CSO guest conductors next season range from veterans to rising talents

Though Riccardo Muti will step down in June after 13 years as the Zell Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he will return in September to lead two sets of subscription concerts and the annual Symphony Ball.

As the search for his replacement continues, the CSO artistic department has put together a stellar line-up of nearly 30 guest conductors from around the world. They range from well-known veterans like Esa-Pekka Salonen and Semyon Bychkov, who have made regular appearances with the  CSO, to up-and-comers like Elim Chan and Gemma New, who are making their debuts.

Here is a quick look at 10 of next season’s visiting conductors:

James Gaffigan, Oct. 19-21 and 24: Although his career is largely centered on Europe, Gaffigan is among the brightest lights of today’s younger generation of American conductors. The Komische Oper Berlin, one of the three major companies in that city, has announced the appointment of Gaffigan as its next music director, effective in 2023-2024. “It’s safe to say that it is one of the most exciting opera companies in the world,” Gaffigan told Experience CSO in June 2022, before his last CSO engagement. He will lead a program of North-American works, including Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayá, regarded as his most esteemed orchestral work.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2 and 5: In 2020, Tilson Thomas stepped down after 25 years as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, a tenure known for his imaginative programming, especially the American Mavericks Festival in 2000. In March 2022, he   announced that he had an aggressive form of brain cancer, but he has defiantly returned to the podium while continuing treatment. His program culminates with Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 – not exactly standard repertoire.

Sir Andrew Davis, Dec. 21-23: Few conductors are better known in Chicago than Davis, hailed for his four decades at Lyric Opera of Chicago, including a 21-year-stint as its music director. Before leading the company’s recent production of Hansel and Gretel, he was named music director emeritus as a mark of respect for his accomplishments. With the CSO, the English conductor will lead not an opera but a work in a closely related form, an oratorio, Handel’s celebrated Messiah, just in time for Christmas.

Gemma New, Feb. 8 and 10: Two women are making their podium debuts with the CSO in 2023-24, starting with New, a 36-year-old conductor from New Zealand. She holds several posts, including principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Her program features the CSO’s first performances of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis, an 11-minute piece premiered by the Sinfonia San Francisco in 1992.

Herbert Blomstedt, March 1-2 and 5: The beloved 95-year-old conductor had to take a break from conducting after a recent fall, but he is back in action. (Before his engagement here next season, he will lead the CSO in an all-Dvořák program this March 9 and 11-12). In a review of the conductor's program earlier this month with the New York Philharmonic, New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe wrote: “[Blomstedt's] career has continued past expectations to this age-defying, jaw-dropping point. ... In his hands, everything is simply, sincerely musical.” For his return next season to the CSO, Blomstedt is set to lead two bedrock works of the orchestral repertoire, Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Jakub Hrůša, March 7-9 and 12 and March 14-16: In October, the fast-rising Czech maestro, who made his debut with the CSO in 2017, was named music director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. “It’s an amazing job,” said English conductor Edward Gardner, another rumored candidate for the position, to Experience CSO last year. “I think they’ve gone for a brilliant person, and I’m really happy for them. I’m sure it will be another great era.” With the CSO, Hrůša will lead back-to-back  programs that will include Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra and Bohuslav Martinů’s little-heard Violin Concerto No. 1.

Susanna Mälkki, March 21, 23-24: The Finnish conductor was said to be a leading candidate for the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, a position that just went to Gustavo Dudamel. Mälkki, in her final season as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, has gained considerable renown for her authoritative, incisive interpretations, especially in the contemporary realm, and it seems sure she will land a top international post somewhere. For her return program with the CSO, she will lead the world premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2 (with Principal Flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson as soloist).

Elim Chan, May 2 and 4: In 2014, Chan won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, a victory that led to her appointment as assistant conductor of the London Symphony. She has enjoyed a whirlwind career since, guest conducting with many of the world’s top orchestras and holding the posts of chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. For her CSO debut, she will lead performances of Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festival for organ and orchestra, composed in 1960 to inaugurate a new organ at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

Kazuki Yamada, May 16-18 and 21: The Japanese-born maestro will take over in April as chief conductor and artistic adviser of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble that helped propel the international career of Sir Simon Rattle. In 2009, Yamada first gained attention as the first-prize winner in the 51st International Besançon Competition for Young Conductors. In his CSO debut, he will lead a program anchored by Toru Takemitsu’s How slow the Wind (1991).

Manfred Honeck, May 30-31 and June 1: The Austrian-born music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra made what New York Times music critic Zachary Wolfe called an impressive debut last year at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, leading Mozart’s Idomeneo. Wolfe wrote that Honeck followed in former Met music director James Levine’s “tradition of big-orchestra Classicism: full-bodied, with rich vitality, but without the racing cat-feet tempos that are fashionable these days.” For his return to the CSO stage, Honeck leads two major works, the world premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s Percussion Concerto and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.