Santtu’s first year with the Philharmonia

Principal Conductor Santtu Matias-Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia in Barcelona

With Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Philharmonia, classical music performance is having a creative rebirth. And we’re just getting started.

On 21 May 2019, the Philharmonia announced the appointment of Santtu-Matias Rouvali as our new Principal Conductor. Three years later, our concert on 8 June 2022 marks the closing of his first London season with us in the role. So was it worth the wait? Absolutely, and more.

When the musicians of the Philharmonia voted to appoint Santtu in 2019, we saw in him the potential for something extraordinary: here in front of us was a 33-year-old conductor with an energy and vision that was unique and distinct; someone who clearly stood out from the crowd.

Young conductors often model themselves on older mentors, only to find their own voice later on in their career. But in Santtu, we could already hear an individual who had found that voice very early on. It was different, it was galvanising, and it was extremely compelling.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali in rehearsal with the Philharmonia at Alte Oper Frankfurt

Santtu rehearsing with the Philharmonia at Alte Oper Frankfurt. Credit: Luca Migliore

In a world of deeply rooted musical traditions, Santtu was rewriting the script. He would regularly push the boundaries of what was artistically comfortable, and challenge the immutability of our core repertoire.

The idea of adding in an extra bass drum roll at the end of a Tchaikovsky symphony, or a bells-up fortissimo edit to the horn part in another, may be seen by some as musical sacrilege, but for Santtu, it was an act of creative engagement with the work.

By playing with and interrogating the composer’s ideas, he was bringing the creative impetus of the composer back into focus, stopping the work from becoming a static piece of musical gospel. Our previous Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen once said that he did not want our art form to become a museum, to become mummified; in Santtu, we find a conductor who fearlessly puts this philosophy into practice.

Santtu conducting Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall in April 2022. Credit: Mark Allan

But this approach is not limited to Santtu’s personal innovations with the score. At the core of it is the live performance of the work itself: the spontaneous symbiosis between conductor and orchestra that happens in the moment on-stage; it is the essence that brings a concert to life. And in this, Santtu is unparalleled.

Most conductors decide on their interpretation of a piece ahead of time, clearly relaying it to the musicians in the prior rehearsals. Tempo, articulation and phrasing will all be scribbled into individual parts so that everyone knows what they are doing, and there is little danger of straying from the path.

Santtu, however, will only give the skeleton of his interpretation ahead of time, allowing for many of the finer points to be determined by musical intuition and presence during the performance itself. This means that there is room for dialogue and reactivity between conductor and musician, with the freedom to evolve through repeat performances.

For this approach to succeed, though, you must have an extremely responsive and flexible group of players who are able to enter into this finely balanced dialogue. And in this respect, the musicians of the Philharmonia most certainly hold their own.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Pekka Kuusisto in rehearsal with the Philharmonia at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany

Santtu and Featured Artist Pekka Kuusisto in rehearsal at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Credit: Luca Migliore

When Santtu walks on-stage with the Philharmonia, we are never 100% sure of what will happen in the concert. But the reward of this uncertainty is an incredibly rich, alive and spontaneous performance that is as exhilarating for the musicians as it is for the audience.

With Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Philharmonia, classical music performance is having a creative rebirth.

And we’re just getting started.


Feature by Kira Doherty, President and Second Horn

Santtu Matias-Rouvali receiving applause after his opening concert with the Philharmonia at Royal Festival Hall

Santtu and the Philharmonia receive applause after the 2021/22 season opening concert. Credit: Mark Allan