Some conductors are cerebral, others are physical. Santtu-Matias Rouvali, the new Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, is definitely the latter. He’s sitting on a sofa backstage at Göteborgs Konserthuset after two hours of intensive rehearsal for his inaugural concert – Sibelius’ Kullervo – but he can hardly keep still: he mimes everything from Mexican trumpet players to hunting geese on a winter morning to the brutal music of Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry (“Yeah, that’s a machine!”). On the podium, Rouvali does a one man choreography of the show with his whole body, arms forming graceful arabesques, knees bending like a limbo dancer. In one of his early rehearsals, I was told, the orchestra leader had to grab him to stop him falling backwards off the podium.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Kaapo Kamu
Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Kaapo Kamu

Rouvali is a slight, slim figure with an unruly mop of hair, but his short stature doesn’t stop him being a commanding presence. Watch his face on video and it’s red with effort after the first few minutes of a concert; by the end, he is dripping with sweat. But all that movement is uncannily easy to read: the Gothenburg musicians love it, as do the GSOPlay video team, who say that he makes it particularly easy for them to follow the music.

I ask Rouvali about which of the three phases of his work (preparation, rehearsal with the orchestra and the concert itself) is the most important. “The rehearsal period is the most important, because that’s when you make yourself and the orchestra come together, when you create the chemistry. It’s the most important and the most tricky”. As to how he creates the sound, that’s physical too: “I sing it, I move my hands the way I want it, and they see ‘Aha, he wants it like that’. Easy!”.

Having said which, he insists on being properly prepared as to what he wants from the score. “If you are unprepared, you will be the bully. If you know the score, then it's purely demanding of playing better. Some conductors attack first, if they don't know the score, and that's bullying, I think – I have seen that from many conductors.”

Unusually amongst conductors, Rouvali started as a percussionist (Simon Rattle is the other notable example). That, he says, has given him the ability to bring out the multiple rhythmic patterns in the music of composers like Sibelius: “the conductor should be able to show tempo somewhere in the body, but also to do autonomic things with each hand. I was also a drum kit player, so my feet and hands can do different things at the same time. When you read the score, you sing it in your head, they do automatically what is written, it’s like a chip card that you install and set going”. He opens a page of the Kullervo score, points at some of the rhythmic figures in the strings and starts drumming on his knees, beatboxing the snatches of melody as he goes – “Bom, bo-pi-bo-pom pi bom Bom… I think the string player thinks about the big line and how it goes, but that doesn’t help these rhythmic things, because they can’t get the rhythm through their body, they can’t show many things at the same time. I think it’s the sense of inside groove that you get from playing percussion which is very important in Sibelius’ music.”

Every review we’ve published about Rouvali, however favourable it has or has not been, has remarked on the sheer energy in his conducting. When asked how he transmits that energy to the orchestra, his response is surprising: “I have a strange rhythm with food things: I don’t eat breakfast. I eat a little bit in the day after the rehearsals, but never before the rehearsal; then, later at night, I eat kebab or steak or something like that. And somehow, the energy comes and I feel totally awake.” At the end of a concert, he allows himself a well deserved beer – and that’s before he comes back out to take his bows.

Most of his conducting teachers told him that moving too much on the podium was bad, until one teacher made “a clever decision: he let me be like I am.” Trying to keep still on the podium has never felt natural: “you just read the score and your hands are doing what the score says! And if you do it only with your hands, that’s not enough: it has to come through your body, it gives more when it flows all the way from your toes.”

Gothenburg Symphony is Rouvali’s first appointment as Chief Conductor outside his native Finland. Currently, he's commuting, but he’s planning to find an apartment in Gothenburg: unsurprisingly, he is complimentary about the city, the orchestra and the team. Gothenburg Concert Hall, on the other hand, comes across as something of a beast to be tamed: “The acoustic is not the easiest one in which to play. It's quite boomy and quite round but it has some qualities like very warm string sound, the brass can really play sensitively with good quality, but it's not always easy to play together.” He has plans for the orchestra, but he’s unwilling to reveal what they are: asked about repertoire, the response is limited to “I eat everything”, and about the orchestra in general, he’s equally coy: “I’ll leave it as a secret, but come to listen after five years, then you’ll know what I’ve been working on.”

For Santtu-Matias Rouvali, it’s actions and music, not words, that are going to do the talking.


...although he wasn't shy about telling me some personal things, as you can see in this short video: