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Santtu-Matias Rouvali: Conductor on the Cusp

by Andrew Mellor

After a string of debuts with renowned orchestras, Santtu-Matias Rouvali is about to take up two significant new positions. Andrew Mellor met him to discuss psychology, leadership and Finland’s musical future.

It's a grey Tuesday morning in March 2017. Santtu-Matias Rouvali is rehearsing the Copenhagen Phil in the wood-panelled concert hall of the Royal Danish Academy of Music. There’s a particularly tricky passage in the second half of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony that he is asking the orchestra to play again and again. For some reason, it’s still not working out. SMR insists the brass are late with their entry, but the musicians think not. So the conductor turns back the pages of his score and starts the passage up once more.

This time, as Nielsen’s presto fugue spreads through the orchestra, SMR leaves the podium altogether. He walks to the back of the stage and stands behind the players in question, glaring over their shoulders at the scores they are reading from. “Yes, it’s late,” he says eventually, flagging the orchestra down into silence. “It’s late with the score and it’s late to the ear.” Two violinists at the front of the stage literally raise their eyebrows, exchanging nervous smiles. Moments later, SMR is back on the podium running the passage again.

There may not be anything out of the ordinary about a conductor doing his job. But on this occasion, the dynamic is particularly unusual. SMR might well be the youngest person in the room. He is certainly the scruffiest. His default physical stance is to balance his feet teenager-like on the mechanism of the swivelling conductor’s stool. He uses a baton that has long since snapped in two and been fixed with tape. But despite his nonchalant body language and the altercation with the brass, he has the room in his hand.


Starting out

“That was not the best rehearsal for me,” SMR confesses later, guzzling coffee in the foyer of his hotel. “But I can understand. The Nielsen is difficult and when people are not in the mood it’s hard to get the best out of them.” Just two weeks earlier, Denmark’s new Culture Minister had suggested in a newspaper article that one way to aid Denmark’s starved regional orchestras would be to close the Copenhagen Phil and move its players to the provinces. “People are unsure about what will happen and you can sense it,” SMR says.

The concerts SMR is preparing for in Denmark will be his last as the Copenhagen Phil’s principal guest conductor, a title he has held since 2013. “This was the second orchestra I ever conducted abroad,” he says with sudden enthusiasm; “we know each other really well.” But with no appearance next season, could this be his last visit to Copenhagen? “It could. But to be honest I don’t believe it will be.” His comment betrays some sense of loyalty, but also some faith in the orchestra’s very survival.

Either way, there are more important firsts coming SMR’s way. In September this year, he takes charge of his first concerts as chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. The following month, he appears for the first time as principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Before both, he takes the Tampere Philharmonic, the orchestra in Finland’s second city of which he has been chief conductor since 2013, on a tour of Japan.

For a maestro shortly to take charge of one of Scandinavia’s most distinguished orchestras, SMR can appear incongruously juvenile. When we meet, his conversation is punctuated with manic laughter and he wrestles constantly with an abundance of physical energy. I first came across SMR in person outside Maida Vale Studios in London. I approached the main entrance and there he was: a distractible, student-like figure smoking a cigarette who went out of his way to open the door for me. Half an hour later he was conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a virile performance of Uuno Klami’s Kalevala Suite.

Debuts in big, unfamiliar cities are part of a young conductor’s life. Does the process of introducing yourself to an orchestra get any easier? “In a way, but I never really had a problem with it,” SMR says. “At first they think, ‘who is this skateboarder?’ But within the first 15 minutes you either get them or you don’t.” Can he tell me about a time when he hasn’t? “Yeah. I went to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which was my first time in the UK. As soon as the rehearsal began I started trying to pull things apart. They were like, ‘what is he doing?’ They weren’t used to it. Nothing bad happened but I learned there was a different culture in the UK. That was good.”

It was certainly good for the Philharmonia Orchestra, the British ensemble that booked SMR next. “Nordic orchestras can take more advice,” he says of the difference in the working methods, not least the comparative lack of rehearsal time in the UK. “But little rehearsal time means people come prepared. They are skilful, they have their ears open and they practice their notes. Because in the Philharmonia they are all basically substitutes, they know they’ll not be invited back if they don’t. That means they pay attention.”


