Klaus Mäkelä, Just 28, To Become Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Director In 2027

Klaus Mäkelä, new director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, poses for a portrait Wednesday, March 20, 2024, at the Mandarin Oriental in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Klaus Mäkelä, new director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, poses for a portrait Wednesday, March 20, 2024, at the Mandarin Oriental in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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Klaus Mäkelä was hired Tuesday to succeed Riccardo Muti as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and will become the youngest head since its start in 1891.

A Finn who turned 28 in January, Mäkelä has had an astonishing rise in the music world, becoming principal guest conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2018-19, then chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic in 2020-21 and music director of the Orchestre de Paris in 2021-22. He is to start a five-year term as chief conductor the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Netherlands in 2027-28 after his contracts in Norway and France expire.

Mäkelä will become CSO music director designate immediately and start a five-year tenure in 2027-28, conducting a minimum 14 weeks per season. Mäkelä will be the youngest U.S. music director with a major orchestra since Gustavo Dudamel was 28 when he started with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.

“It’s just something which I don’t think about,” Mäkelä said during an interview with The Associated Press. “I was just reminded when I started in Amsterdam that I’m actually not even young, (Willem) Mengelberg was 24 when he started.”

Muti was music director for 13 seasons before stepping down last summer ahead of his 82nd birthday. Mäkelä will be 31 years, seven months, 16 days when he starts on Sept. 1, 2027. The previous youngest head of the orchestra was Frederick Stock at 32 years, 5 months, 1 day when he was hired on April 11, 1905, to succeed founding music director Theodore Thomas.

Mäkelä will take over an orchestra far older than he is. Among 93 members, Muti made 32 appointments and Daniel Barenboim 28, with most of the remainder by Georg Solti. Principal trombone Jay Friedman and harpist Lynne Turner were hired by Fritz Reiner, music director from 1953-62.

“What I like about Chicago Symphony is there is quite a big part of it which still sounds like it sounded with Reiner,” Mäkelä said.

He first led the CSO in April 2022 in a program that included Stravinsky's “The Firebird.”

“When you conduct an orchestra for the first time, it’s somehow a chemistry thing,” Mäkelä said. “I felt that, OK, this orchestra they were willing to go to places with me which I had not had done with other orchestras.”

CSO president Jeff Alexander attended the first rehearsal.

“You said, ‘Good morning. Let’s begin’ and went right into the music,” Alexander recalled during a joint interview. “Very often a guest conductor will talk and talk and talk about the piece, but I think the musicians appreciated just getting to work. So I stayed for the first 10 or 15 minutes and I can tell you I already felt there was something really special happening.”

Mäkelä returned in February 2023 for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Alexander then started negotiations. The announcement was timed ahead of Mäkelä‘s performances with the CSO this week that include Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony.

“When you see Klaus conduct, there’s such a connection between him and the orchestra, and you can just feel it, and then between him and the audience,” Alexander said.

Mäkelä's hiring comes at a time when several other major U.S. institutions have upcoming podium vacancies, including the Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. As music director of a U.S. orchestra, Mäkelä’s role will include a fundraising component.

“I don’t think it will actually be so drastically different from the work in Amsterdam and in Paris,” he said. “In Oslo we have 100% of the funding is from the state and zero is private but then already in Amsterdam it’s 50-50 and there’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s also very much in my interest because then we can achieve things together if we find the right partnerships.”

Mäkelä played cello as a child — his father was a cello teacher and his mother a piano instructor. He remembers attending concerts given by Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu in Helsinki and decided his future vocation when he was 7 and singing in the children’s chorus at the Finnish National Opera in Bizet’s “Carmen.” He was riveted while watching the conductor on a backstage monitor.

“It sounds like a silly story, but it’s really true — from that moment,” Mäkelä said.

Studying cello at the Sibelius Academy, he took a conducting class with Jorma Panula, whose pupils have included Esa-Pekka Salonen and Susanna Mälkki. He was first included as a Helsinki Philharmonic cellist when he was 15, then was asked to conduct. He first conducted the Oslo Philharmonic in May 2018, and a string of debuts followed. He made his first Berlin Philharmonic appearance in April 2023 and is to make his Vienna Philharmonic debut this December. Decca Classics signed him as an exclusive recording artist in 2021, a rarity in 21st century classical music.

With all the symphonic work, Mäkelä has found little time for opera, where one-to-two-month stays are the norm.

He lives in Helsinki but hadn’t been there this year until late March. Mäkelä spends most of his time in Paris and Oslo, and getting scores to the right location proves time-consuming.

“I have FedEx and DHL and UPS all the time, and of course I always forget the score,” he said. “I want to have my own scores because I write things.”

He already is thinking about his initial programs in Chicago.

“It needs to be something which is a very clear start, a clear new chapter,” he said. “It needs to be music which keeps both me and the orchestra a little bit on our toes, because this needs to be everything else than comfort zone.”