“The horizon of any conductor has to extend beyond music”

Interview to Lorenzo Viotti, the next lead conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra.

Music has accompanied him ever since his birth. Lorenzo Viotti is now 27, a renowned name among orchestra conductors and all set to become the next lead conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra. In this interview, he speaks of his new challenge and the passions that feed him beyond music: surfing and travelling.

Why did you decide to become a conductor?
Becoming a conductor was something that I felt I wanted to do from a very young age and this then became a need. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where music and a love for life were at the centre of everything. This position has always fascinated me both in terms of its complexity and its humanity as human beings are the conductor’s instrument. A very delicate and always different instrument.

Your father Marcello Viotti (1954-2005) was a very well known conductor.
My father was a great conductor, a great man and a wonderful father. This was, to me, the most beautiful of lessons. I do not have any memories of him as a conductor and so I believe that there was no direct relationship with my later choice. I always wanted to conduct and I believe you are born with liking being in front of a group of people and not having any difficulties in sharing what you love. Of course, there are many things that you need to learn. I worked very hard to get into conducting, I studied percussion, piano, song. This was a long process and that has obviously not yet ended. Being a conductor was always my dream that I follow seriously, professionally and with every respect.

What does being a conductor mean to you? How would you define the profile of an ideal maestro?
There is no ideal profile because every conductor is different. The key question for many comes from what is the conductor there for? There is a very practical side to a conductor in the sense of an organiser, the person who, with the stick in hand, gets a group of instrumentalists playing together. The great responsibility of any conductor involves developing the art of classical music, conveying it to the younger generations that do not show great interest in it perhaps out of a fear of not being able to understand it. However, you do not need to understand classical music, what you need is to feel it. And this is our responsibility to ensure audiences feel the music in a natural way. People see on the stage artists who generally are of a certain age and formally dressed and they think there is some need to adopt this formality. But no. We musicians are completely normal people. There is no one category of persons that likes classical music. Everybody can like it.

What are you interested in outside of music?
When you feel passionate about an artistic field, you feel passionate about many other things. The horizon of any conductor has to extend beyond music and I’m also interested in architecture, painting, literature, psychology, philosophy, indeed, in being human. There are so many extraordinary things to learn that can enrichen the musical language. Discovering a composer is not only about reading the score but also grasping the period they lived in, this is continuous learning. I also do a lot of sport, I love surfing, snowboarding, kitesurfing. I like travelling a lot, discovering and getting lost in nature. And, perhaps the most important, I love my family, travelling with them, I love to surprise my mother with my visits, my friends. In sum, I love life.

Why did you choose Lisbon for your first position as musical director?
The first time I came here, I fell for the city because of the surfing. I’d come on holiday with my family and we all fell in love with the charm of the city, its peoples, for having the sea so close and how that made the people somehow naturally happier. I understood at the time that this was quite an extraordinary country, with a marvellous culture and that had a lot to offer. Afterwards, I came back to Lisbon already to conduct the Gulbenkian Orchestra in a special program featuring works by Wagner, Chausson, Debussy and Scriabin. I was impressed by how the Orchestra showed such a great desire to make music and proving able to convey emotion and passion. I also felt the enough potential of the group, with many young players with a desire to accompany change. This gave me pleasure as there are many orchestras that feel comfortable with their traditions and here I felt a great opportunity for something special to happen. I also loved the Grand Auditorium and its acoustics, the Garden and Museum that really do make up a very special combination. Another factor that weighed in my decision was the Gulbenkian Choir with which I worked on a concert with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and that attained a fantastic level of performance.

And how about Lisbon audiences?
After having given four concerts in the Grand Auditorium, I understood the two facets to the public: one fairly conservative and the other capable of suddenly releasing themselves; not in the sense of giving a standing ovation, but rather in terms of reacting in an authentic way to the quality of a particular concert. For example, whenever there is a 30-second silence after the final note of a work is played, we know that the audience was touched. This happened here at the end of the Honegger Symphony (no. 3, Liturgical, with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra) that managed to trigger in the audiences that feeling of emotion that we were trying to convey. That is a great quality to have in an audience and something that really touched me.

How would you define the relationship between the Orchestra and its conductor?
The Orchestra is my instrument; without it, I am truly nothing as I cannot give a concert on my own. The musicians, on the contrary, are more than me because they can play on their own. What is marvellous is when the Orchestra and the conductor become just one. Then, that is… love.

What is the meaning of music?
Music has been part of my life since very young. Me and my brothers would listen daily to every type of music; pop, jazz, hip hop, rock, funk. To me, listening to Schubert or Schumann does not provide a means of relaxation but rather is a real need. I need to immerse myself in this ambience as if I was a fish and the music was the water. Hence, you also get my impulse to take to the stage and share this need that I carry within myself. Music is a universal language, without boundaries and everybody may feel emotion on hearing Bach or Mozart just as they can dance to salsa and feel happy. This is, therefore, something that can bring together people from different cultures.