A breath of Finnish fresh air blew onto the London music scene with the announcement from the Philharmonia Orchestra of the appointment of Santtu-Matias Rouvali as their new Principal Conductor from 2021. And it was only appropriate that he should open this celebratory concert with one of the most infectious and crowd pleasing works in the repertoire. The Chairman Dances, written in 1985, was eventually incorporated into John Adams political opera Nixon in China in 1987. It is the acceptable face of minimalism, using the usual repetitive the musical patterns, but mixing it with a fair dose of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Gershwin and a touch of Hollywood. The result is a heady brew of excitement and wit which Adams has struggled to equal subsequently.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Camilla Greenwell
Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Camilla Greenwell

From the off you knew that Rouvali meant business, marshalling the Philharmonia through the bouncy rhythmic shifts, making the performance truly swing. The orchestral balance was also finely achieved, with the thicker passages gleaming and translucent and nothing sounded routine.

The Stravinsky Violin Concerto that followed was also something out of the ordinary, especially given the unique input of Finnish soloist Pekka Kuusisto. Composed in 1931, it is one of the composer's most important works from the 1930s, combining balletic rhythms with a real sense of symphonic depth.

In the first movement, the soloist seems to be constantly pursued by the woodwind and brass, having to battle to be heard. This is very much in the score, but also Kuusisto’s approach was not to push himself to the fore at this point but rather to attempt to create a civilised dialogue with the orchestra. This continues into the first Aria and only changes in the second Aria. This is the heart and soul of the piece, with a Bachian intensity and beauty of line which is unique in the composer’s output. Kuusisto captured this atmosphere and emotion with poise and dignity. The finale is a more conventional mix of soloistic fireworks and colourful orchestral accompaniment, everyone obviously relishing the release. A beautiful Bach encore captivated the audience, with Kuusisto, very much the showman, scaling down his gestures and producing the most ravishing purity of expression.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka, in the revised 1947 version, rounding off the evening, proved to be an ideal work to demonstrate the strengths of both the orchestra and conductor. This colourful score benefits from the most virtuosic of woodwind and brass playing and the Philharmonia certainly have this in spades in every department. The pacing of the work is also hard to bring off and Rouvali clearly understood the need to give space for every cinematic detail of the scenario to tell, without losing a sense of forward movement. Nothing felt rushed and every tempo choice felt natural. The final scene was handled with aplomb with the tragedy of the sad little tale registering in full. The only regret was the use of the abrupt concert ending that the composer offered as an option, instead of the pathetic unravelling of the original.

There was a definite energy to the performance and, as with the Adams, this wasn’t just another performance of a familiar work. One suspects that Rouvali might have the knack, as do all the great conductors, of persuading us that every work he conducts is the composer’s masterpiece.

And to cap the evening Rouvali ran to the back of the stage to give us a jaunty marimba solo encore, delighting the audience and introducing us to his easy communicative manner.

*****