“We have to build the bridge!”
Lorenzo Viotti, born in 1990, is one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation in opera and concert. For him, it is less about being in demand than asking the right questions: questions essential for the future of classical music. The series of portraits that Lorenzo Viotti is creating for the Musikverein in 2022/23 shows his passion for facing these challenges.
Our conversation is taking place at a time when there are, again, substantial restrictions on cultural life throughout Europe. Of course, we hope such measures will be a thing of the past in 2022/23. But what have these times of pandemic shown? What do you read from it?
We notice that culture is treated as secondary by governments. You could see the football stadiums in front of the concert halls and the museums were open again. We in culture are usually among the last; that’s a signal.
The second thing is that Covid has made us aware of our reality more quickly. Even though the halls were allowed to have 100 per cent capacity again after the closures, it has become difficult to fill them again. This also shows: What audience are we talking about? We are talking about an audience that is a high-risk audience for this pandemic in many concerts due to age. And where is the new generation? It is a very brutal reality. But a very important moment. We are now in a time when creativity and responsibility are enormously demanded, especially for us conductors: it is no longer enough just to put on a tailcoat and conduct a beautiful Beethoven Third. I believe we are much more and must be much more today. We are the voice of classical music! We have to build the bridge!
What concrete possibilities do you see for attracting and inspiring new audiences for classical music?
Ah, open rehearsals, three hours with a microphone, full orchestra, total audience, speeches, giving insights, taking people into creating music and sharing the experience. So: get people in – and leave: speak in front of students, play in other places. There are many ways to create closeness. But in the end, you always have to come with a low quality. This is crucial! Then the young audience will also be won over if they have had this experience: We will now experience an extraordinary emotion for two hours.
“We are now in a time in which creativity and responsibility are enormously demanded, especially for us conductors: it is no longer enough just to put on a tailcoat and conduct a beautiful Beethoven Third.”
But even this has to be preceded by something; people don’t come to the rehearsal of a symphony concert on their own – how do you interest them in that?
I think marketing is critical. Social Media, Instagram… I only use my social media activities to bring people close to my art. To show: classical music is something for older people and the young. Classical music is an essential art. We need them! And when I see that there are institutions that skip this possibility, so they don’t have social media or Instagram, I find that frightening. In recent months – I won’t mention a name, it’s about the exemplary – I’ve been in a vital institution, the concert hall is only five meters away from one of the largest universities. And the oldest audience I have ever seen sat in the concert, and not a single young person! This is an alarm.
In your portrait series at the Musikverein, you would like to address the audience briefly before each concert. What’s it all about?
I’m not doing anything new; I’m trying to do what I learned from Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Musikverein – actually something quite ordinary, that we, as conductors, talk a few words about the programme, get in touch with the people in the hall and invite them to get involved in this or that suggestion, to take them with us on a journey together. And that’s the most important thing. There is always a wall between the orchestra and the audience; I want to take that away. It changes the atmosphere.
If your concerts are explicitly a portrait – what characteristics of you can be discerned in them?
Oh, that’s hard to say. There is no composer or style of which one could say: This is Viotti … That is no longer of interest; that is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to say: I fight for my art, before the concert, after the show and of course in the concert, because I always try to make the best musically possible. It was imperative to me to come with orchestras with which I have created something, including the Gulbenkian Orchestra Lisbon, with whom I was able to take up my first chief conductor position in 2018, and with the Netherlands Philharmonic, which I have been able to lead since 2021. It does not pleasure me to travel somewhere to conduct a concert according to an overture, instrumental concerto, or symphony scheme. There is more to it than that. And so I am sure that when we start the series with the Gulbenkian Orchestra and Choir and play and sing for the audience in Vienna, it will be an unforgettable experience.
What kind of choir are you bringing from Lisbon to Vienna?
The choir of Gulbenkian is comparable to the Singverein: an unpaid choir, an amateur choir … And: They sing with such a heart, that’s incredible, that’s phenomenal! I worked a lot with this choir, also in a cappella concert, which we spontaneously scheduled because other shows had to be cancelled. At the “Nachklang” after the first concert, this choir will also be heard with Fado, music from its homeland.
In the second portrait concert, the Singverein will be present …
Naturally. The Poulenc “Gloria” with the Singverein: This is a big thank you from my heart because this is, if I may say so, simply “my” choir! In general, this portrait also shows something of my time in Vienna. During my studies in Vienna, I could sing in the Singverein; I substituted as a percussionist in large orchestras. And I’ve heard many rehearsals here – with Georges Prêtre, for example, at the Musikverein.
The concerts you give as part of the portrait series with the Wiener Symphoniker probably also reflect something of this history …
Oh yes, the Wiener Symphoniker are my first great love. As a student, I often conducted the chamber orchestra of the Symphoniker, the Wiener Concert-Verein. Therefore, I knew many orchestra members when I was asked to join the Symphoniker in 2016. Seeing so many familiar faces on the podium gave me a lot of confidence. It was a kind of love story.
What connects you to the Munich Philharmonic, with whom you also appear in this portrait series?
As a conductor, you can never predict why an orchestra will immediately click – and it was like that with the Munich Philharmonic; it clicked right away, and that was all the more surprising and beautiful for me because it was the first well-known major German orchestra that I was allowed to conduct. Since then, I have tried to work with the Munich Philharmonic every season.
What is the appeal of your task as chief conductor of the Amsterdam Opera and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in autumn 2021?
What is particularly appealing is that I have an orchestra in two institutions: in the opera and concert, which also offers excellent programmatically great opportunities. And we started wonderfully: in the opera with Zemlinsky’s “The Dwarf” and a Haydn Mass, which we staged in a project that combines all the arts at our house. This is very important! We cannot discuss diversity and social group dialogue if we do not create this connection in our own house. It is usually the case that the ballet has its orchestra, and they never see their conductors, the chief conductor – we have worked against that here. That was phenomenal: to create this openness. And so it has become clear in these few months that the people I am allowed to work with here have total trust in me; I have complete confidence in them. So now we can keep dreaming.
Her path has also been shaped by great conductors of the past, including the recently deceased Bernard Haitink. How do you feel about this generation you were able to get to know?
The death of Bernard Haitink made me very sad – it was not so long ago that I had spoken to him on the phone, and then this news reached me in Amsterdam, his homeland. But a smile of gratitude was also possible. Because I will never forget his smile, this generous love. It’s part of our reality that these people are gone. And the question is not: Who is coming now? But: What’s coming? These mentors, these legends, were part of another time in which, for example, you could make umpteen recordings of a Bruckner symphony because everything still seemed so self-evident and secure. That time no longer exists. Individuality at the desk is no longer enough. Because classical music is in danger. And we must fight for them with everything we have, heart and soul.
Joachim Reiber conducted the interview.
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