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"Let's see what the future brings" – Santtu-Matias Rouvali interview

The Finnish conductor discusses his first recording with the Philharmonia, dealing with lockdown and planning in the age of Covid.

Photo © Marco Borggreve

It's no doubt far down the list in terms of importance, but one of the countless activities to have changed in the face of the Covid crisis is that of interviewing conductors. Out go the carefully coordinated 20-minute spots in dressing rooms, squeezed into packed schedules by publicists on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In their place – as with so much else – comes a Zoom call, which in the case of my interview with Santtu-Matias Rouvali, hardly seems as though it was difficult to fit in.

Indeed, he comes online for our early-afternoon slot ruffling his hair and explaining that he's only just woken up. Here's a conductor, still only in his early 30s, with no carefully controlled image, who, it becomes clear throughout our conversation, is happy to talk openly and honestly without the slightest hint of a routine anecdote or a pre-rehearsed answer. 

Other conductors have described lockdown as an opportunity to learn new works, to return to favourite scores, to find suitably conductorly ways to use the time that they can't spend actually conducting. Not so Rouvali. "Yeah, well, you can also do that," he answers with a laugh when I ask if he's also been studying scores. 

"But basically I tried to use the situation to really relax, because it's very random that you have half a year off." It seems to have been a matter first and foremost of getting on with the other things in life, which one imagines can very easily fall foul to an international career that includes being music director of two orchestras, the Tampere and Gothenburg Symphony Orchestras, and music director designate of another, the Philharmonia in London, which his is due to take over at the start of the 2021-22 season.

Those other things, he tells me, include getting married and decorating his new house, just down the road from Tampere, where he is still able to conduct. "It's great," he explains, "because I'm allowed to work here in Finland still. But I can't really travel. I was supposed to go to Norway with the Bergen Philharmonic, but just today the Finnish government announced new restrictions." 

He's happily distracted by something else when we speak in mid-August, too. "The hunting season is going on, so I have been hunting for one and half weeks now. Mostly the small game," he adds when I question further: "birds and things like that. So basically it's ok! I've got my orchestra down the road. And I can have my sauna, sausages and fishing."

Sanntu-Matias Rouvali conducting the Philharmonia (photo © Camilla Greenwell)

Even though almost everything is on hold for Rouvali, this month sees the release of his first album with the Philharmonia, recorded live at London's Royal Festival Hall in November last year. The repertoire, a 42-minute sequence compiled by the conductor from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, is perhaps an unusual choice, and Rouvali's explanation is characteristically honest. "It was at a time when we were thinking in London that you needed to be clever with the ticket sales," he says, laughing at the quaintness of such pre-Covid considerations. "People want to hear the traditional things. That's No. 1, of course."

"But music-wise, it's a variation of dances, basically waltzes. That's what music is about. I love ballet music because of the character of the dances. And for the orchestra, of course, there's nothing that's too difficult to play. They have it in their ears, and they've heard it since they were little children. So it's a good exercise for the orchestra: they are of course reading the music, but the notes are only references. The conductor can really make the interpretation, and they need to read from the gesture, not the [sheet] music. You can vary it in the moment, and they have to react in that moment to what the conductor is doing. It's a great exercise for a conductor and orchestra to get know each other better."

And how, I ask, did Rouvali make his selection from the more than two hours' music that make up the complete work? The answer is once more revealing of the conductor's apparent sense of freedom, of never really letting himself be tied down. "It's always tricky to find excerpts," he says. "This time it was like that. Maybe next time it will be something different. The finale will always be there, but otherwise it can be varied."   

Rouvali's own relationship with the Philharmonia goes back several years, and the announcement of his appointment as the new music director, taking over from another Finn, Esa-Pekka Salonen, followed his earlier appointment, from the start of the 2017-18 season, as one of its principal guest conductors. 

He's full of admiration for the orchestra and its musicians, who work in very different conditions to their counterparts Scandinavia. "They're working like hell, all the time," he says, with far less rehearsal time than his orchestras in Gothenburg and Tampere. "But they're so skilful they can do it. And they can still smile. They're happy that they're playing – and it's at the top level."

Outside London's Royal Festival Hall (photo © Camilla Greenwell)

The fact that Rouvali so obviously enjoys himself when conducting, I suggest, no doubt has something to do with the orchestra's smiles. He laughs. "I've always had a wonderful time: good concerts, nice company. I'm very, very excited about the job, and let's see what the future brings. I mean, it's been very good up until now. It works, so let's hope for the future."

When I bring up Salonen, and the general dominance of Finnish conductors – a dominance out of all proportion with the country's population of just 5 million – Rouvali is quick to point out that the succession at the Philharmonia is pure coincidence. "It's completely funny that I'm following Esa-Pekka, I mean, as a coincidence. It just happened. It was not planned, that's for sure! But of course I'm very happy to be following him." And he very reasonably warns against lumping him and his countrymen and women together. "None of us are the same. We maybe had the same teachers, but each has their own personality – we're completely different from one another".

When I ask about the richness of the Finnish conducting tradition Rouvali also has his own theory. "It's a tricky question, but I've always had a thought: that it's because we're half Russian and half western. But it's also the charisma and the personality that makes it. A true Finn is something slightly special. It's not the education, which is really very ok, I must say. It's just something new for orchestras to see, that Finns do it in their own way – it will take ages if I try to find more adjectives!"

With Rouvali himself, there's no doubt that he does things his own way, with a platform manner that's refreshingly direct and communicative, often almost balletic. With musician parents – both members of the Lahti Symphony – he never knew life without music. "I always heard music. I began with the violin because, to be honest, my mother's a violinist." Then came a switch to focus on percussion, which he'd already been playing since the age of five. 

"You know, boys are boys," he explains with another laugh. "It makes more sense to play drums loud and fast than have to do technical things on the violin. As teenagers we had a few rock bands basically playing covers." Did the bands have good names, I wonder? "Yeah, yeah. Finnish names..." He lets the sentence drift off with another laugh. 

Photo © Camilla Greenwell

When I ask about the switch to conducting,  he notes that his education provided a firm theoretical grounding for the change. "To play drums helps the coordination, to be sure, but we have good theory and solfège teachers at the Sibelius Academy. You need to learn the structure of the score; you need to get the good weapons to be able to read it. And for that the education at the Sibelius Academy is good."

From the past we come back to the future: the future that had been planned, and the new uncertain future that's replaced it. Rouvali's got a Sibelius cycle underway with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the initial instalments receiving glowing reviews, and he's keen to do more recordings with the Philharmonia. "The plans are changing all the time, though," he says. There are plans, though, unconfirmed when we talk, of him conducting in the Philharmonia's online concert series, the Philharmonia Sessions.

It’s clear he’d rather not to have to rely on live streams, and it’s no surprise, particularly for a musician so clearly and instinctively communicative as Rouvali, to hear that he prefers an audience – which conductor doesn’t? But he's under no illusions as to the challenges ahead, either. "The impact will be big, especially in the beginning. And let's see what will change in classical music. It will slowly recover, and who knows? It will come back for sure, but it will take time."

Santtu-Matias Rouvali's new album with the Philharmonia is released on September 4

Hugo Shirley · Published
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