Described as "the hottest conductor in Finland" by The Times, Santtu-Matias Rouvali is the latest star in what increasingly feels like a never-ending line of Finnish conducting talent. And now the 33-year-old's flair has been further championed as he has been announced as the next Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Rouvali will succeed his fellow countryman Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2021, with Salonen taking up the title of Conductor Emeritus.
On Thursday 30 May we welcome Rouvali's energy and invention to the Royal Festival Hall stage as he conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and fellow Finn, Pekka Kuusisto, in a concert of Stravinsky and John Adams. But who is this young bright-eyed and bushy-haired Finn? Well, we’re glad you asked.
Both of Rouvali’s parents were musicians, and together they performed in the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Finland. As a small boy he used to accompany the pair of them to rehearsals and soon became enchanted with the more visual members of the ensemble.
At the age of four, on one of his visits to the orchestra with his parents, he asked his father if he could take him to the timpani player. His father duly obliged and following a rehearsal Rouvali sat on the timpanist’s knee, where he had his first go at playing the instrument. Soon afterwards his parents agreed for the young Rouvali to have private lessons with the timpanist, and from there he never looked back, eventually going on to music school and conservatory as a percussionist.
At the renowned Sibelius Academy in Helsinki the young Rouvali played in an orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu, then Chief Conductor of the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra. The pair discussed the possibility of Rouvali too becoming a conductor and Lintu duly enrolled his protégé into conducting classes led by two of the elder statesmen of Finnish classical music; firstly Jorma Panula, and then subsequently Leif Segerstam (below).
Rouvali got his break as a conductor at the age of just 22, though it wasn’t exactly planned. When the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra lost their conductor to illness, Rouvali was asked to be a last minute stand-in. Though presented with a far from easy programme – including a world premiere by the composer Mikko Heinio – the young conductor was seemingly unfazed by the experience. He certainly didn’t look back, and in 2012 he succeeded his mentor, Lintu, as Chief Conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic.
“Swaying, dancing” (The Guardian), “balletic yet graphic” (Classical Source), Rouvali’s eccentric conducting style rarely goes unnoticed by audiences and reviewers, however his teachers were reportedly less fond if his animated approach. Panula reportedly hated it, but Rouvali has explained it as a natural continuation of his movements as a percussionist. The Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor Esa Pekka Salonen is more accepting than Panula of the technique of their fellow countryman. “It’s all very genuine, he’s not playing to the gallery. It just comes out like that.”
Rouvali's success has long taken him beyond Finland, not least to London, where he is now in his second year as Principal Guest Conductor with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Though his new role will see him work with the Philharmonia for 10 weeks a year, including leading the Orchestra’s flagship series as Resident Orchestra here ar Southbank Centre, it looks unlikely that he will make a permanent move from his home country any time soon.