They share a near-religious passion for music, so it seems entirely appropriate that Richard Tognetti and his wife Satu Vänskä live in a converted Masonic temple in Sydney’s Manly, right by the beach.
Considering Tognetti, the artistic director and lead violin of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Vänskä, the orchestra’s principal violin, are partners on and off stage, it is perhaps also appropriate their newly-renovated home should have a distinct “his and hers” demarcation: Tognetti and his impressive multimedia music studio are downstairs, while Vänskä has free reign above.
Born in Finland but raised in Japan with her Lutheran missionary parents, Vänskä moved to Australia in 2004 when she joined the ACO. The couple has always lived in the Manly area, ensuring proximity to the beach to accommodate Tognetti’s other religion – surfing – and what he describes as “the best beach break in urban Sydney”.
The pair surf most mornings, when the swell is right, but the rest of their lives are immersed in music, which is beautifully reflected in the stunning renovation of the 1917 masonic lodge, which respects the building’s heritage but with a thoroughly contemporary, elegant veneer.
Tognetti and Vänskä moved into the temple-turned-yoga studio in 2014 when it resembled “a decrepit office building”. They attempted to research the heritage-listed building’s history, only to find disappointingly little information, other than that it was ultimately owned by female freemasons and located close to Henry Lawson’s one-time home.
Instead the couple did their own research on the Freemasons, visiting a museum in Paris dedicated to the secret society founded in 14th century, which began as a guild for builders and masons to ensure the skills of their trade remained secret, before it evolved into its contemporary, more organised structure.
“In effect it’s one of the first building unions, the ancestor of the CFMEU [Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union],” says Tognetti. “People assume it’s nefarious but from what we’ve researched it isn’t as nefarious as they think.”
As reflected in their Manly abode, Masonic temples followed a standard layout: an open reception and community hall downstairs where gatherings were held, and a cloistered area upstairs where the clandestine activities took place, after the secret handshake was confirmed.
“It’s an ancient, extraordinary tradition, the history is amazing,” says Tognetti. “So we commissioned [architect] Linda Gregoriou, an old acquaintance whose work we know, because we wanted to maintain the integrity of the building, then create something more tender with the wood and the light from the Pacific Ocean.”
The couple chose to live through two intense years of renovations, which included moving within the structure no less than five times and living for months on end without a bathroom or laundry.
“We didn’t have a kitchen for three years, but we still had dinner parties, inviting 20 people around for a barbeque,” says Vänskä. “But we lived through it, and a lot of people say renovations are the toughest things in a marriage.”
It was worth it.
Gregoriou, who describes herself as an “urbanist”, has retained the open plan downstairs, but as a nod to Vänskä’s Scandinavian heritage has designed a series of “pods” built in timber and painted a Finnish grey, complete with bright shutters. They house Tognetti’s expansive soundproof studio (more likely to be pumping out heavy metal than classical music), a library and a bedroom for Tognetti’s son Leo, while the former stage conceals a kitchen.
Upstairs, where Tognetti jokes they “slaughtered animals and killed people”, is similarly minimalist. “Because we tour so much, we spend half our lives in small hotel rooms, so when we come home we can spread out,” Vänskä says. “But because Richard’s work is his hobby he likes to potter around in the studio, hence it’s in a central place, it’s part of the social fabric of the house.”
Quite simply, the house and the relationship seem to work seamlessly. “It’s great, he’s funny, he entertains me, I think we have fun,” says Vänskä. “And I do what she tells me to do domestically – renovate a masonic temple,” says Tognetti.
The couple is currently in rehearsal for Indies & Idols, unearthing and celebrating the classical inspiration behind the music of regular ACO collaborators Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) and Bryce Dessner (The National) alongside American indie luminary Sufjan Stevens, all three of whom were uncannily influenced by the Polish avant-garde. The orchestra will perform their music alongside the source of their inspiration.
“Jonny Greenwood’s idol is Penderecki, the great Polish composer; Dessner’s idol is Lutoslawski, a Polish composer,” says Tognetti. “Isn’t that amazing? So we thought it would be great to play the source music, so to speak, and the result of the inspiration. Diverse, but contained within this paradigm of these new uber-educated certified celebrity rock’n’rollers who can write avant-garde Western music.”
Indies & Idols is by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and will be at the Sydney Opera House on June 16, Brisbane’s QPAC Concert Hall on June 17, Perth Concert Hall on June 1, Sydney City Recital Hall from June 25 to 29, and Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on June 23 and 24.