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Focus Santtu-Matias Rouvali: Into the sauna with Sibelius

Santtu-Matias Rouvali is currently in the process of taking off internationally. The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna will focus on the young Finnish conductor in 2023/24: Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra London and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

© Marco Borggreve

After a concert with the New York Philharmonic, film star Bradley Cooper met conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali and “Vogue” editor Anna Wintour. Wintour immediately loved the young Finn’s shirt and asked: “From Prada?” “No,” Rouvali replied, “from a friend of my mother’s from Lahti.” The “New York Times” reports this in a portrait of the high-flyer on the conductor’s podium. This episode says a lot about the unpretentious, fundamentally likeable artist, born in Lahti in 1985 as the son of two musicians of the city’s symphony orchestra.

It is hardly surprising that he grew into the profession, played the piano early, and learned the violin from his mother. When his parents took little Santtu-Matias to an orchestra rehearsal to save money for the babysitter, he was particularly fascinated by the action in the orchestra, the drums and the conductor. Later he studied percussion but then found that playing triangle can be tedious, and he went to the Finnish conducting forge, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. He started with Jorma Panula, where greats such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, Susanna Mälkki and Osmo Vänskä learned. Then he moved to Leif Segerstam as a master’s student. In 2013 he appeared in Tampere, the “sauna capital of the world”, in southwestern Finland as chief conductor and artistic director of the orchestra there – and still is today. He lives not far from Tampere, in the countryside, on 14 hectares of woodland. It is the retreat for him and his family. Here, he relaxes as often as he can, enjoys the simple Finnish life, goes hunting and fishing, but only as much as the family needs to eat, grows his vegetables, such as peas, which he particularly loves, goes to the sauna and sleeps a lot.

With the 2017/18 season, he took over as head of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has already made guest appearances in Vienna, just as he made his debut with the Wiener Symphoniker and conducted many other vital orchestras such as the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam and the Berlin Philharmonic. With the 2021/22 season, he replaced his compatriot Esa-Pekka Salonen as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London.

At the Musikverein he will perform with his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, including Korngold’s Violin Concerto, played by Arabella Steinbacher. The Philharmonia Orchestra will then perform Shostakovich’s Tenth and Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with Rudolf Buchbinder as the soloist. After all, Jean Sibelius’s Third Symphony belongs to the Wiener Symphoniker because Santtu-Matias Rouvali always likes to bring a piece of “Finnish identity, a message from Scandinavia”. Of course, this should also be explained to a Central European orchestra, as he revealed on his debut with the Munich Philharmonic BRKlassik. But his powers of persuasion as a conductor probably apply to every orchestra: “70 per cent of our work is that of a psychologist to win over other people for what you want yourself,” says Rouvali – and has unusual ideas. He would like to bring the life and mentality of his homeland closer to those who make music with him, take them to Finland to go to the sauna, swim in the ice-cold water, grill sausages and drink vodka, “and then play Sibelius again after a week”!

Text by Stefan Musil.

Musikverein Wien, interior, Großer Musikvereinssaal, Golden Hall, architecture, organ, rows of seats, seating, ceiling painting

© Dieter Nagl

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Musikverein Wien, interior, Großer Musikvereinssaal, Golden Hall, architecture, organ, rows of seats, seating, ceiling painting

© Todd Rosenberg

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Musikverein Wien, interior, Großer Musikvereinssaal, Golden Hall, architecture, organ, rows of seats, seating, ceiling painting

© Mathias Bothor

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Musikverein Wien, red carpet, staircase to the Großer Musikvereinssaal and Brahms Saal

© Simon Fowler | Warner Classics

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