Arts

At 26, the Conductor Klaus Mäkelä’s Star Keeps Rising and Rising

AMSTERDAM — It’s impossible for an artist to avoid making an entrance at the Concertgebouw, one of the world’s most storied spaces for classical music.

Double doors behind the stage are flung open, making way for a soloist or conductor to descend a flight of steps leading to the spotlight. When Klaus Mäkelä, a sharply dressed young Finnish maestro, did so on a Friday night in August, he was greeted with the kind of applause typically reserved for the end of a concert. With each stride, the ovation became stronger until, as he stood at the podium, the audience let out a sustained cheer.

“That was amazing,” Mäkelä said in an interview later. “It feels like an eternity, to walk down to the stage, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt the warmth of an audience in that way.”

You could understand the enthusiasm. The house band, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, had been without a chief conductor since Daniele Gatti was abruptly dismissed over sexual assault allegations in 2018. After years of guest batons and speculation, the news had come at last in June that Mäkelä, just 26, would take the podium. This night was his first appearance since the announcement.

Mäkelä, perhaps the fastest-rising conductor of his generation — beloved by players and administrators, if not always by critics — already leads two orchestras, the Oslo Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris. When he accepted the job here in Amsterdam, it was as “artistic partner,” a title he will hold until he officially becomes chief conductor in 2027, when his contracts with the other groups expire.

Mäkelä conducting the Orchestre de Paris. “I haven’t found someone in the orchestra with something bad to say,” Nikola Nikolov, a violinist in the ensemble, said.Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But that is bureaucratic speak for what is effectively the beginning of his tenure, with a starting commitment of five weeks this season. That’s on top of guest appearances that will add to his résumé of prestigious ensembles like those in Berlin, Vienna, Chicago and Cleveland; next up is the New York Philharmonic, where Mäkelä makes his debut on Dec. 8, leading a contemporary work by Jimmy López Bellido and symphonies by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

Again, he is 26.

But age has virtually never been a barrier, neither to his ambition nor to the way older colleagues regard him. Christian van Eggelen, a first violin in the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the chair of the group’s artistic committee, described Mäkelä’s first visit to the hall as “love at first sight.”

“He was 24, and the second-youngest person onstage,” van Eggelen added. “Yet after three minutes, it was very clear that we were dealing with the most precocious conducting talent that we’ve seen in the past 50 or 75 years.”

MÄKELÄ WAS BORN in Helsinki to music teacher parents — his father, cello, and his mother, piano. They both had students who attended a local German school, and decided to enroll Klaus there as well.

“Everyone who went there was very efficient,” Mäkelä said, as he often does, with a wide smile but soft tone. “So they must have thought the same would happen to me.”

The school might have taught discipline, but Mäkelä was already, in his words, a very nerdy child. He listened to the works of specific composers obsessively like immersive projects, and happily practiced his cello and sang in choruses, including in “Carmen” at the Finnish National Opera. It was there, backstage and watching the conductor on the monitor, that he first had the urge to pick up a baton.

“I remember that we all had free ice cream,” he recalled. “But I also remember that I was completely mesmerized. I think it was the music, but also that the conductor was able to play all of this, which is a kind of instrument on a large scale.”

His primary focus, though, was still the cello, which brought him to the famed Sibelius Academy’s youth department. While there, he made it into a conducting class with Jorma Panula, the teacher of luminaries like Susanna Mälkki, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Osmo Vänskä.

“He had a very specific taste, which is that less is more,” Mäkelä said of Panula. “We all had to be able to conduct without moving at all. And then after that, we could do whatever we wanted. Conducting isn’t very difficult; one can learn it very quickly. But we never learned that. He never lectured, but instead felt us out. I think that was just his way of being: asking questions and always searching.”

When the time came to attend the Sibelius Academy proper, Mäkelä continued with cello — though he never graduated — and played in the Helsinki Philharmonic, under conductors including Mälkki. That orchestra, no minor ensemble, was the first to ask him to conduct. From there, the invitations flooded in.

By 20 — a time he refers to in conversation as “when I was younger” — he had an agent, the classical music power broker Jasper Parrott, and began to put a personal stamp on the programs he conducted. His championed the works of Jimmy López Bellido, whose name continues to dot Mäkelä’s concert calendar.

A breakthrough came when he took the podium of the Oslo Philharmonic, in 2020. That orchestra, Mäkelä said, “feels like my baby.” The ensemble had offered him the job of chief conductor after only one visit; it’s a relationship, he added, that “started with this crazy trust, but has been one of the most fruitful things of my life.”

Principally, it has led to an ambitious recording project of Sibelius’s complete symphonies, released this year on Decca. (Mäkelä is only the third conductor in the label’s history to have an exclusive contract.) The cycle reveals a lot about the strengths and shortcomings of Mäkelä’s career so far. Reviewers found it to be an uneven account, both glorious and forgettable, with what David Allen in The New York Times called “ups and downs” that were “sensationally played throughout.”

That last part is essential to characterizing Mäkelä’s style. He elicits clean, skillful playing. And he falls somewhere between those conductors known for unfamiliar, occasionally counterintuitive readings of repertory classics — like Teodor Currentzis or Santtu-Matias Rouvali — and those who prioritize composer intentions with little need for additional insight. His performances are rarely sensational, nor do they seem to strive for novel arguments; yet they are unwaveringly honest and deferential to the score.

