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Klaus Mäkelä is named CSO music director; Finnish conductor to succeed Muti in 2027

Submitted by on Apr 2, 2024 – 9:17 am

Klaus Mäkelä acknowledges zealous applause after leading the CSO in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at Orchestra Hall in February 2023. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Report: Mäkelä will be 31 when he begins to split time as chief conductor of the Chicago Symphony and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, 28, whose meteoric rise on the international concert scene has electrified audiences and elicited rapturous critical praise, was named April 2 as the 11th music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The appointment will put Mäkelä in charge of two of the world’s preeminent orchestras, starting simultaneously in September 2027 when his Chicago directorship will be twinned with his new post as principal conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Mäkelä makes his third appearance with the Chicago Symphony the weekend of April 4-5 to conduct Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Sol Gabetta, as well as the U.S. premiere of Finnish composer s “Batteria.”

As music director-designate, Mäkelä is scheduled to lead two weeks of subscription concerts in the 2024-25 season. In April 2025, he will conduct Mahler’s vast Third Symphony and in May his program includes Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony and Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, with CSO artist-in-residence Daniil Trifonov as soloist. Mäkelä will gradually devote longer periods to subscription concerts, touring engagements and other activities in the 2025-26 and 2026-27 seasons. He will make his podium debut at the Ravinia Festival, the CSO’s summer home, in summer 2026.

In his CSO debut, Mäkelä led an exquisitely shaped performance of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” (Todd Rosenberg photo)

When his initial five-year engagement as CSO music director begins, Mäkelä will conduct the orchestra a minimum of 14 weeks per season — 10 weeks of subscription and other concerts in and around Chicago, plus four weeks of domestic and international tours.

“In his first two memorable engagements with the CSO, Klaus Mäkelä established an exceptional connection with our musicians and demonstrated his ability to deliver extremely moving performances of a wide range of repertoire,” said CSO president Jeff Alexander. “As we got to know him off the podium and witnessed – in addition to his extraordinary musical talent – his passion for the artform, keen interest in music education and the legacy of the CSO, and innate ability to connect warmly and sincerely with our trustees, volunteers, concert attendees, donors, and administrative staff, it quickly became clear that he was the ideal choice to lead the orchestra into the future. I am delighted with this outcome.”

Mäkelä, who said he was honored by the appointment, added that he was “inspired to embark on this journey with an orchestra that combines such brilliance, power, and passion. I look forward to getting to know the musicians more over the coming years, and am grateful for the time this allows for us to establish and deepen our relationship, in preparation for what is a major and exciting commitment.”

CSO search committee chair Helen Zell: “I am continually impressed with his warmth and focus.” (Todd Rosenberg photo)

The choice of Mäkelä to follow Riccardo Muti, who served 13 years as CSO music director, came as no surprise. In the days leading up to the announcement, it had become almost a global given that the tall Finn with a thick shock of brown hair and an ineffable musical magnetism would carry on the orchestra’s modern legacy extending back through Daniel Barenboim and Georg Solti to Fritz Reiner.

But early on, any hope of corralling the youthful star for Chicago looked dim, at least from the outside. After Mäkelä in his mid-twenties won chief conductor positions with the Oslo Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris, the Concertgebouw Orchestra made what seemed like a game-changing play, taking a long view and signing the youthful maestro as principal conductor effective in 2027.

Yet in a way, Concertgebouw’s decisive action might have fanned the flames for the CSO. That the Amsterdam orchestra, with its own great legacy of conductors — names to conjure with like Bernard Haitink, Eduard van Beinum and Willem Mengelberg, the last of whom was a great champion of Mahler in Mahler’s own day — would make such a commitment to the still-ascending Mäkelä surely made a resonant impression across the orchestral world. Concertgebouw’s preemptive move notwithstanding, the CSO search team pursued their man, all the while doing their own due diligence.

As part of the selection process, members of the CSO search committee saw Mäkelä conduct seven programs in five cities: New York, San Francisco, Oslo, and Tokyo, as well as Chicago.

“The sheer energy and intensity that Klaus Mäkelä communicates in his performances feels absolutely fresh and thrilling,” said Helen Zell, vice chair of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and chair of the search committee. “Those who have heard him with the CSO know that the atmosphere becomes electric. You leave the concert hall transformed and inspired. Having met and spoken with this exceptional artist on multiple occasions, I am continually impressed with his warmth and focus, as well as his palpable joy in music making.”

William Buchman, the CSO’s assistant principal bassoon and vice chair of the CSO Members’ Committee, served on the music director search committee. “From Klaus Mäkelä’s first moments on the podium, the musicians of the orchestra recognized that we were working with a conductor of extraordinary ability,” Buchman said.

“His natural leadership drew our immediate focus, and the clarity of his musical ideas made it feel effortless to perform at the high level for which we strive. The musician members of the search committee are excited that Klaus Mäkelä will be our next music director, and we are confident that the Chicago community will share that same excitement.”

While Mäkelä may have been born to conduct, he was not born a conductor. Cello was his craft, like Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki and indeed like the legendary Arturo Toscanini. But when he took up the baton, he found an eminent teacher in Jorma Panula at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy. And very quickly, Mäkelä began rising through the ranks. When he made his Chicago Symphony debut in 2022, at age 26, he was already chief conductor of both the Oslo Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris.

Mäkelä’s Mahler Fifth with the CSO was structured, charged, luminous. (Marco Borggreve photo)

Mäkelä’s first appearance with the CSO was unforgettable, or rather specifically indelible was his turn through Stravinsky’s complete ballet “The Firebird.” The young conductor displayed arresting maturity as he summoned not grandiosity but elegance, softness, transparency. Not far into that “Firebird,” I was thinking, “Who is this guy?”

Confirmation of an extraordinary talent — gift, genius, call it what you will — came the following season when Mäkelä returned to lead the CSO in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Now he was all of 27 years old. But there are rare poets of the conducting world in whom age and insight simply don’t correlate in any conventional sense. Thus Klaus Mäkelä and Mahler’s stormy, searching, brilliant Fifth Symphony. That was an hour of masterful conducting: structured, charged, luminous. That was the conductor seemingly snatched away by the band in Amsterdam. Turns out that in just the right second circumstance, Mäkelä the prodigious was doubly available.

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