Finnish Maestro Rouvali Fires Up The NY Phil — And Raises The Roof

Santtu-Matias Rouvali has the distinction of being the only guest conductor to lead the New York Philharmoinc in two programs this season. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — Growing up with Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony recordings (made in mono, often in a dry radio studio), many of us learned symphonic classics in the spirit of Ansel Adams photos: in vivid black and white. That point of reference is periodically vanquished, but rarely with such thought and resourcefulness, as in the New York Philharmonic guest-conducting appearances by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, who dominated the January season in repertoire ranging from Beethoven to Anna Thorvaldsdottir with a keen sense of sonority that was his central vehicle of expression.

Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović was soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

His wild head of hair from last season has been tamed, revealing the 37-year-old Finnish conductor’s surprisingly boyish face, and causing less distraction to a distinctive conducting technique in which much is conveyed by his revolving wrist action that may partly account for the buoyancy of his performances.

That sense of sonority wasn’t all that apparent in the Jan. 5 program at David Geffen Hall amid the tornado of notes that is the new Magnus Lindberg Piano Concerto No. 3 (co-commissioned by the Philharmonic — and a virtuosic vehicle for Yuja Wang) or Beethoven’s thematically animated Symphony No. 2. Still, Beethoven unfolded from just the right middle-weight, bass-line sonority for this transitional work that lies somewhere amid Haydn symphonies, Mozart comic operas, and the more formidable Beethoven that was to come.

The Jan. 12 program — including The Rite of Spring — was the one that no doubt fueled punditry about Rouvali’s viability for the music directorship of the Philharmonic, a post Jaap van Zweden will vacate in spring 2024. I take no sides on that question, though Rouvali’s Stravinsky left the crowd roaring in ways I’ve rarely heard here. One clear message: After some extremely rusty post-lockdown performances, the Philharmonic is back to being world-class.

Rouvali’s coloristic sense with the Rite‘s lavish orchestration wasn’t intoxicating but penetrating, much heavier on winds than on strings and with brasses that were lean and sharp. This was Stravinsky with weapons from The Bronze Age. What I didn’t always understand was the conductor’s moderate tempos in some of the individual episodes. What was the music trying to say? The piece need not always have the original ballet scenario as a compass, but it helps.

Deep cognitive understanding and a radiant tone quality carried Nemanja Radulović’s highly personal performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 on Jan. 12. The Serbian violinist would seem to be from the Patricia Kopatchinskaja school of artistic provocateurs. Having first encountered this now-37-year-old talent in a raw state roughly a decade ago, I was immediately taken on this occasion by the artistry that has come to inhabit his flexible tempos and spontaneity that threatened to leave the orchestra behind. Slow movements are his specialty, projecting genuine and unfiltered emotion. The encore — his own arrangement of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for solo violin — was as playful as it was virtuosic. Just because Radulović looks like Rasputin doesn’t mean he ain’t fun.

Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, composer Magnus Lindberg, and pianist Yuja Wang after a performance of Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the New York Philhamonic.

He also prompted a revised notion of the place for vulgarity in the concert hall. The violinist’s stage presence — hair flying everywhere, dashing offstage as if he has more important places to be — can leave listeners suspecting that they’re being sold a bill of goods. Not this audience, and rightly so, because the hair, the physical animation, and so many other touches that could be distracting were counterbalanced but inspired artistry. Similarly, the heavy-handedness that came with Rouvali’s slower tempos in the Stravinsky, though also crossing the line into vulgarity, were still thrilling. Vulgarity is a part of our increasingly loud world. Having a bit of that in the concert hall — balanced by the hyper-competence of the performers — can even be heard as an element of 21st-century authenticity.

The new pieces on each program were instances of the composer’s notes saying something completely different from what met the naked ear. For those who know Magnus Lindberg’s first two piano concertos, the Piano Concerto No. 3 (as heard Jan. 5) was in a familiar dense idiom, and then some. Lindberg mentioned wanting to take piano writing to a new extreme, and that was definitely apparent. It’s a big-fisted concerto that could only be encompassed by a pianist of Wang’s technique and caliber. But the composer’s notes also talked about multiple thematic “stories” — he compared the structure to that of a William Faulkner novel. Indeed, the first movement begins by clearly laying out a number of motifs, though following them may require serious score study — appropriate to augenmusik, perhaps — to be on the composer’s wavelength. At times, the overwritten piece seems like a cadenza in search of a concerto. Wang, of course, made it all magnetic, especially the cadenza itself.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir might be called a post-Kaija Saariaho composer, as represented by her 2021 Catamorphosis, another New York Philharmonic co-commission, heard Jan. 12 but also available on the Berlin Philharmonic’s digital concert hall library. Like Saariaho, Thorvaldsdottir prefers expansive sonorities that sound electronically influenced, or enhanced, whether or not they actually are. Also, the music was in the Saariaho tradition of seeming static on the surface but with the kind of inner rustling that reflects the changes that happen over time in nature, both above and below the ground. Well-timed minimal, autumnal melodies emerge in an orchestral texture that suggests lamentation.

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir during bows after the U.S. premiere of her ‘Catamorphosis’ by the New York Philharmonic under Santtu-Matias Rouvali.

In contrast, the composer describes Catamorphosis as “a dramatic piece, but it is also full of hope.” As much as I like it and want to hear it repeatedly along with other Thorvaldsdottir works, I heard no hint of hope, especially in Rouvali’s tempos, which were a  bit slower than those of Kirill Petrenko in Berlin. The running time was roughly 18 minutes in Berlin, 23 in New York, and the music was all the more entrancing for being slower. A generation or two back, British composer Michael Tippett taught us not to hold composers’ program notes against them (he seriously muddied the waters). Once, in an offhand comment, director Peter Sellars said, “Composers never know what they’ve written.” That lesson was re-learned over January at the New York Philharmonic.