Clef Notes

Klaus Mäkelä: Is He the Right Person to Lead the CSO?


Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, the Chicago Symphony Orchestras's next music director. PC: Todd Rosenberg

One of the biggest stories in classical music this month was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s announcement that 28-year-old Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä would be the storied ensemble’s next music director. Mäkelä will take the reins in 2027 from the 82-year-old Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, who led the ensemble from 2010 to 2023 and is now “Music Director Emeritus for Life.” When Mäkelä’s five-year contract begins, he will be only 31—the youngest conductor in the CSO’s history to hold the position. This 50-year gap in experience between the outgoing and incoming music director has led many to ask, is Mäkelä too green for the job, or is his youth an asset?

Let’s look at the facts. Despite his young age, Mäkelä already has several high-profile music director titles to his name. He was appointed music director of the Orchestre de Paris in 2021 and chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic in 2020. (The reason Mäkelä’s contract with the CSO will not begin until 2027 is so he can wrap up his contracts with these two orchestras. Also in 2027, he will take up the role of chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, where he has been artistic partner since 2022.) It’s not like the CSO is taking a chance on a no-name conductor. He has proven himself worthy with some of the most prestigious orchestras in Europe. Still, in his meteoric rise to the top, he has leap-frogged over the typical waypoints in a conductor’s career. Young conductors usually cut their teeth with local and regional orchestras, where they can hone their craft and gain a depth of understanding of the symphonic canon. Instead, Mäkelä will likely have to learn a lot on the job.

Another concern is that in juggling two high-profile directorships separated by the Atlantic Ocean, plus numerous guest-conducting gigs, Mäkelä will spread himself too thin and not devote enough of his energy to Chicago or become a part of the city’s fabric. However, it is not uncommon these days for conductors to have multiple positions across the world. For instance, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, and Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, while Fabio Luisi racks up the airline miles jetting between the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and NHK Symphony Orchestra in Japan. It is almost seen as a failure to only have one job as a prominent conductor. Perhaps in this instance, Mäkelä’s youthful energy will be an asset as he’ll more easily be able to bounce back from jetlag. Plus, his CSO contract requires that he conduct 14 weeks of concerts each season—the same number of weeks as in Muti’s contract—so he will not be any less present than the Italian maestro was.

The CSO had been auditioning candidates to succeed Muti since early 2020, drawing from a global pool of talent. The musicians’ input was crucial in the board’s unanimous hiring decision. Mäkelä obviously endeared himself to the orchestra during his two guest conducting stints in April 2022 (Stravinsky’s Firebird) and February 2023 (Mahler’s Fifth Symphony). According to the Chicago Tribune, the musicians were immediately taken by Mäkelä’s “confidence, trust, and efficient rehearsal technique” and felt an instant chemistry. The article quotes musicians who were on the search committee, including assistant principal bassoon Bill Buchman, who said, “Klaus had a knack for giving very clear, understandable instructions to fit into the bigger picture he was looking for, which was remarkable coming from a young conductor.” Mäkelä demonstrated a command of the podium far beyond his years, both in technique and collegiality. The musicians will play their best for a conductor they respect and who respects them. In a post-“Me Too” world where traditional power dynamics are under scrutiny, having someone at the helm who fosters a healthy working environment is a crucial step forward.

Another musician quoted in the article noted how Mäkelä appealed to the audience. Assistant concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu cited the exuberant reception he received from the audience even before he conducted a note. “Even from the first time he was in Chicago, I felt this excitement. It was like people knew him,” Yu said. This star power, aided by his youth and leonine good looks, is undoubtedly an asset for the organization, which must expand its audience and donor base to younger patrons to survive. Although some music critics have held Mäkelä’s appearance against him (e.g., David Hurwitz calling him the “Ken Doll of classical music”), if it helps sell tickets and thus keeps the lights on (without forsaking any musical integrity), that can only be a good thing.

Overall, I think the CSO made an exciting choice in naming Mäkelä its next music director. By being the first American orchestra to claim the Finnish wunderkind, the CSO has made a bold statement that it is investing in the future of classical music. It also marks an important departure from our current culture of upholding age over energy and fresh ideas. Of course, there will be a learning curve, and we’ll have to see if Mäkelä’s magic wears off over time, but even on Mäkelä’s worst day, the CSO is on such a level that it will offer a world-class performance regardless. And if that performance sells well because Mäkelä is on the podium, even better.


Illinois Public Media Clef Notes

Clef Notes

Illinois Arts Council Agency

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