Finding the groove?

Interview with the conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali

(Photo: Kaapo Kamu)

Santtu-Matias Rouvali is a high-flyer. At the age of 33, the conductor, who began his musical career as a percussionist, holds two chief conductor positions: with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. The energetic Finn is currently making his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In our interview, he talks about his career and his view on the conducting profession.

128: Mr. Rouvali, does the fact that you were a percussionist in your first life make conducting easier for you?
Santtu-Matias Rouvali: No, I don’t think so, and when conducting I don’t pay more attention to rhythm than to other things. But maybe you can see from my conducting style what instrument I’ve played professionally. Because to me, the baton is a bit like a beater, and I use it in the same way as I used to use the drumsticks. [He demonstrates this spontaneously with one of the four batons on the table with the precision and virtuosity that only real percussionists possess.]

That shows the true percussionist. Does this drive make the difference to a born composer? The difference between, say, percussion and a violin?
It's funny that you ask that – because I have in fact played both instruments, that is, I know the difference very well.

Your family seems to have been very musical anyway ...
Oh yes, you can say that. My father was clarinetist in the Lahti Symphonic Orchestra, and my mother a violinist. I was allowed to conduct her last concert before she retired – a very moving moment!

Why did you decide to become a conductor?
Honestly, I don’t know. I just love to conduct. When I was still a percussionist in the orchestra, I studied the score all the time while playing. And I thought, maybe there is something more in there than I’m hearing now; I could probably find something more to say.

Is it possible to actually learn the art of conducting? Or is it just in the hands, in the head, in the whole body? Is there something even metaphysical in it?
I think you either have the gift – or you don’t. You can’t really study conducting. Of course we have a good conducting school in Finland – or rather, many people think that we have a good conducting school in Finland simply because they believe in it.

Does it matter to you whether you are in front of an orchestra in Tampere, Gothenburg, Munich, New York or Berlin?
It’s important to find out what the groove is at each of these locations. If you are conducting in London, to give an example, you have to be very quick. But fortunately, after a few minutes, I feel it: how an orchestra ticks, how the musicians react, what they like and what they don’t like, whether they want to rehearse more or less. And one thing is clear: I don’t have much time to find out when I come to an orchestra as a guest. You meet at the first rehearsal, have a second, maybe third, and then the concert is already on. That needs quick-fire reactions. After all, you can change tactics, depending on the orchestra – but not yourself.

You have been very successful with what you do for several years. What does it do to you?
It may sound funny, but it is the absolute truth: I feel best when I can enjoy my free time. I love to retire to my cottage in summer, to sit by the lake, to go to the sauna, to drink beer, to eat fast food, to ponder. I love those probably typical Finnish things. Also, I still have a five-year-old son, so I look after him too, of course. And I have one certainty: life is more important than art.

Let’s get back to the music: do you feel close to the Russian repertoire?
Yes, I love the clarity of the harmonies, the rhythmic texture of the pieces, especially with Sergei Prokofiev.

That means you prefer pieces with a rhythmic basis.
I think that’s the case.

But you love Sibelius very much. And he is different.
Yes, but only on the surface. Don’t forget the hemiolas in the background. It’s complicated, but you usually don’t hear that so clearly. That’s why the conductor has the task of teasing out this complexity, that is, discovering the melodic beauty that lives behind the rhythmic structure.

What can a conductor actually do with a piece? Ultimately there are notes ...
Yes that’s true. But even an accent is not just an accent. How it sounds depends on my gestures. That changes a lot. And then the tempi! There are endless variations. And that is one reason why I so much enjoy conducting my orchestra in Tampere: they play well when I rehearse with them. They play for me. I achieve wonderful results. And, believe it or not, they are sometimes better than the results I achieve with much more important orchestras.

The interviewer was Jürgen Otten. The text is an abridged version of an interview for the magazine 128 which is available in our online shop and in the Philharmonie.