April 23, 2024

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Klaus Makela conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Klaus Makela conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led for decades by conducting giants including Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, announced Tuesday that its next music director will be Klaus Makela, the 28-year-old Finnish conductor whose charisma and clarity have fueled the orchestra's appeal. His rapid rise in classical music.

When he begins a five-year contract in 2027 at age 31, Makela will be the youngest conductor in the ensemble's 133-year history, and one of the youngest conductors ever to conduct a major orchestra in the United States.

Makela, who will become music director immediately, said in an interview that he did not think his age was relevant, noting that he had been conducting the orchestra for more than half his life, starting when he was 12 years old.

“I don't think about it,” he said. “Music doesn't really have any age.”

Makela, who will also take over as conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2027, said he is joining the Chicago Symphony because it has “that intensity — the same sound from the past.”

“I felt like anything you asked, he could get better and do more,” he said, recalling his recent guest appearance there. “For a conductor, this is a very special feeling because you see that there are no limits to what you can achieve.”

Makela will be in Chicago this week to conduct the orchestra. He was scheduled to appear with star pianist Yuja Wang, with whom he was in a relationship until recently. The two were a power duo in classical music and sometimes performed together. Wang withdrew from the concerts last week without giving a reason. She will be replaced by cellist Sol Gabetta.

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Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony, said in an interview that Makela's connection with the musicians was evident from the first few minutes of them rehearsing together in 2022, preparing a program of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Helleborg.

Orchestra conductors soon began tracking Makela down, secretly attending his performances in New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Oslo. They officially offered him the job in February 2023 when he returned to participate in the program of Mahler, Sibelius and López Bellido.

“Each experience began to reaffirm our initial feeling that this could be a truly special new relationship,” Alexander said.

Makela, one of the most sought-after conductors in the industry, already leads the Oslo Philharmonic and the Paris Philharmonic. He said he will step down from those groups when his contracts expire in 2027 so he can focus on orchestras in Chicago and Amsterdam.

McKella's appointment will bring about a generational shift in Chicago: He succeeds Muti, 82, a veteran conductor who led the Chicago Symphony from 2010 to 2023 before becoming its music director emeritus for life.

The Chicago Symphony, with an endowment of $385 million, is one of the richest and most popular orchestras in the United States. But it faces challenges, including ongoing financial pain due to the pandemic, rising costs and a long, gradual decline in subscriptions, which once provided a lucrative source of revenue. Concert attendance remains below pre-pandemic levels — about 79 percent this season compared to 83 percent — although it has been rising steadily.

“There's nothing wrong with old people,” Makela said. “But of course, ideally, we would have a very broad and diverse audience.”

During his tenure, McKella said he hopes to tackle standard repertoire such as Mahler's “Resurrection” symphony and Bach's St. Matthew Passion, as well as less familiar works such as Monteverdi's “Vespro della pieta virgin” and William Walton's choral work “Belshazzar's Feast.”

He also said he would make commissioning new pieces a priority, naming Unsuk Chin, Thomas Larcher, Andrew Norman and Anna Thorvaldsdottir as some of his favorite contemporary composers.

“I feel like we can have a whole new chapter for the orchestra in terms of repertoire, in terms of developing the same amazing sound, but making it as flexible as possible,” he said.

The Chicago Symphony is also working to bring more women and people of color into the group. The orchestra includes 59 men and 34 women, with only a few black and Latino members.

Because the pandemic has delayed auditions, the orchestra has an unusually high number of vacancies, 15, which Makela described as “an opportunity for change.” The orchestra said he would begin providing feedback on auditions immediately.

Makela, who trained at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, said some of his models were Esa-Pekka Salonen, a fellow Finn who recently announced he was stepping down from the San Francisco Symphony, citing his experiments with music and technology. He expressed his admiration for Kirill Petrenko, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, saying that he showed courage in programming.

This week's concerts will be McKayla's third visit to Chicago. He said he loved the art, architecture and food of the city and was not afraid of the massive winter season.

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“I'm not afraid of the weather, being Finnish,” he said. “It seems very convenient.”