Mäkelä Confirms Why Concertgebouw Smiles While Others Are Pining


Klaus Mäkelä conducted the Chicago Symphony in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at Symphony Center on Feb. 16. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

CHICAGO — It is no longer a question of whether Klaus Mäkelä, the greatly gifted young Finnish conductor who has rapidly become the most hotly sought-after maestro of his generation, will be named music director of a top-tier U.S. orchestra, but when.

The problem is that prospective American suitors may have no choice but to cool their ardor, at least for the time being.

Mäkelä, who turned all of 27 in January, is already affianced to the Oslo Philharmonic (where he serves as chief conductor), the Orchestre de Paris (music director), and, not least, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, where in 2027, the year his contracts lapse in Oslo and Paris, he will transition from the specially created position of artistic partner to the rank of chief conductor.

That said, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would be foolish not to give him serious consideration as its next music director, based on his sensational showings at his debut with the orchestra last season and again Feb. 16 at Symphony Center, where he returned as conquering hero in a program capped off by a triumphant performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Jimmy López Bellido acknowledging the audience’s applause after the Chicago Symphony’s performance of his tone poem ‘Aino’ under Klaus Mäkelä.

The gaping vacancy created by Riccardo Muti’s stepping down as artistic supremo at the end of the current season is fueling much international speculation as to who will be appointed to succeed the Italian maestro. The potent chemistry evident between Mäkelä and the musicians, not to mention between Mäkelä and the audience, on both occasions, heats up that speculation.

But would the orchestra’s timetable for choosing a successor to Muti make a Mäkelä appointment seem unlikely? Would candidates who enjoy longer and closer guest relationships with the CSO, such as Manfred Honeck, have higher priority on the short list, especially given the urgency of the situation facing management?

At least we know where Mäkelä will not be headed — the New York Philharmonic, which just engaged Gustavo Dudamel, currently music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to succeed Jaap van Zweden as music and artistic director, as of 2026-27.

The galvanic energy that coursed through the concert I heard Mäkelä conduct with his Oslo orchestra at the BBC Proms last summer in London marked his Mahler in Chicago as well. The rest of the well-planned program, holding tone poems by Sibelius and the Peruvian-born American composer Jimmy López Bellido inspired by episodes from the Finnish national epic Kalevala, fleshed out my appreciation of Mäkelä’s interpretive abilities.

Well before the Mahler Fifth grabbed mainstream audience attention through the films Death in Venice and, more recently, Todd Field’s problematic Tár, it was for many a young conductor a big party piece allowing them to strut their stuff to the gallery and grab a push-button standing ovation.

Mäkelä, who is all about the music, would have none of that. He played up the excitement Mahler built into the music without adding anything spurious or showy for its own sake. Seldom has one heard a reading of this central work in the Mahlerian canon that felt so organic — moving forward purposefully in a way that closely observed the composer’s detailed markings while always keeping the larger architecture in its sights. You heard everything Mahler meant for you to hear, and nothing he didn’t.

CSO English horn player Scott Hostetler acknowledges audience applause after a performance of Sibelius’ “The Swan of Tuonela.”

Tall and slat-thin, Mäkelä has a dancer’s grace on the podium, his clear beat and articulate body language an uncanny mirror of not only what the music has to tell us but how it goes about saying it. His keen ear misses nothing, and his firm command of large orchestral forces is astonishing for one so young. How absorbing it was to listen to the orchestra’s response to his urgings, as if he were telling them, “Yes, you have played this piece hundreds of times, but let’s see how we, together, can make it feel fresh and new.”

The conjoined first and second movements laid down the groundwork for this epic journey from funereal darkness to life-affirming light. Mäkelä resisted the urge, common among interpreters of the post-Bernstein era, to over-broaden the ritard after the opening pages of the Funeral March, and his shaping of the second part, all yielding tenderness in the strings and particular the cellos, was masterful in its subtlety.

A natural feeling for Mahlerian rubato also marked Mäkelä’s spontaneous handling of the Scherzo, its ebullient laendler rhythm deftly drawn, horns whooping it up with infectious glee. Mahler marked the famous Adagietto “very slow,” and Mäkelä took him at his word, pulling back the tempo considerably at times but never impeding a steady lyrical flow or stooping to sentimental indulgence of expression. The Chicago strings and harp have seldom played this movement more beautifully, in my experience.

The radiant finale, in Mäkelä’s discerning hands, swept away the fleeting grief and anger that had come before in a great blaze of affirmative D major.

During the prolonged standing ovation that ensued, he had the various orchestral soloists and choirs rightfully share in the thunderous applause. No solo players were more deserving of acknowledgement than section principals Esteban Batallán, trumpet, and David Cooper, horn.  

Both Kalevala-inspired pieces on the program — Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela and López Bellidos’ Aino — are informed by elements of languid beauty and premonition that emerged in the deeply considered performances Mäkelä drew from the orchestra.

The conductor has done much to champion the orchestral works of López Bellido, who as a young composer studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and who dedicated the tone poem to Mäkelä. First performed by the Orchestre de Paris in September, Aino was receiving its U.S. premiere.

Chicago Symphony principal trumpet Esteban Batallan was a standout in the performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony led by Klaus Mäkelä.

The 13-minute piece is at times as tough of texture as the Sibelius is delicate. Yet in its ominous delineation of the tragedy surrounding the eponymous mythic heroine Aino, there are pages of striking beauty attesting to López Bellido’s discernment as an orchestrator. His expressive canvas here is large, building dramatic intensity through pages alive with gnashing brass utterances to shimmering woodwinds that evoke the lake waters in which Aino perishes. Particularly striking are the undulating string sextuplets (marked “tortuous”) that evoke her drowning.

A vividly imagined, subtly colorful piece, then, nicely set off by a Swan of Tuonela as beautifully and idiomatically done as one ever hopes to hear. Scott Hostetler’s diaphanous English horn solo floated over the soundscape to wonderfully plaintive effect.   

It’s good to know that the Chicago Symphony management at least is keeping the welcome mat out for Mäkelä. Per the recent announcement of the orchestra’s 2023-24 season, he has been reengaged for a third guest residency in April 2024.

Even if the brass ring should elude Mäkelä, for now, as the Chicago Symphony moves to firm up its future for the post-Muti era, the super-talented young Finn deserves to be invited back regularly as guest conductor. As he approaches his third decade, he can only grow in perception of music, the world, and, indeed, of life itself. The world of symphonic music is already his oyster. Many, including myself, will be following his artistic and professional odyssey with more than a little fascination.