Triumph in Tampere

It was with Finland’s resurgent Tampere Philharmonic that SMR cut his teeth. He is contracted at the orchestra until 2019 but hints that an extension will be difficult given news of his appointments elsewhere. Still, he is fiercely loyal to the ensemble. “Tampere was so important for me,” he says; “I really learned how to be a chief conductor there.”

Staff in Tampere will be hoping the transformation that has taken place during SMR’s tenure outlasts him. Ticket sales have soared during his time as chief (this in Finland’s largest concert hall); at one point before the current season, staff were forced to consider capping subscriptions to a limited number of concerts. The audience in Tampere hasn’t just expanded; it has become younger, more diverse, and more engaged.

SMR points to the “huge experience” of the Tampere intendant Helena Hiilivirta and the “great partnership” he enjoys with her. But how else would he explain the effect he had on the orchestra’s rapid rise and prominence in the city? “It was the sum of many things, and one was the media,” he explains. “How the orchestra is covered impacts people very much, especially young people. You need to do more than talk in a conservative way about what you’re doing; ‘this season we have Schumann’s Fourth’. That’s not good enough. You have to tell people why they should come and listen.”

With all the focus this autumn on SMR’s new jobs in Gothenburg and London, there is surely some danger that Tampere will take a back seat. “That’s a good point, but I am just as interested in Tampere and will be until I finish,” he counters. The Japan tour, in that sense, has come at just the right time. The orchestra will play Sibelius and Grieg, and take with it the Moomin exhibition that was recently erected at Tampere Hall. “That is really good,” says SMR with a characteristic spurt of enthusiasm; “the Japanese are crazy about the Moomins and they’ll get the chance to see the original drawings.”

While the Japanese won’t necessarily be hearing one of Finland’s most famous orchestras, they will be hearing one of its best. “Tampere deserves to be far better known,” says SMR. True enough: the orchestra might never have sounded better – a testament not just to SMR but to his predecessors Hannu Lintu and John Storgårds. It was Lintu, says SMR, who “educated it really well” before he took over and “made it fly.”


Changes in Gothenburg

There is a certain parallel there with Gothenburg. Some say orchestra’s firm technical foundations were laid by Neeme Järvi, before Gustavo Dudamel injected it with fire. “That sounds about right,” says SMR. “But what Gothenburg needs now is waking up. They are very good, very skilful, with good management and economics. The orchestra itself has this quality of sound [he makes a broad, horizontal gesture with his hands], but they don’t have this, you know…[he stabs his fingers downward suggesting rhythm and attack]. They can do it, but they’re not used to it. For me, it has to be automatic.” Is that why the orchestra voted for him as its new chief? “I think they sensed that, yes.”

In Gothenburg, SMR will record the Sibelius Symphonies and build on the ensemble’s illustrious history with Nordic music old and new, a key reason he was elected, he says. He describes the ensemble’s streaming service, GSO Play, as “so important…even for the orchestra, which can watch and listen to what was good and what was not good.” Does he watch his own concerts? “Every time.” Does he ever dislike what he sees? “Yes! ‘Never do that gesture again!’,” he guffaws.

Despite its technological credentials, the GSO is a rooted institution in a relatively conservative town by Nordic standards. Rouvali’s informality and his tendency towards unruly behaviour in concerts (tossing bouquets nonchalantly over his shoulder into the audience, for example) will be an interesting proposition in Gothenburg’s stern 1930s concert hall. SMR promises that the changes he induced in Tampere will come to Gothenburg. “Yes, it’s a conservative city, but it can be changed to modern thinking. I don’t know yet how that will happen, but it will happen for sure,” he asserts.

In that comment, SMR refers not just to administration and etiquette, but also to the orchestra’s long-ingrained playing tradition; the smooth sound he referred to. “I try to get out of ideas of tradition,” SMR retorts quickly and assuredly when I bring the subject up. “I don’t listen to many recordings; I just do things how I feel them. You have a thesis. You’re absolutely sure of it, you stand behind it, you maybe explain it, and then you do the work with your hands. Sometimes you have to say, ‘I know this is not the tradition, but this is the way we’re doing it’. Even with Strauss and Beethoven, I have my own ideas. If it was the London Symphony Orchestra I would force them to do it my way.”

