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Santtu-Matias Rouvali Knows His Way Around a Score, and a Farm

YLÖJÄRVI, Finland — “Here I grow peas,” the conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali said, gesturing to a plot of land the size of a small room. “Why? I just love fresh peas.”

That pea garden is a blip in the scale of Rouvali’s property here — a farm, dating back to the 16th century, on over 34 acres. It is among this place’s wildflowers, evergreens and moss-covered rocks that he feels most at ease, especially compared with where he’s more often seen: inside the world’s major concert halls, whether at the podium of his Philharmonia Orchestra in London or as a guest with ensembles like the New York Philharmonic, where he is a contender to become the next music director.

“I was never someone who wants to be famous,” said Rouvali, 36. “But of course, with this profession it comes automatically.”

Rouvali has structured his life so that he can spend as many weekends as possible on his farm, about 20 minutes outside Tampere, in the southwest of Finland. One morning this month, he was at the start of a welcome break between the Philharmonia’s performances not far away in Mikkeli and another to come in early August at the Edinburgh International Festival.

He and his wife, Elina, live in the property’s main house but make use of all the surrounding buildings. They include a sauna, a guesthouse with music and pole-dancing studios, and a garage with a room for Rouvali to slaughter and skin the game he hunts, like ducks and deer. He fishes in the nearby lake, where he was having a beach built (along with a waterfront sauna). They eat everything he kills and fill the table with dishes made from other local ingredients, such as foraged chanterelles or new potatoes from a neighbor.

“I need this,” Rouvali said, “to kind of rest and have a mental break and not really think about music.”

When he is at work, Rouvali has developed a reputation as a lively conductor, one who revels in experimentation and fluid interpretations, and who has a gift — befitting his background as a percussionist — for internal rhythms and harmonies. When he returns to the Philharmonic next season, for his third engagement there, it will be with a precious two weeks of the season’s real estate, in varied programs that include repertory mainstays and local premieres by Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Magnus Lindberg.

In a time when every guest’s appearance with the Philharmonic has the air of an audition, ahead of Jaap van Zweden’s departure from the podium in spring 2024, Rouvali’s concerts come with added scrutiny and pressure. He acknowledged as much himself, though only at a whisper in the privacy of his own yard.

The Philharmonic, for its part, doesn’t have anything to add. Its music director search, said Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s chief executive, is “a very confidential and sacrosanct process, and we just don’t discuss it.”

ROUVALI WAS BORN in Lahti, Finland, to two members of that city’s orchestra. He played piano, and learned violin from his mother, but he eventually settled on studying percussion seriously — mostly, the mallet instruments. A fan of much music beyond the classical concert hall, he also took up jazz and rock, and was comfortable at the seat of a drum kit.

Music brought him to Finland’s storied Sibelius Academy, and it was there that he made a decisive move to devote himself to conducting. “Maybe to play triangle can be a little boring,” Rouvali said. “I always loved a symphony orchestra, and as a conductor you can do more. So I thought, Why not?”

He had already studied briefly with Jorma Panula, the teacher and mentor of Finnish conducting luminaries like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Susanna Mälkki and Osmo Vänskä. As a master’s student, Rouvali later worked with the podium veterans Leif Segerstam and Hannu Lintu, who gave him an essential bit of advice: You can do whatever you want at the podium, but you just have to make sure everyone understands it.

In other words, Rouvali said, “It has to work, and it has to work around the world.”

That freedom helped to inform his style today: one in which he retains some of a drummer’s gestures, but also in which that physicality is an expressive vessel for open, sometimes trial-and-error interpretations with a liberal use of rubato. “As a conductor, I play the orchestra,” he said. “And if I were a violin player, I wouldn’t always play the same. Sometimes, it’s not the best idea, but it makes the live performance fun.”

Musicians tend to listen. Rouvali discovered at an early age that he is a natural leader, with a sense of empathy that has endeared him to instrumentalists in rehearsals. He also learned, he said, from his parents’ and his own experiences playing under various conductors. But his charisma is for the most part innate; he carries himself as if cheerfully unaware of his position in classical music.

That may be what once made him a good candidate for the Finnish reality TV show “Not Born to Rock,” which assembled a group of classical musicians to form a band. In one episode, they were shown learning how to dress like a rock star; in another, how to party like one. As a group called Taltta, they ended up writing a song that they performed at a music festival. “Of course it was just for entertainment,” Rouvali said. “But it’s good to take part in those things.”

