Finland has long produced a disproportionate number of world-class conductors. Just look at the New York Philharmonic this month: Esa-Pekka Salonen, born in Helsinki, ended a guest stint with the orchestra on Tuesday.
And just two days later, Santtu-Matias Rouvali — born 60 miles north, in Lahti — made an auspicious Philharmonic debut. At 34, the fast-rising Mr. Rouvali serves as chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. In 2021, he will become the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London — succeeding, as it happens, Mr. Salonen.
Beginning a debut program at David Geffen Hall with Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Overture-Fantasy was actually a little risky: It’s hard to make this staple seem fresh. Mr. Rouvali did so — not through any unusual interpretive approach, but simply by conducting a probing, clear and somberly dramatic account. On the podium this wiry, mop-haired conductor makes sweeping gestures with his long arms. But every gesture expressed some element of the music, and the Philharmonic responded with warm and articulate playing.
Beginning with the Tchaikovsky gave context to the main work on the program: Sibelius’s First Symphony. At the time he composed that piece, the young Sibelius was obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. He had also been floored by a performance of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” The drama and fantastical colorings of Berlioz’s music were in his head.
Instead of including Berlioz, Mr. Rouvali led the New York premiere of another fantastical piece, written recently: Bryce Dessner’s “Wires.” Mr. Dessner is best known as the guitarist of the rock band the National, and also for his film scores. Though not a concerto, the 14-minute, single-movement “Wires” featured Mr. Dessner playing an electric guitar part that was sometimes integrated into the orchestra textures; other times staking out on its own; and now and then nudging the other instruments into unexpected directions.
You hear echoes of diverse styles — hazy spectral music, Steve Reich-like rhythmic repetitions, bursts of grungy rock, pointillist atonal riffs — in Mr. Dessner’s musical language. Though I grew impatient with the shaggy structure of the piece, moment to moment I was absorbed in the music.
Mr. Rouvali has recorded Sibelius’s First with the Gothenburg Symphony on the Alpha label, the first installment in a planned survey of this composer’s symphonies. In a recent video interview, he sounded almost irreverent about his homeland’s towering composer — especially about the notion, still widely held, that the symphonies are evocative of Finnish folk music and depictions of nature.
Sibelius was really “a dandy, a fashion guy,” Mr. Rouvali said; the idea that he was merely a “nature guy” is just “a good story.” Mr. Rouvali, for his part, loves the First Symphony for the “messy things” in it.
Mr. Rouvali did embrace the messy elements of the music in the inspired performance he led, and made the work’s constant, episodic shifts seem purposeful. The symphony came across as the brashly original work of an ambitious, if still-evolving, young composer — conducted here by a young but already compelling artist.
New York Philharmonic
This program continues through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.