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28-year-old conductor Klaus Mäkelä will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä has just been announced as the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Francois Guillot
AFP via Getty Images
Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä has just been announced as the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Klaus Mäkelä has a lot on his plate — or more accurately, podium. With leading roles conducting orchestras in Oslo, Paris and Amsterdam, he's been called the fastest-rising maestro of his generation. On Tuesday, the young Finnish conductor was announced as the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

He's 28 years old.

When he officially takes over the CSO in the fall of 2027, he will become the youngest music director in the ensemble's 133-year history.

In 2020, the Oslo Philharmonic offered Mäkelä the position of chief conductor after only a single visit leading the orchestra. In Amsterdam, where Mäkelä also takes over in 2027, a violinist for the revered Concertgebouw Orchestra told The New York Times that "after three minutes, it was very clear we were dealing with the most precocious conducting talent we've seen in the past 50 or 75 years."

Mäkelä first conducted the Chicago musicians in 2022 and returned a year later. CSO bassoonist William Buchman said the players immediately felt something special.

"From Mäkelä's first moments on the podium, the musicians of the orchestra recognized that we were working with a conductor of extraordinary ability," he said.

From Orchestra Hall in Chicago, on the day the announcement was made, Mäkelä, now the official music director-designate, took time away from the excitement to talk with NPR's Ari Shapiro about his dreams of becoming a conductor at age 7, the challenges of leading multiple orchestras on two continents, and food tips for the Windy City.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Ari Shapiro: You've said that different orchestras are like different characters. How would you describe the character of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

Klaus Mäkelä: I fell in love with the orchestra from the first rehearsal. It's an orchestra which has an enormous appetite for perfection and for brilliance of sound. And I was completely mesmerized by it. It's an orchestra which has this shine to it, intensity, strength. And they're wonderful [musicians] to work with.

What do you think you gain by collaborating with different orchestras on different continents that may be thousands of miles apart from each other?

It's really an honor and I learn so much. When I have the Chicago Symphony and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, from 2027 onward, it's so fascinating because they could not be more different, but they're both equally amazing. They have completely different histories, completely different halls where they're playing and different societies.

Does that mean you take a different approach to conducting them?

Absolutely. I have to be myself, but I also have to be, in some ways, two different conductors, because in the end, the conductor's job is to be useful and try to improve things as much as you can. And that means you have to be flexible in order to get the best results.

Can you give us an example?

It comes down to even technical things, how you conduct. For example, here in Chicago, the orchestra plays very much to my beat. In Amsterdam, there is quite a strong delay, which has to do with the acoustic of the hall and the tradition of the orchestra, and that already gives a very different sound. So how I give an upbeat is already very different. It also comes down to repertoire, which kind of pieces one should play, which kind of things one should improve, what kind of things one should preserve, because that's very important — to preserve the core personality of the orchestra.

I'm just thinking about the level of sensitivity and perceptiveness that it takes to be that tuned in to such a large ensemble, to know that if you give the upbeat this way in Amsterdam and this way in Chicago, you're going to get two different results.

One learns when one does it. Of course, you can never be perfect, but you try to match the wavelength, the frequency of optimizations. And in the end, it is working with people. And that's my favorite part of it.

Is there any risk of spreading yourself too thin, of not putting down roots in the hometown of the orchestra that you lead?

I try to feel at home wherever I am. Especially after 2027, when my contract begins here and in Amsterdam, I will really be at home here and in Amsterdam equally. I will be fully invested in the city of Chicago and in the orchestra. I need to feel at home as much as the [musicians] need to feel that I am present here.

The young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He is now the ensemble's music director-designate.
Todd Rosenberg / Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
The young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He is now the ensemble's music director-designate.

Have you tried the Chicago hotdog or the deep-dish pizza yet?

Thank you for asking. I should try. The thing is, I do not eat red meat, but I think I will be very tempted and probably will try.

You have also been recording music, and you're only the third conductor who's been signed to the legendary Decca record label in the last 90 years. Your debut was a full set of all seven symphonies by Jean Sibelius. Why did you choose him?

I love Sibelius' music and, for me, to make recordings is a dream. I love the process of recording — preparing, post-production, everything about it. And Sibelius, with the Oslo Philharmonic, was, in a way, a natural thing to do. It was repertoire which is in my DNA. It was in the orchestra's DNA and it was wonderful to do it together.

Your parents are both music teachers. Your first instrument was the cello. And I understand you started conducting when you were 7 years old, when you were in the first grade. I think a lot of 7-year-olds wave their hands in the air along with music, but do you remember what that first experience was like for you?

I was singing the Children's Choir of the Finnish National Opera, and then I saw a conductor in the performance. And it was just enormous, I was so fascinated that the conductor was able to play that music, in a way — like you play a piece on an instrument. I kept dreaming about it. I listened to the music, tried to read scores, but of course I didn't understand anything. And then, when I was 12, I started studying conducting at the Sibelius Academy with Jorma Panula, the great Finnish conducting teacher. And that's where it started.

I've heard someone describe conducting as "throwing energy around a room." How would you describe it?

That's fantastic. I love that. That's a very good description.

That came from Jacob Collier.

He is very cool. I think my job is to make people play better. And it's working with people — and every day is different, everybody's different. You have to aim for the highest results, and it's such a privilege because we work with the best pieces of music every day, and it never gets dull. It only gets better.

You've clearly got such a passion for the repertoire, but the typical audience member for an orchestra concert is about 30 years older than you. What do you think it'll take to get more people of your generation engaged in the kind of music you make?

I'm hopeful because I think the experience of a concert is, in a way, very 2024 — a very unique experience, happens only once, every night is different. And it comes down to how to curate an experience which makes people very excited and very engaged. As an audience member, I love going to concerts. I went last night to hear the Bach concert at the Chicago Symphony and I loved it. I sat down, I was without my phone. I didn't know anything was happening in the world. I was just in the moment, listening. And it gave me so much. What art gives us is something so timeless and so eternal, and those are the values which last. It's the complete opposite of the kind of "use once" culture of today.

And yet younger audiences are not arriving. What do you think it's going to take to make the case you've just made, to them?

It has to do with repertoire and if you create a nice experience. It's a little bit like a museum, where you put together a fine lineup of works in a way that's engaging. It's irresistible. And for us, it's amazing because we practically have all the paintings in our collection. We can choose however we want to put them together, we just have to find the right order.

Do you ever feel like when you're walking into a room with musicians who may be old enough to be your parents or grandparents, there is a higher bar you have to clear to prove yourself?

Not really, because the only responsibility I have is for the composer. And that's what I battle with every day. Do I understand enough of the piece in order to present it? And of course, before you go in front of the orchestra, you have to make sure that you have a full concept of what you want to achieve. But that's my responsibility and that's what I think about more than other expectations.

You're going to be spending so many hours on airplanes going between Amsterdam and Chicago. How do you spend that time in that little cocoon in the air?

Well, first of all, I feel very bad because it's not very environmentally friendly. And I hope there will be some alternatives in my lifetime. But I sleep a lot, and I study. And actually, I'm the worst at answering messages and I feel very bad about it, and when I fly I answer all the messages I haven't answered before.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.