The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s new home full of secret musical messages

This prompted Richard Tognetti, chief violinist and artistic director of the COA, to do what he described as a “ridiculous pun on dad”.

“Bach is a pane in the glass,” he said.

The depths of the hall’s ceiling use the intervals of the notes of the famous music of Shostakovich and Wagner. The spacing helps block noise from the harbour, helicopters and ferries outside, as well as improving internal acoustics.

Architect Peter Tonkin said he wanted to make something beautiful out of sound engineers‘ requirement to acoustically insulate rooms from harbor noise while delivering the sound of music.

His practice also wanted to “make buildings that have meaning” with which the public can identify on a human scale.

“And with that Morse code, when you know that, you’re very interested,” Tonkin said. “You get this feeling of fun and connection to the past. You have to integrate joy into these things. That’s what life is. It was not a trivial addition,” he stressed. “It enriches”

Tognetti said the new concert hall resonated with his dream of having a glass concert hall on the harbor with passing ferries.

“Having these hidden coded messages is a beautiful thing.”

Richard Tognetti

The result of Tonkin’s determination to imbue every detail with the spirit of music and the building’s heritage was like being in a big car.

“You don’t necessarily know what’s under the hood… [but] you can feel the excellence, the workmanship and the attention to detail.

“I’m so glad they wanted to bring these messages. Having these hidden coded messages is a beautiful thing,” Tognetti said.

Not all quotes are serious. Tognetti’s desk features British philosopher John Ruskin talking about Beethoven. Written in Morse code, it says: “Beethoven always seems to me like the overturning of a bag of nails, with here and there also a dropped hammer.

“It’s always good to see what people wrote about the masters, or those who ended up in the canon, before they became demigods,” Tognetti said.

Boulter said success at the Neilson was as much characterized by “what you don’t hear as it is the quality of the music you will hear.”

Two layers of windows, each 31 millimeters thick, and another layer of heritage glass isolate the concert hall from outside noise.

Tognetti said the architects spent so much time soundproofing that the only sound coming through is that of a low-flying helicopter.


He said that at the opening festival, filmmaker Jane Campion held up her Oscar for The power of the dog when a loud party boat with naked strippers passed. The audience could see the strippers but could not hear the sound of the boat. “How the rum trade and Sydney is that,” Tognetti said.

Tonkin’s transformation of Walsh Bay’s century-old heritage-listed Pier 2/3 and Wharf 4/5 into a new arts district has won a National Trust (NSW) Heritage Award for adaptive reuse. It is also shortlisted for three awards by the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects to be announced on July 1.

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