’ll be playing part of the ‘Black Angels’ quartet, from the visionary American composer George Crumb,” she says. “We’ve got a work by an Australian composer called Anthony Pateras, who is very well known in the underground. He composes a lot of pieces for prepared piano, but this time we’re playing a piece of his that he composed for two violins. We’ll be playing Phil Spector and Nick Drake, and a cover of ‘Something I Can Never Have’ by Nine Inch Nails, which I love. We’ll be playing a lot of noisy music,” she adds with a laugh, “so we take a break play a little old standard, ‘Tea For Two’, before getting back into it.”

Vänskä is the proud custodian of Australia’s only Stradivarius violin, courtesy of a fund started by the ACO allowing patrons to invest in beautiful instruments. “Several people put money in,” she says humbly, “and I was the lucky one who got to play it, because the other principal players already had really nice instruments and I didn’t. It’s an incredible honour and a humbling experience.” Obviously, a Stradivarius requires a good deal of care and attention. “It’s the last thing on your mind at night and the first when you wake up!” Vänskä says. “We violinists grew up with our instruments, though, so we develop an urge from childhood to be very protective of them. It’s like if you had a baby, you wouldn’t be throwing it around or dropping it. It’s the same with a violin. There are parts of the instrument that I don’t touch at all – I don’t touch anywhere other than where I play, in order to protect the wood and the varnish. Looking after it becomes an instinct.”


ACO Underground play Oxford Art Factory on Saturday September 29.

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