Santtu-Matias Rouvali rehearsing the Copenhagen Phil in March 2017.
Photo: Andrew Mellor.

Psychology and wellbeing

But as we saw, things can get tricky when one visiting conductor must cajole a team of pressured, hardened musicians. It was telling how SMR diffused that tense situation. “I was conducting shit there, so now we are even,” he admitted shortly after his stand off with the brass and wind, to chuckles from the orchestra. “Irony is good,” he says when I bring up that situation. “You can put on a little bit of pressure, but you have to know how to release the pressure too.” Still, it’s a fine line, and every orchestra’s temperament is different, surely? “Yes, which is why half the profession is psychology. That’s the only way you can establish authority.”

Four years ago, the Danish newspaper Politiken ran a photo-feature on SMR, describing him as “more like the drummer in an Indie band than a conductor.” He is now 31, but could pass for a decade younger. His managers, he says, guide him through many of the 30-something weeks every year he is away from his partner and 3-year-old son in Finland. “They help me with everything: which scores to take where so that I’m on top of what’s coming; reminding me to rest; telling me not to drink beer in the evening!” Isn’t it frustrating to be subjected to such controls by his management? “They’re just reminding me, they know I’ll do what I like…and that I drink vodka!” he laughs again. “But I’ve learned that it’s really important to have these people, because they know how it works and they always have a point.”

It seems a little unfair that this young man in the prime of his youth has to studiously avoid hangovers while his peers with “normal” jobs may not have to. “I have had enough fun in my life,” he responds with yet another of those hyena-like laughs. “It’s important you don’t lose your childhood to serious things, and I didn’t.” But being away from his child and partner? “Yes, these moments of being intensely pissed-off do exist. But you plan for it. I want to have a third of the year at home and another three weeks to read scores, which is important for someone like me who doesn’t have all the repertoire yet.”

Immediately after leaving Copenhagen, SMR will be tackling his first Mahler, the Fifth Symphony with the Tampere Philharmonic. “It’s difficult!” he exhorts with a sigh. “I played it in youth orchestra but now I see the score…it’s huge!” Is he excited or slightly concerned about the prospects? “I’d say, slightly concerned,” he smiles. But the Mahler symphonies are in his sights. “One by one, I’d like to do them. And I’d really like to do one Bruckner at one point too, when I feel ready. And Schumann, but first I have to study them really, really well.”


National Romantic

I ask SMR if, in general temperament, he is a Romantic. “Yes,” he responds after the tiniest hesitation. Certainly, his interpretations have a lived-in passion. He favours a big sound, which with his broad, sometimes flamboyant gestures can bring to mind the style of his mentor Leif Segerstam. “What Leif told me was to be clear,” SMR says. “But when you look at the character of Finnish conductors, they’re all so different: Jukka-PekkaEsa-PekkaHannuJorma…what I learned from watching all of them was to be yourself, and you will be loved!”

The conversation turns towards the Finnish conducting “factory” personified by the pedagogue Jorma Panula, another of his teachers. We talk about the latest talent to emerge from Panula’s tutorage Klaus Mäkelä. “Klaus is a talented guy,” concurs SMR.

But how long can Finland’s prowess at producing conductors last? “Well, for sure there is someone behind Klaus! But we have to be careful. The level hasn’t been as high as it was; we must maintain good education.” As for frustrations about being labelled “another Finnish conductor,” SMR brushes them off. “I think, in the end, we’re all happy to say we’re from Finland.” Because you’re proud Finns, or because of the cachet attached to being a Finnish conductor? “Perhaps a bit of both.”


Santtu-Matias Rouvali takes up his new positions with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in September and with the Philharmonia Orchestra on 5 October. He tours Japan with the Tampere Philharmonic from 19-25 May.

See also the video introduction to SMR by the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Philharmonia Orchestra

Tampere Philharmonia 

Gothenburg Symphony


Main photo: Kaapo Kamu.