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Thoughts on Thoughts About Klaus Mäkelä

A Word or Two on the (Negative) Reaction to Klaus Mäkelä’s Appointment in Chicago

The Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä is 28 and has just been named the next Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, starting with the 2027/28 season. When he does, the current MD, Riccardo Muti, will be 86. As classical music knows all too well, there’s nothing wrong with old age per se, but a bit of young blood surely can’t hurt. You would think.

However, there has been considerable opining, grumbling, and bloviating, following this announcement, mostly because Klaus Mäkelä, who is currently the chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and music director of the Orchestre de Paris, will also take on the role of chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2027. “Too young!” are the cries. “Too hyped!” goes the faux indignation on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s behalf. “Spread too thin”, weigh in the armchair experts. And, as a most tediously predictable sideshow, every 5th comment on social media will invariably be: “Not a woman! Shame. Shame!” (A different topic for another day.)

The aggregator/master click-baiter Norman Lebrecht goes all insinuation and pessimism in “Chicago Ends up Second City, Maybe Third”, the usual hodge-podge of three snarky, substance-less sentences and four lazy quotes. He refers to the conductor in question as “frequent-flier Klaus Mäkelä”. Newsflash: Every conductor is a frequent flier, these days; the slight comes out only when convenient. Then comes the original content: “Chicago is going to have to get used to waiting in line for its music director. They won’t like that. With Riccardo Muti (pictured), Chicago had bragging rights. Now it has to beg and borrow its shared time, like a telephone user in distant memory.”

Says who? Sharing a conductor with another orchestra isn’t new. Not for any orchestra, and certainly not for the Chicago Symphony. Throughout his time as Chicago’s music director, the orchestra somehow survived George Solti also being music director at Covent Garden, of the Orchestre de Paris, and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. Daniel Barenboim was the head of the Berlin State Opera (a more labor-intensive task than being the music director of a philharmonic orchestra) for all but the first year of his Chicago tenure. Double tenures are not unusual, they are the norm and have been, for well over half a century. Mariss Jansons was never head of the Concertgebouw (RCO) without also being the music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Haitink was head of the LPO for twelve years, allawhile running... the RCO. These jobs being held by conductors who have another big job is not unusual, it is the norm. That’s not to say it’s a good thing, but it also certainly isn’t necessarily a bad thing, much less does it spell doom. To insinuate otherwise is disingenuous or ignorant. It would also behoove commenters to acknowledge that, by the time he starts in the Netherlands and the Midwest, his appointments in France and Norway will have come to an end. He is not now nor then holding three or even four jobs.

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The Symphonies
Klaus Mäkelä, Oslo Phil.

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Piano Concertos
Klaus Mäkelä, Oslo Phil.

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Petrouchka, Jeux
Klaus Mäkelä, Oslo Phil.

Too young!

The second, oft-heard comment is: He is too young. He cannot possibly be ready for this. Again, it could be, that he is too young, indeed. That he is hyped. That he is not deserving (however that might be determined). But it would be dishonest and misleading not to point out, that Mäkelä is not unusually, crazy young when he will take the Chicago and Amsterdam jobs (32), or that, when convenient, youth is considered an asset. (Can you imagine any of the commentators grumbling now, Lebrecht apart, to argue that the splendid Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, 37, had she gotten the job, was too young, too inexperienced, spread too thin?) Anyone remember the response to Dudamel being appointed to the LA Philharmonic at the tender age of twenty-eight? Speaking of young: Zubin Mehta was 26 (while also helming the Montreal Symphony concurrently, for five years) when he had gotten the same job; Salonen 36. Mengelberg, as Alex Ross points out, was 24 when he took charge of the Concertgebouw. Riccardo Chailly, leading the same orchestra, was 35. Erich Leinsdorf was 31 when he took on the Cleveland Orchestra, Barbirolli 36 when was appointed at the New York Phil, and Karajan 26 when he first conducted the Vienna Philharmonic. And how old was Bernard Haitink, when he took on the Concertgebouw? You might have guessed it: 32! Let’s leave it with the “too young” already. If anything, it might be a problem of critics getting older and not liking the idea of young whippersnappers assuming positions they had always thought of in terms of being held by “old people”. Or at least someone older than the writers themselves.

