‘We’re Like Athletes Here’: The Maestro With a Gym Habit

AMSTERDAM — Lorenzo Viotti stood before the orchestra, without a baton, conducting with both hands. As the music swelled, his arms swayed. Three fingers plucked the air, then he swept forward to guide the sound to a crescendo.

The 31-year-old Swiss maestro, who recently became the chief conductor of both the Dutch National Opera and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, is a very physical conductor. But that would hardly come as a surprise to anyone who knows him from social media. He is also an avid boxer, tennis player and swimmer, who skateboards to work, it seems (though he has embraced Dutch bicycling culture as well).

On Instagram, nearly 53,000 followers see images of Viotti looking dapper in bow tie and tails, as might be expected, but also shirtless, revealing a muscular torso. A recent post, taken from a spread in the Dutch edition of Men’s Health magazine, which honored him as August’s “man of the month,” shows Viotti chalking his hands before lifting himself up on gymnast’s rings.

His action-man social media posts are part of a plan to shake up perceptions about people who enjoy classical music, Viotti said in an interview during a recent rehearsal break. “As a conductor today, it’s not just enough to focus just on the music,” he said.

But he added quickly that he regards social media as merely “a tool,” to excite curiosity. “You can maybe be young, and do crazy sports,” he said, but without “a deep argument artistically, and maybe philosophically,” as to why classical music was interesting, opera companies and orchestras wouldn’t retain the new audiences they found.

Last week, in preparation for the opening of the Dutch National Opera’s new season, Viotti said, he was waking at dawn to spend an hour and a half working out before heading to the theater for rehearsals of two productions: Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg” (“The Dwarf”), based on a short story by Oscar Wilde, which will premiere Saturday; and a dramatic staging of Haydn’s “Missa in Tempore Belli,” (“Mass in Time of War”), opening two days later.

Viotti will conduct both works until late September, before he leads the Philharmonic on Sept. 25 and 26 in a concert of works by Rossini and Richard Strauss, at the Concertgebouw here. In March 2022, he will return to the opera for Puccini’s “Tosca.”

“We are like athletes here,” he said. “We don’t consider ourselves like that, but our discipline is like any champion state football player. I cannot go out the night before a rehearsal because I have to be sharp.”

“We make sacrifices,” he added, “because what we do is a precious thing.”

After nearly a year and a half of pandemic-mandated cancellations, Viotti wanted to start the new season in Amsterdam with a jolt, he said. The city has been his anticipating his arrival since the Dutch National Opera’s artistic director, Sophie de Lint, announced his appointment in 2019.

“Lorenzo was very much in demand, so we had to be fast,” de Lint said in an interview. “He really is one of the most gifted conductors of today. On top of that, he is an unbelievable ambassador for opera, and classical music in general.”

Viotti was born into a musical family in Lausanne, Switzerland. One of his sisters, Marina Viotti, is a mezzo-soprano, and the other, Milena, is a professional horn player, as is his brother, Alessandro. Their father, Marcello Viotti, was the chief conductor of the Munich Radio Orchestra and the music director of Teatro La Fenice in Venice when he died in 2005, at 50.

Viotti was 14 at the time. “As a child, I don’t have a lot of memories of him at work, but I learned a lot from him as a man, as a dad,” he said. “We did scuba diving together, gardening together, playing football. Those to me are the most important memories. The conducting memories are not important.”

As well as classical, Viotti was exposed to a wide range of musical styles growing up, he said, including hip-hop, rap, funk and soul. He tried his hand at many instruments, studying piano, viola and percussion, and singing in a choir.

“My favorite was to play jazz and funk as a drummer,” said Viotti. “My sister, who is now an opera singer, was then in a death metal band, so I played with them. I wanted to have the biggest possible musical vocabulary possible.”

He studied orchestral conducting at the University of Music and the Performing Arts in Vienna, as well as piano, voice and conducting at the Lyon Conservatory in France; in 2015, he completed a Master’s degree in conducting at the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar, in Germany. In the seven years since his graduation, he has conducted renowned orchestras including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France and the Munich Philharmonic.

Viotti’s Haydn interpretation will give audiences a sense of his interdisciplinary approach. The choral performance will include live electronic music, mixed by the Israeli composer and D.J. Janiv Oron. The stage direction is by Barbora Horakova, who has also inserted sequences of contemporary dance, choreographed by Juanjo Arqués. It will also feature video projections by Hervé Thiot and stage design by the digital artist Simon Hänggi.

“It’s not just randomly adding a bit of rap, and this and that, because it looks cool,” Viotti said. “It has to serve a very strict purpose, which is the drama that we are creating onstage. My background as a classical percussionist as a rap lover, funk lover, helped me find the groove, the flow. This is what we miss in classical music.”

The Haydn Mass doesn’t sound much like hip-hop, but its attraction for a percussionist is clear: The timpani part is so prominent that the work is sometimes nicknamed “Paukenmesse,” or “Kettle Drum Mass.” The piece needs to build throughout, to justify the heavy drum strokes of its dramatic finale, Viotti said. Before ending a rehearsal with the orchestra and chorus of the Dutch National Opera last week, he took the musicians back to the work’s lilting beginning.

“Now, let’s slow it down,” he told the ensemble. “If you want to catch the attention of someone, you speak softer, but with more intensity.”

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