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Chicago Symphony Orchestra names Klaus Mäkelä as next music director

On Tuesday, the worst-kept secret in Chicago officially spilled, as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced the selection of 28-year-old Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä as its next music director, beginning with an initial five-year tenure in September 2027.

The appointment, unanimously approved by the orchestra’s board, makes Mäkelä the 11th music director of the CSO — succeeding 82-year-old Riccardo Muti — and the youngest in its 133-year history. (This week, Mäkelä will make his third-ever visit to Chicago to lead the orchestra as music director designate in three performances with cellist Sol Gabetta.)

It also tosses a fourth ball into the young conductor’s current juggling act. Mäkelä currently serves as music director of both the Oslo Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris — posts the conductor says he intends to leave in 2027, the year he’s engaged to begin as chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.

“I look forward to getting to know the musicians more over the coming years,” Mäkelä wrote in a statement accompanying the announcement, “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.”

The selection of Mäkelä arrives amid a chaotic game of musical chairs across major American orchestras.

Gustavo Dudamel, the wildly popular music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, announced he would depart for the New York Philharmonic in 2026, after that orchestra’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, announced his own departure at the end of this season (after just three years in the role).

And last week, another acclaimed Finnish conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, announced his resignation from the San Francisco Symphony, also after three years, citing irreconcilable differences with the orchestra’s leadership. “I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does,” he wrote in a statement.

Mäkelä’s penchant for multitasking has proved key to both support and suspicions surrounding his rapid ascent to celebrity. Certainly, with such global demand for his talents, there must be something special at work? But how special can anything be when spread so seemingly thin?

He has also embarked on a recording career, releasing a warmly received (and sometimes just “received”) complete cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic, and last month releasing the second volume of his “Ballets Russes” project with the Orchestre de Paris. Each recording clearly demonstrates his growing talent, high energy and grand ambition — as well as the shadow sides to each of those qualities.

To some, Mäkelä’s packed schedule suggests he’s a passing fancy, a comet getting mistaken for a star. Worries abound that he is inexperienced, overcommitted and, as a result, underinvested. The CSO, meanwhile, cited the conductor’s “exceptional connection with our musicians” after just two visits, specifying in its hiring announcement (with preemptive clarity) that Mäkelä’s obligations would include “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.”

“This does not bode well,” critic Norman Lebrecht wrote on his blog Slippedisc. “For the next three years he is split between orchestras in four different countries.” Elsewhere, he’s referred to the hiring as a “raw deal” and “a car crash in the making.”

Then there are the more general complaints swirling around his age — a mélange of gripes that simultaneously naysay his inexperience and warn that his appealing youthful luster may have worn thin by 2027. Opinions vary wildly as to whether an orchestra of Chicago’s pedigree is best served by a conductor who is very much a work in progress.

It’s enough to make anyone wonder what, precisely, the big deal is about Mäkelä. Scan the ages of the music directors of the top 25 orchestras in America (or Europe), and you’re unlikely to find many in their 30s or 40s, let alone their 20s.

His Carnegie Hall debut in March, leading the Orchestre de Paris in Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” was met with rave reviews — and clips of the performance on YouTube capture the conductor’s fiery charisma and vivacious energy, tempered at key moments by an evident reverence. In a 2019 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth with the Oslo Philharmonic, you can here and there observe the then-23-year-old conductor’s youthful ease and confidence stiffening into a model of seemingly old-school rigor.

On a cynical-slash-practical level, Mäkelä’s appointment could be seen as an organization in an ailing classical landscape boosting its mobility by hitching itself to a rising star. More generously, the move could be seen as a historic orchestra investing in its future (and attracting new audiences) by embracing young talent.

Such a tack worked for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which controversially brought Dudamel on at age 28. It seems to be working for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where 32-year-old Jonathon Heyward is in the midst of a strong inaugural season. And it seems to be working in Louisville, where the 36-year-old Teddy Abrams is rejuvenating the Louisville Symphony Orchestra, and in Knoxville, Tenn., where 37-year-old Aram Demirjian is doing the same for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve seen the effect a precocious young conductor can have on an audience firsthand, with 24-year-old Tarmo Peltokoski, director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and incoming director of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. His performance in November with the National Symphony Orchestra and pianist Yuja Wang made a strong first impression and met with wild applause.

And other conspicuously young conductors are starting to find the spotlight, such as Franco-British conductor Stephanie Childress, who at 23 has nabbed principal guest conductor posts with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, as well as an associate conductor post with the Sun Valley Music Festival.

The promising side of the CSO’s investment in Mäkelä’s appointment is that his restless energy and upward drive could be taken for its own. The risk is that by tapping a conductor of big ambitions and inchoate vision, it is signing up for a supporting role it can’t sustain (looking directly at you, San Francisco Symphony Board of Governors).

In either case, with Mäkelä’s hire, the CSO has secured itself a marketing angle that certainly sounds exciting: Anything could happen.


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