‘The hottest conductor in Finland’ – we meet Philharmonia Orchestra’s Santtu-Matias Rouvali

11 August 2020, 17:52 | Updated: 12 August 2020, 10:47

Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali
Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Picture: Kaupo Kikkas

By Rosie Pentreath

Rouvali will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2021 – here’s everything you need to know about the young maestro making his mark.

The Times described him as “the hottest conductor in Finland” and The Guardian highlighted his “hyperactive, almost balletic” style, and the “extravagant” technique he uses to get “playing of sizzling virtuosity and vividness from the orchestra.”

In 2021, young Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor at the Philharmonia Orchestra (Classic FM’s Orchestra on Tour, based at the Southbank in London), while continuing as chief conductor at both the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden and Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in Finland.

How did Rouvali go from last-minute stand-in at Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra to principal conductor of the Philharmonia, in just 12 years?

Here’s everything you need to know about the conductor’s career so far...

Read more: Classic FM partners with Philharmonia Orchestra for ‘The Philharmonia Sessions’ >

Santtu-Matias Rouvali will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2021
Santtu-Matias Rouvali will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2021. Picture: Camilla Greenwell

One of the youngest conductors ever appointed principal of a major UK orchestra

Santtu-Matias was born in November 1985, which makes him 35 at the time of his appointment as principal conductor with the Philharmonia.

He’s the youngest principal conductor of the orchestra since Riccardo Muti in 1973, and one of the youngest ever appointed to a major UK orchestra. Pretty impressive!

From a musical family

Both of Rouvali’s parents were musicians, and members of Lahti Symphony Orchestra based at the Sibelius Hall in Finland.

As a small boy Santtu used to accompany his parents to rehearsals, and soon became enchanted with the more visual members of the ensemble. After demanding to meet the timpani and its timpanist at a young age, he became a percussionist and he also played the drums in a rock band.

Read more: Meet Kirill Petrenko, the ‘anti-maestro’ taking Berlin by storm >

Pictures at an exhibition with Rouvali and Gothenburg Symphony

From last-minute stand-in in Finland, to principal conductor of a London orchestra in 12 years

Rouvali got his break as a conductor at the age of just 22, when he stood in last-minute at Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

The young conductor rose to the challenge of a tricky programme, which included a world premiere by the Finnish composer Mikko Heiniö, and he didn’t look back – succeeding his mentor, Hannu Lintu as chief conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic in 2012.

Joining the Philharmonia Orchestra

Santtu-Mathias Rouvali first conducted the Philharmonia in 2013 and has been the orchestra’s principal guest conductor since 2017. When he was appointed principal conductor of the Philharmonia, he described it as an “honour”.

“This is the start of a great adventure,” he said. “The players of the Philharmonia can do anything: they are enormously talented and show an incredible hunger to create great performances. There is huge possibility with this orchestra, and we will do great things together.”

Philharmonia Sessions: Sheku performs Saint-Saëns

A distinctive, ‘extravagant’ conducting style

Rouvali is known for his distinctive and enthusiastic conducting style, which The Guardian called “hyperactive”, “balletic” and “extravagant” all in one great four-star review.

“For all the extravagance of his technique, though, he showed that he can still obtain playing of sizzling virtuosity and vividness from the orchestra,” the review said – and stunning sound of the orchestra is what really matters.

Gramophone has described Rouvali’s recordings of orchestral works by Sibelius as “distinguished by an arresting vividness and clarity”, and “terrific”.

Loyalty to his Finnish roots

“The hottest conductor in Finland” remains loyal to his native roots – staying at the helm of Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic, even once he’s principal at the Philharmonia. He also plans to stay living in Finland for the time being. 

Santtu-Matias Rouvali becomes the Philharmonia Orchestra’s principal conductor for the orchestra’s 2021/22 season. His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with the orchestra is out on 4 September on Signum. Click here to find out more.