The Era of Klaus Mäkelä, Conducting Phenom, Begins in Chicago

On Thursday evening, when Klaus Mäkelä came onstage to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time since being named its next music director, he seemed at pains not to bask in the roar that greeted his entrance.

He smiled, bowed and quickly turned to give the downbeat. The orchestra had already released a video of the moment on Tuesday when the players were told he got the job. Many maestros would take the opportunity to wax a little eloquent before getting down to business; Mäkelä spoke for less than 20 seconds before raising his baton to start the rehearsal.

Mäkelä, just 28, clearly wants to avoid seeming like a vain, spotlight-craving young man. He is already the topic of much discussion for being what some consider far too early in his career for such an august position — the Chicago Symphony has been among America’s finest for well over a century — especially when he has already taken on daunting responsibilities with European orchestras.

His rise has been one of the most meteoric in modern music history. After completing his education in his native Finland, Mäkelä began his international career in earnest a mere six years ago; the pandemic was for him a period of unnatural acceleration.

He is not, however, the first 20-something conductor to burst onto the classical scene. Gustavo Dudamel was Mäkelä’s age when he became the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein was 25 when his surprise New York Philharmonic debut, broadcast nationwide, made headlines.

And Willem Mengelberg was just 24 when he took on the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the eminent ensemble at which Mäkelä is currently artistic partner. He will become chief conductor there in 2027, the same year he will officially become music director in Chicago. (And the same year that his current podium contracts, in Paris and Oslo, will lapse.)

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