Klaus Mäkelä believes Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is part of the CSO’s DNA

Returning to Symphony Center for the first time since his debut in April, when he and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Stravinsky’s astonishing ballet The Firebird together as if they’d been acquainted for years, the young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä still has the sound of the orchestra in his head.

“I remember it very well, actually,” he said via Zoom from a New York rehearsal room before his Chicago concerts Feb. 16-18, when the focus will be Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. “I was very impressed by them, you know. I’m someone who has listened to a lot of recordings, especially the older ones, the historical ones, and of course the Chicago Symphony on CD is an orchestra I have heard a lot, with all the different conductors — Reiner and Solti and Barenboim and a bit of Muti, too. 

“But it is always different when you are standing there, in front of the orchestra. At the conductor’s podium you have the optimal sound. Everything is strong, but not too strong. And you can feel the resonance. I was very impressed by the precision, and there was something very typical of what I call the Chicago Sound, which I think is characterized by this strength in the whole orchestra, starting of course with the strings, and the very, very tight and brilliant brass. The solo woodwinds, too.

“All in all, it was a very good impression, and that was a nice program to do because we had a lot of variety. And by doing Stravinsky’s complete Firebird — which I think is the last great, great late Romantic work — we really got into the really beautiful bits that are cut out in the suites. I really enjoyed that. There was a bit of contemporary music, too [by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg], and it was interesting to see how quickly they figured it out.”

Although Mäkelä, who turned 27 in January, has been on the major orchestra circuit for only slightly more than six years, he has piled success upon success, securing leadership positions well into the future. He became chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, effective 2020-21; music director of the Orchestre de Paris, effective 2021-22, and chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, effective 2027-28. He also has an exclusive Decca recording contract, and a set of the complete Sibelius symphonies with Oslo has been released.

“In a way, it’s a perfect symphony because it has everything in it. The symphonic shape is special, because it is a five-movement structure with one of the most beautiful slow movements there is.” —  Klaus Mäkelä on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

For his return to Orchestra Hall, Mäkelä said he thought immediately of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. 

“It was the first Mahler symphony that I got to know, and as it is also the most popular. I began conducting it some time ago, most recently in Oslo at the season opening in September, and in a way, it’s a perfect symphony because it has everything in it. The symphonic shape is special, because it is a five-movement structure with one of the most beautiful slow movements there is, and one can debate how slow it should be, or whether it’s actually moving more, instead of slow and steady.

“I was always drawn to this symphony because of Mahler’s rather classical approach to it — I mean, if you think about it, there’s the last movement rondo with a lot of counterpoint. And the first movement structure with its very solemn and tragic character. And the second movement with all its dramatic, very sudden turns and almost violent behavior. And the third movement, which is one of those devilishly difficult Mahler scherzos where you have to find exactly the perfect tempo, exactly the perfect swing groove to the dance.

“And there’s another novelty, the obbligato horn, which becomes a little soloist in that piece. All in all, I’m fascinated by this symphony. It’s a continual discovery for me, because you can always turn the same things around and say to yourself, ‘Oh, I never thought about that.’ You can always find connections, even when you think you know the piece very well.”

The arrival of the COVID pandemic brought an abrupt end to much of Mäkelä’s touring, so he and the Oslo Philharmonic took advantage of the downtime to fast-track the Sibelius cycle for Decca — plus, Tapiola and fragments of the unfinished Eighth Symphony.

Sibelius himself had conducted the Oslo Philharmonic, so there was a special connection there. “We had actually planned during that first season as chief conductor to begin a series of concert recordings — so, for each symphony, two concerts, recorded complete, and then maybe half a day of patching and that’s it. But then of course we had no concerts because of the pandemic. And we realized that either we start recording now, with social distance and all of that, or we stop the whole project. Because otherwise we will never find enough weeks in the next years.” (Those weeks were booked already.)

“So then we tried.” He laughed as he recalled the drill: “Norway had very strict rules and people did not have any kind of social life. You were not able to go to the store, to the restaurant, anything. And then, we’d still gather every day with 80 people in one big room with lots of distance, and we played music. It felt very, very special.”

“In a way, I think the rather unusual situation was an experience which taught us all. It was never easy to play in that hall, and we needed to work a lot harder because of the distance. Everything became much brighter, so we needed to make sure how we played to get the right color, and to always have enough warmth and darkness. Especially with some of these symphonies, you need a lot of darkness. And with distance, you realize that what you are hearing is not always something you can trust.

“What you hear might come to your ear a bit late, and then you react a little bit even later. We had to take a more chamber music approach than usual, because the eyes don’t lie. So when everybody sees the concertmaster place the downbow, then everybody is there with her. We all learned a lot from that. It ended up being this very valuable experience where everybody gave it their best, and it’s also our little document of what we did during that time.”

Guest conducting, of course, has its own special allure for Mäkelä. “When I guest conduct, I can have wonderful fun for one week and so let’s maximize the musical pleasure,” he said. “I want to choose pieces which I think I will get the most out of the orchestra. That’s why I have chosen Mahler 5 for Chicago, which was always, if not their No. 1 piece, then very much in their DNA.”