The Chicago Symphony Lands Klaus Makela

It’s now official: Klaus Makela will become the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, beginning in 2027-2028. He’ll conduct fourteen weeks of CSO concerts of which four will be on tour. He’ll concurrently become music director of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra. He’ll retain relationships with the Oslo Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris. He’ll be thirty-one years old.

Makela is a big catch, the hottest young conductor around. But the initial response has been predictably mixed. An influential music critic of my acquaintance calls the Makela appointment the “most hairbrained” development he has yet witnessed in American classical music. Norman Lebrecht, on his ever-popular slippedisc blog, writes that Chicago has entered into “a raw deal.” An email that arrived this morning from a leading European artists’ manager reads: “[Chicago’s] mediocre management is unable to produce any vision for the future, so they are entrusting the ‘golden boy’ who’s supposed to rescue the entire music industry. Makela perfectly serves a music institution without a purpose. Until the next sensation comes along.”

Many blame this new norm on Ronald Wilford, who at Columbia Artists Management created the “jet-set conductor” as a signature of career status. That’s become such a ubiquitous template that it’s worth a moment of reflection. 

Arthur Nikisch is widely regarded as the leading symphonic conductor of his generation, based in Germany. Earlier in his career, however, Nikisch was conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for four seasons (1889-1893). That meant that he led 388 of the orchestra’s 398 nonsummer concerts, including 196 on tour to 32 American cities. There were no airplanes. There were no “guest conductors,” 

The Chicago Symphony had two music directors during its first half-century: Theodore Thomas (1891-1905) and then Thomas’s assistant Frederick Stock (1905-1942). That they were both German-born conferred identity – and a Germanic fundament remained long in place, governing repertoire and sonority. Thomas and Stock were Chicago fixtures. As I remarked in an earlier blog: “Stock’s commitment to the Midwest (which he toured extensively) was absolute, his popularity immense. Touting (from the stage) the ‘I-will spirit of Chicago,’ he spurned prestigious offers to relocate northeast. He implemented concerts targeting ethnic neighborhoods with seats costing fifteen to fifty cents. He led his own children’s concerts. He inaugurated outdoor summer concerts at Grant Park. (And I could go on.)”

Theodore Thomas’s credo — “An orchestra show the culture of the community” – loudly re-echoes today when American orchestras are quite suddenly cognizant that they lack local roots. I have often extolled the South Dakota Symphony in this space because its Lakota Music Project, and kindred initiatives, define it as South Dakota’s orchestra. Its music director, Delta David Gier, moved to Sioux Falls and raised a family there.

Makela’s appointment self-evidently has nothing to do with Thomas’s credo. Rather, it was largely driven by the enthusiasm of the Chicago Symphony musicians. And doubtless there is a feeling that a young conductor will entice young audiences.

That Makela is an exceptional baton-wielder is unquestionable. I heard him conduct Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in December 2022 and wrote: “Makela’s Tchaikovsky, while not profound, proved terrific. This fellow must have been born with a baton in his crib. His style of leadership is both commanding and spontaneous. His imprint is personal. I concede that his Pathetique is (alas) more about drama than about pain; but the drama – its nuanced ferocity – carried the day.  He has the confidence and authority to listen and respond in the moment to the musicians, both individually and collectively; to the vicissitudes of musical argument and expression. His is a bewildering talent.”

But – as I later added – none of that speaks to Makela’s capacity for institutional leadership. It’s demonstrably risky to entrust musicians to choose their own “music director.” A notorious instance: the New York Philharmonic players wanted Loren Maazel and they got him, in 2002. But Maazel, a famously virtuosic conductor, projected no institutional vision. And he left no legacy. 

Assessing that Makela Pathetique in New York, I further wrote: “If he were fifty years older . . . he would probably be capable of extracting a more tragic reading of the Pathetique Symphony. For me, the supreme recording of this work was made by Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1951, courtesy of Radio Cairo. . . . It has little in common with Makela’s thrilling rendition the other day in New York.” Conductors ripen no more rapidly than other human beings do. 

Another thing: conductors with a gift for grasping and leading “the culture of the community” are not likely to be young conductors; they’re people like Gier and the late Michael Morgan, in Oakland, with a certain amount of life experience behind them. It took Gier more than a decade of patient negotiation to clinch his orchestra’s charmed relationship to half a dozen Indian reservations.

Chicago’s decision to hire Klaus Makela will now inescapably be juxtaposed with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s resignation in San Francisco – because Salonen is a bona fide music director. The Makela appointment, whatever else one makes of it, rejects fundamental change. It will come sooner or later. It has to. 

P.S. — My “More than Music” NPR feature on music directorships, citing South Dakota, is here. The commentators include the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, who says: “There’s just a tremendous amount of caution, a tremendous amount of groupthink, in the orchestra world.. . . For a music director to carry off an ambitious project, you have to be there. You have to be on the scene, persuading people, interacting with them, listening to their ideas. Not just communicating your own. Building a sense of cooperation. You cannot do that as effectively if you’re flying in for two or three weeks, and another couple of weeks in the winter, and another two weeks in the spring. I find it a bit outrageous that music directors are so highly paid to begin with for one job – and then you find them holding a second or even a third position with exorbitant salaries in those places as well. This, of all things, is something the orchestra world should really be thinking about: drastically revising our idea of who a music director is, what their job entails.”

For more on Thomas, Stock, and Chicago, see my Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (2005).

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