“Maybe that’s the only moment where one could say, maybe, he is young,” van Eggelen said. “He doesn’t turn a score around and search for things to prove himself. What is noticeable is that there is this search for colors and the meaning of these different colors. Nothing’s dogmatic, though. It is, simply put, extremely pleasurable to work with him.”

That was the feeling, too, at the Orchestra de Paris, which hired Mäkelä in 2020. (Together, they will be in residence at the Aix-en-Provence Festival next summer, with a triptych of Stravinsky scores for the Ballets Russes, and in a coming season as the pit orchestra in a new “Frau Ohne Schatten” directed by Barrie Kosky.) Nikola Nikolov, a violinist in the ensemble, said in an interview translated from French that although the players initially had doubts about him because of his age, they were quickly won over. Mäkelä, he added, doesn’t make aggressively distinct choices but comes with a clear interpretation and executes it with exactitude.

“I haven’t found someone in the orchestra with something bad to say,” Nikolov said. “Klaus has confidence in people, and in this way he is a good conductor.”

Mäkelä is also, players have said, remarkably efficient in rehearsals. His phrasing is direct without being dictatorial, and he doesn’t leave musicians waiting. “There are conductors who flip through pages when we are done,” Nikolov said. “Him, never. He always knows what he wants to talk about, and what he wants to say. That’s magic.”

That is one reason Mäkelä attracts admirers among musicians in both Europe and the United States, where he first played with the Minnesota Orchestra but has developed steadier relationships with the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. In Cleveland, he debuted at a summer Blossom Music Festival concert but made a more spectacular impression filling in last minute for Jaap van Zweden in a program that culminated with Beethoven’s Seventh.

Mäkelä isn’t sure what he will do when his contracts expire in Oslo and Paris. “I love them both to death,” he said, “and they’ve been teaching me so much.”Credit…Melissa Schriek for The New York Times

The Clevelanders, musicians who are not easily impressed, took a quick liking to him. So did the local press; The Plain Dealer’s review of the Beethoven performance began, “Let there be a substitute every week, if every substitute can be like conductor Klaus Mäkelä.” He is the only guest with a two-week engagement there this season.

Speculators may already be wondering whether there’s more of a future in Cleveland for Mäkelä if that orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst, departs at the end of his contract in 2027, after what will have been 25 years with the ensemble. But for now, Mäkelä would prefer to keep his attention on the orchestras he already has.

HIS CONCERTGEBOUW DEBUT took place in an empty hall during the pandemic. Van Eggelen recalled that the orchestra had braced itself for Mäkelä’s arrival, being told to “watch out, apparently he’s amazing.” Mostly, van Eggelen said, the first rehearsal felt more like a homecoming than a visit from a star. “It was a way of working which we recognized, which brought us back to how wanted to be,” he said. “He was meticulous and at the same time let things go and let us make music. This combination of precision, which you need in our hall, and freedom — that was something that shook the whole orchestra up.”

Chief conductors at the Concertgebouw Orchestra are elected by the players, who were in no rush to make a decision until they found what felt like a right fit. Other names had been in circulation, but a vote came quickly for Mäkelä because, as van Eggelen said, “there was an absolute, North Korean majority preference for Klaus.” They only had to offer him the post.

That happened during the lockdown days of early 2021 in Paris. Mäkelä was preparing a concert there, keeping to himself because of a curfew. With only a small window of opportunity, a delegation from the Concertgebouw Orchestra went to Paris and had dinner with him. Afterward, back at the hotel, they emptied their minibars and knocked on Mäkelä’s door. Inside, they asked whether he would take the job.

Thus began, Mäkelä said, a nearly year-and-a-half-long negotiation over how to keep his two orchestras while taking on Amsterdam. Eventually, they arrived at the plan to spend five years with him as artistic partner until 2027, with a commitment of five seasons as chief conductor to follow. Mäkelä had yet to play before a live audience at the Concertgebouw, but the orchestra had invested in a decade with him.

The audience did finally come, that night in August, for a meaty program of Kaija Saariaho’s “Orion” and Mahler’s 80-minute Sixth Symphony. The rehearsals hadn’t been perfect, and the players were just returning from a summer holiday, but Mäkelä wasn’t worried. “They are concert animals,” he said. And he had felt as though he had been studying the Mahler, in some way, his whole life.

Lifting his baton, Mäkelä said, he didn’t feel like the “cool cucumber” he appeared to be from the audience. But he relaxed the moment the Saariaho began. The evening was typical of his performances: accomplished without being overly assertive; legible and restrained with an eye toward explosive climaxes. By the end of the Mahler, the audience was even more enthusiastic than at the start. His Amsterdam era began.

Mäkelä doesn’t yet know what he will do when the Paris and Oslo contracts expire in 2027. “I love them both to death,” he said, “and they’ve been teaching me so much.” But three music directorships won’t be possible, and with effectively all of them filling out his calendar now, he can feel the jet-setting, rising-star lifestyle of his early 20s begin to calm down.

“That’s a conscious decision,” he said. “In a way, I’m trying to concentrate more. Guest conducting is fun, but a deep connection with the musicians — in Oslo, in Paris and now with the Concertgebouw — that’s my next big thing, to get to know them really well.”

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