Rouvali’s lightness belies scholarly rigor. He studies scores at the piano slowly, beginning with foundational inner voices and harmonies and working his way outward to melody. It’s a method that shows in his performances, which prioritize unexpected, often revelatory sounds other conductors might overlook; the opening motive of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, rather than recurring, coursed throughout the entire work in his Mikkeli performance with the Philharmonia.

He first appeared with that ensemble in 2013. Not long after, he started as the chief conductor of the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra — a tenure that comes to an end with the coming season. Another chief conductor post followed in 2017, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden. At the same time, he began as the Philharmonia’s principal guest conductor, ahead of being named as Salonen’s successor and taking over in 2021.

Salonen said that when he called Rouvali to offer him the principal guest post, Rouvali was at a Finnish kiosk buying a six-pack of beer. Rouvali responded, “Yeah, that sounds great” with an emphatic expletive, then told the cashier, “I’ll have another one.”

ROUVALI’S RELATIONSHIP with the Philharmonia has been a happy one so far; his appointment to chief conductor was the result of a vote by the musicians. Michael Fuller, a double bassist in the orchestra, said that Rouvali’s interactions with them are more or less nonverbal, so closely attuned are they to each other. That held true during recent rehearsals in Mikkeli, where he was shaping phrases more than keeping time — to the degree that he regularly, without warning, ran from the podium to hear the music from farther back in the hall.

“He’s able to get results very quickly,” Fuller said. “There’s so much that he can do just through his beat. All the sudden he’ll do this thing, and the piccolo or harp will come out of the texture, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard this that way before.’ It’s all connected to this kind of pulse that he radiates.”

That comes in handy, said the Philharmonia horn player Kira Doherty, because of the “unfettered” view Rouvali has of the scores they take up. “With him, it’s like he still has this fresh, almost first-time thing that, in looking at the score, brings out things that nobody has done before,” she added. “Some of them are bonkers, and later he’s like, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’ But he’s trying it, and it’s a way of engaging with the actual act of creativity.”

The reception has been mixed. When Rouvali made his New York Philharmonic debut in 2019, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote that “every gesture expressed some element of the music.” But last season, the critic Zachary Woolfe was much cooler, finding that Rouvali’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony “tipped into plainness.”

Rouvali has nevertheless garnered praise within the industry. Salonen said that, “first of all, he conducts the orchestra, not the audience, so the gestures are really focused and all carry something essential.” He added: “The guy has got a very good rhythm, a sense of tempo, of pulse. And that gives the orchestra a certain kind of security that allows them to express themselves quite clearly.”

Borda, the Philharmonic’s chief executive, said that their time together has often been lighthearted and fun. She visited him in London, where the actor Bradley Cooper appeared in her box accompanied by Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue. They all went to meet Rouvali afterward, and, according to Borda, Wintour told him, “Maestro I love your shirt, is it Prada?” He responded, simply, “No, my mom got it from a friend in Lahti.”

He is, Borda, said, “a conductor very much on the rise.” Whether that rise entails a post at the Philharmonic is an open question, even for Rouvali.

At the farm, while Rouvali’s robotic lawn mower, nicknamed Jens, roamed the garden like a curious dog, he thought about how he would respond to an offer from New York. “I’d probably say, ‘Let me have a beer and call you back,’” he said. There would be much to consider: what the lifestyle change would mean for his time at home — with his wife and their children, with the high school friends who join him every year for the start of Finland’s hunting season — and what it would mean for his post at the Philharmonia.

“It’s hard to say yet,” Rouvali said. “Let’s see if they even ask. But has there ever been a conductor who says no to the New York Phil?”

Salonen said that, regardless, he hopes Rouvali remains with the Philharmonia “for a long time.” Rouvali feels similarly, but added that if there’s a moment to take on a lot of work, it’s now, while he’s still young. He doesn’t want to be a conductor who works well into old age; he has the farm, after all.

“I do find that he’s wandered out from the forest,” Doherty, the Philharmonia player, said, “and he’s going to do some amazing stuff, then one of these days just wander back into his forest-dwelling life.”

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