Debut with the Berlin Philharmonic: Santtu-Matias Rouvali | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 22.09.2019
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Debut with the Berlin Philharmonic: Santtu-Matias Rouvali

A young conductor on the way up, and yet another musician from the small country of Finland to rock the world of classical music: Santtu-Matias Rouvali just had his first performance with the Berlin Philharmonic.

He's a conductor who is fun not only to listen to but also to watch: Santtu-Matias Rouvali moves around on the podium like a dancer, tossing his blond curls, arms from muscled shoulders to fingertips moving like tentacles, every motion from his thin body, every facial expression musically relevant. To use an analogy: If one were to say that a conductor has a body language with a vocabulary of 300 words, Rouvali's has more like 3,000.

That comes as no surprise when one learns that the 33-year-old performed as a percussionist in symphony orchestras before deciding to become a conductor at age 22. "As a percussionist, your hands and legs move autonomously," Rouvali explained to DW. "They can do different things. Even your mouth can express your intentions. The notes on the page are only references. The rest comes from me. That's why I need to move so much. If I just beat the rhythm and let them play just the notes, then I don't sweat, and that's boring."

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Young conductor meets orchestra steeped in tradition

Giving his debuts this season also with the New York Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, Santtu-Matias Rouvali did work up a sweat in his first performance with the Berlin Philharmonic on September 20. Music by Sibelius, Ravel and the Finnish composer Uuno Klami was on the playbill.

Having recently switched principal conductors — Kirill Petrenko officially succeeded Sir Simon Rattle this season — it's an orchestra newly conscious of its tradition, and one that does not suffer visiting maestros lightly. Not even one who is clearly on the way up: in his 11-year conducting career, Rouvali is already the principal at two orchestras — in Tampere, Finland and in Gothenburg, Sweden. He also works intensively with the esteemed Philharmonia Orchestra of London, which he will officially take over in 2021.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali with baton (Harrison Parrot/Kaapo Kamu)

Despite his young age, Rouvali can look back on more than a decade of conducting

Yet before the concert, one had the sense of the Berliners saying, "Who's this 33-year-old trying to tell us how to play?" Violist Martin Stegner confirmed: "Young conductors don't have an easy time with us." Rouvali, for his part, was understated. "Yeah, it's a good orchestra, I think," he said. That assessment was jaw-dropping in the context of the effusive praise that conductors usually heap on this body of musicians.

These musicians have their own priorities. "They want to take time for their own sound," said Rouvali. "For them, the quality of sound, its formulation and intonation, comes first. Then comes the rhythm."

Clearly, conductor and orchestra had to meet halfway: "I need to listen to what comes," said Rouvali, "Then I decide whether it's good enough, whether to compromise or whether I should ask for more. It's important that the players trust you. I think they did."

Read more: Deutsche Grammophon: 120 years old but not treading softly

Uncompromising performance

What came out of the performance didn't sound like a compromise. From the melancholy, soulful melodies in the Kalevala Suite by the Finnish composer Uuno Klami to the brash, bluesy playfulness of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (with soloist Alice Sara Ott) to the metaphysical struggle in the Symphony No. 1 by Jean Sibelius, one had the impression that both conductor and orchestra gave everything they had.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali with the Berlin Philharmonic (Berliner Philharmoniker)

At this concert, the most privileged seats were to the rear of the orchestra: From there, people could see the conductor's full range of expressions

The Berliners' often breathtakingly pure sound quality was present, particularly in the strings, woodwinds and brass. So was the rhythmic drive — and the interpretation. This listener has seldom heard musical stories told so clearly, particularly in the Sibelius.

Read more: Nézet-Séguin: 'Generosity is the key word' 

Finland in the Philharmonie

The performance in the Philharmoniein Berlin was warmly, if not effusively applauded, perhaps to be explained by the fact that the composer Sibelius has never really caught on in Germany.

But whatever the status of that composer from the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern-day classical musicians from Finland are to be found everywhere nowadays: The conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sakari Oramo and Jukka Pekka Saraste, the singer Matti Salminen, the violinists Pekka and Jaakko Kuusisto and the composers Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho and Einojuhani Rautavaara all come from a country of only 5.2 million people.

Why? "I don't know, to be honest," says Rouvali. "I always thought it's because we are somehow in the middle of the Western and Eastern culture. We have this Slavic temperament from Russia, and then we are also together with Sweden and the 'civilized' Western world. And yet we are somehow our own nation and think our own way. We are a bit tribal and raw. We feel special, and somehow our humor and behavior are a bit off-center — and that adds something to our music-making too."

Finland is something this busy conductor clearly carries along with him — and in his busy schedule, he calls his downtime at home his "fourth position," where he spends time with his tractor, hunting and fishing, in the sauna, and with his young son. "That's how I relax, and that's how I forget the music, and then I can be natural and normal — kind of," he adds, laughing.

And his debut with the Berliners? It far surpassed Rouvali's understated prediction: "I'm quite sure that it will be a nice experience." 

Watch video 12:01

Harmoniemusik in Berlin

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