Ross on Mäkelä

There are some words of warning from more sophisticated sources than Tweets and Facebook comments, too. Lebrecht actually quotes Alex Ross: “American orchestra subscribers have become resigned to a phony civic ritual: a foreign-accented maestro flies in a few times a season for two or three weeks, stays in a hotel or a furnished apartment, attends a flurry of donor dinners, and dons the appropriate cap when the local baseball team makes the playoffs.” Isn’t that unusually harsh and very presumptuous, coming from the New Yorker’s finest? Well, when it comes to Mäkelä, Alex Ross, who is something of a trendsetter among the few remaining proper music critics in the U.S., has form. In December 2022, he published the essay “Working Past the Celebrity Conductor”, where he had already aired some less-than-gentle doubts about the wonder-boy’s status. It’s not Ross’ fault, but the article also meant that criticizing Mäkelä was now the fashionable thing to do. It is, after all, a good look to be in lockstep with the arguably most perceptive, certainly most influential music critic of our time:

“With high cheekbones and sleekly styled hair, Mäkelä looks the part of the dashing European maestro, particularly if you are seeking a Generation Z reboot of Herbert von Karajan”, Ross wrote. He continues with a pretty apt if surprisingly harsh, critique of Mäkelä’s Sibelius Symphony Cycle, which is indeed rather a collection of intriguing moments, rather than a series of six musico-dramatic arcs. But judging a conductor – any conductor – by a few recordings (see also: "Mäkelä's soporific Stravinsky") doesn’t really determine their quality, does it? In the next paragraph, Ross grants Mäkelä this quality, though: “[He] has one substantial gift: he seems to win the respect of almost every orchestra he works with.” Well, that is kind-of the very key to being a conductor, though, isn’t it?! Everything else – technique, analytic ability, breadth of knowledge – is a bonus or at least only the means to attain said respect. The true skill of conducting is, after all, making 100 adults do what you want, at the same time. Age is but one, and not the most important, ingredient in this capricious mix of qualities.

Insufficiently Progressive? Lack of Focus?

Something feels odd about Ross’ critique. And later in the essay we are given a hint what’s at issue here. He compares the New York Philharmonic and its 2022 concert with Mäkelä (which he absolutely pans), to the New Jersey Symphony, praising that orchestra’s
…adventurous, progressive spirit. The conductor Henry Lewis, who was based there from 1968 to 1976, was the first Black music director at a major American orchestra. The ensemble is now led by Xian Zhang, a forty-nine-year-old Chinese-born [female] conductor.” Ross praises everything she touches and concludes that “although Mäkelä garners more publicity, Zhang strikes me as the likelier future of the art. We don't need more itinerant maestros who draw big salaries in multiple cities, carrying their putative genius in their hand luggage. We need more directorships along the lines of Marin Alsop's, at the Baltimore Symphony, or Osmo Vänskä's, at the Minnesota Orchestra—ones in which a conductor focuses on a single city and puts down roots.
I share with Ross and many other music lovers the general preference for focus, among music directors. I like the idea of a music director making the city of their orchestra their home. Ideally. But I do not, perhaps, share the naïveté, that this is the way it must or will go, nor that there is something inherently awful about the modern conductor with two major jobs. It is also somewhat odd to take a dig at Mäkelä, praising Alsop at his expense, when Alsop only had four of her 15 seasons in Baltimore where she wasn’t also principal or chief conductor of another orchestra on another continent, be it Bournemouth, São Paulo, or Vienna. She was busy and remains busy, and all the power to her. Frequent-flier Klaus Mäkelä will have to do try hard, to collect as many miles as she.

Goodness knows Mäkelä may turn out to be a disappointment for the orchestras that appointed him now. But this risk is inherent in any appointment; there really isn’t a safe bet in this business, but there are positive surprises. There is nothing about Mäkelä, however, that suggests certain or even likely failure. While there certainly are hyped charlatans and conductors unsuited to the position, Mäkelä appears to be the real deal, earnest, humble enough, and dedicated. There is no reason that these institutions, who didn’t just pick him because some agency tried to push them down their throats, or because they liked how he plays on Instagram, don’t have plenty of cause to look forward to their collaboration. Let’s just wait and see, shall we?


Geo. said...

On the youth question and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, it's worth noting that:
* When Mengelberg took over at age 24, the orchestra was itself only 7 years old. Thus the Concertgebouw Orchestra was probably not quite, at that young age, the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
* Haitink himself admitted later in life that he was "far too young" when he started at the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

There is also probably a certain resentment that Makela is winning all these top-level posts without having honed his craft first with lower-tier orchestras. In other words, Makela didn't start small and work his way up. He's starting big, and arguably too big, too soon.

With his recordings, I've heard the Sibelius and Stravinsky. To be very kind, they're not good, IMVHO. If Decca had been smart, they should have suggested to Makela to record more offbeat repertoire, like some of the contemporary composers that he likes, e.g. Jimmy Lopez Bellido and Sauli Zinovjev. Recordings of contemporary composers would have served as gap-fillers and also avoided comparisons with past recordings of well-established works.

PS: On 'charlatans', to misquote Charlie Chan; "elaboration, please?"

jfl said...


thanks for the comment; your points are spot on. The elaboration you seek is hiding in the links. One, however, I realize is broken, already. It refers to a conductor who threw away his job with the Vienna Symphony mid-rehearsal (allegedly) on being informed that his contract, still lasting three years, was not going to be extended at the time.

Thanks again & all the best,