Not everything is a surprise with Santtu-Matias Rouvali, a 31-year-old former Los Angeles Philharmonic Dudamel Fellow who returned Friday night to Walt Disney Concert Hall for his first subscription concert with the L.A. Phil.
Rouvali, just appointed music director of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden, is Finnish — yet further confirmation that his small country produces more major conductors per capita than anyplace else.
He is of slight build and has a bushy mop of hair. We've had a few of those over the years.
And he has a certain flamboyance. Ditto, even if the stereotypical Finn tends not to be demonstrative.
But Rouvali's imaginative, often spectacular musicality is exceptional even in an era with a number of remarkable young conductors.
His program here was commonplace and weighed down with warhorses: Dvorák's Cello Concerto with Johannes Moser as soloist and Sibelius' First Symphony.
A week earlier at Duke University in North Carolina, Moser joined the Pacifica Quartet for the world premiere of a new string quintet by the newly minted MacArthur Fellow Julia Wolfe. Moser, moreover, will also premiere a new piece by L.A. composer Ellen Reid in February as part of this year's Laguna Beach Music Festival. Meanwhile, Rouvali makes his debut with the Cincinnati Symphony next week conducting Sibelius' more challenging last two symphonies (Nos. 6 and 7) along with Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto (with Jennifer Koh as soloist).
Next to Durham and Cincinnati, L.A. might have seemed uncharacteristically uninventive. It wasn't. We compensated with riveting, original music making, everything seeming not only vital but oddly relevant.
The outlier work was Alexander Mosolov's "Iron Foundry," a four-minute 1927 Soviet exclamation of a machine age promising to transform Russian society and its art. Relying on the thrill of noise and dissonance in this balletic tidbit, Mosolov anticipated by more than half a century industrial rock and heavy metal. The Constructivist score today might well resonate with many angry Americans' nostalgia for an era of factories run by manpower.
The L.A. Phil happened to give the premiere in 1931 of "Iron Foundry" at the Hollywood Bowl. I don't know whether or not Charlie Chaplin was at that concert (he might have been), but Rouvali made it seem that way in a spectacular performance that brought to mind Chaplin's 1936 silent (with sound effects) comedy, "Modern Times."
Rouvali's conducting is all arms. He traces everything in the score, including the tiniest detail, with the extravagance of an animated computer graphic. He is, in his movements, downright Chaplinesque, if without the haplessness. Like Chaplin, Rouvali is always in complete control. Every gesture seems driven by an inner musicality. His "Iron Foundry" proved an astonishment.
Dvorák's Cello Concerto, written not much more than a quarter-century earlier in New York, is New World music with an Old World sensibility. Moser, a sophisticated and sensitive cellist, here demonstrated a rare, raw passion. The zealous Rouvali became now and then overbearing, but he mostly doubled Moser's ardor.
Something obviously was on this commanding German-Canadian cellist's mind. For his encore, he said he was dedicating an intense, stirring performance of the Sarabande movement from Bach's First Solo Cello Suite to Hillary Clinton and to Leonard Cohen. The audience roared for Hillary, but there may have been a couple boos; it was hard to tell.
Rouvali's Sibelius was full of more Modernist beans. Often conductors, besotted with Sibelius' soulfulness, look to the First for the first hints of the composer's brooding, haunting, unforgettable soundscapes. The symphony does, after all, open with a somber clarinet solo.
But written at the cusp of the 20th century, this was also the work of a composer in his early 30s who had already found his voice and was setting out on an adventure. Rouvali combed through the pages of the First for new discoveries, something potent in the timpani or bird-like in the flute or overgenerous in the horns. When it was over, an orchestra skilled at giving a young conductor it likes everything asked of it, no matter how outrageous, was all warm smiles.
Rouvali is in the right place. Gothenburg was where his mentor, Gustavo Dudamel, learned the ropes of running a professional orchestra, a little outside the limelight. Now, once more, the Elite Park Avenue Hotel, just down the street from the Göteborgs Konserthus, will be filling up with music business suits eager to sign for the latest sensation.