Klaus Mäkelä named next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

On April 2, 2024, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) Board of Trustees voted unanimously to approve the recommendation of the CSOA Music Director Search Committee to appoint Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä as the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — the 11th in the ensemble’s 133-year history.

Following a term as Zell Music Director Designate, effective immediately, Mäkelä will begin an initial five-year tenure as Zell Music Director in September 2027. In this role, he will conduct the orchestra a minimum of 14 weeks per season: 10 weeks of subscription and other concerts in and around Chicago, plus four weeks of domestic and international tours.

Recognized by The New York Times as “perhaps the fastest-rising conductor of his generation,” Mäkelä launched his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic in 2020 and as Music Director of Orchestre de Paris the following year. In 2022, he was appointed Artistic Partner of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, where he assumes the title of Chief Conductor in September 2027. He has been an exclusive Decca Classics artist since 2021, when he became the first conductor signed by the label in more than four decades, and only the third to date.

Audiences in Chicago have had the chance to see and hear Mäkelä at work with the CSO in two previous, critically acclaimed, podium appearances — first in 2022 for performances that included Stravinsky’s complete ballet score to The Firebird and again in 2023, when he led performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

In recent years, audience members and musicians alike have wondered where the search for a new music director might lead. The appointment of Mäkelä opens a new chapter of music-making at the CSO.

Responding to the news of his appointment, Mäkelä said,

“I am honored to have been chosen as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and inspired to embark on this journey with an orchestra that combines such brilliance, power and passion. I look forward to getting to know the musicians more over the coming years and am grateful for the time this allows for us to establish and deepen our relationship, in preparation for what is a major and exciting commitment.”

Mäkelä will be 31 when he commences his tenure as Zell Music Director in Chicago at the start of the 2027/28 Season, coinciding with his inauguration as Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He explained, “From 2027/28 my main responsibilities will be my partnerships with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Until then I remain committed to my ongoing collaborations with the Orchestre de Paris and Oslo Philharmonic. I look forward to all the music-making we have planned for the next three seasons and to returning to both institutions on a regular basis after my official tenures are completed.”

The search for the next music director started in 2019, guided by the members of the CSOA Music Director Search Committee, which includes six CSO musicians — Yuan-Qing Yu (Assistant Concertmaster), John Sharp (Principal Cello), Kenneth Olsen (Assistant Principal Cello), Alexander Hanna (Principal Bass), William Buchman (Assistant Principal Bassoon) and Michael Mulcahy (Trombone). Chaired by CSOA Trustee and Past Board Chair Helen Zell, the search committee met regularly throughout the selection process, and its members also include current CSOA Board Chair Mary Louise Gorno, Vice Chair Chester Gougis, Life Trustees Ling Markovitz and Robert Kohl, Trustee Roderick Branch, CSOA President Jeff Alexander, Vice President for Artistic Planning Cristina Rocca and Vice President for Orchestra and Building Operations Vanessa Moss. As part of their work, the search committee experienced Mäkelä conducting seven programs in five cities: New York, San Francisco, Oslo, and Tokyo, as well as Chicago.

The CSO musicians of the committee were a vital link to the perspectives and impressions of their colleagues throughout the process. Commenting on the appointment of Mäkelä, CSO Assistant Principal Bassoon William Buchman noted “The rich history and remarkable legacy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra demand the most uncompromising standards to keep the orchestra in the vanguard of symphony orchestras worldwide. From Klaus Mäkelä’s first moments on the podium, the musicians of the orchestra recognized that we were working with a conductor of extraordinary ability. His natural leadership drew our immediate focus, and the clarity of his musical ideas made it feel effortless to perform at the high level for which we strive. The musician members of the search committee are excited that Klaus Mäkelä will be our next music director, and we are confident that the Chicago community will share that same excitement.”

Principal Flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson gives a “thumbs up” backstage.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Assistant Concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu shared her first impression of Klaus Mäkelä’s 2022 performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird as an audience member. “What impressed me the most was his capacity of narrating the whole story. It was captivating from beginning to end, and the orchestra sounded great under his direction. I remember feeling the excitement from the audience from the moment he walked onto the stage.”

Yu remembered that after that week’s concerts, she and other search committee members received feedback from their colleagues who recognized Mäkelä as “someone special.” Following his return CSO appearance in 2023 to lead Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the musicians’ feedback “reaffirmed that Mäkelä is one of the rare talents.”

Yu continued, “It’s a privilege to serve on the search committee. The six musicians were elected to represent the individual and collective voice of our colleagues — to express and share their perspectives to the rest of the search committee members. We actively sought out comments and opinions, and there was an unprecedented level of enthusiasm for Klaus Mäkelä.”

Fellow search committee member Michael Mulcahy has been a CSO trombonist since his appointment 34 years ago by the CSO’s eighth music director, Sir Georg Solti. During his tenure, Mulcahy has watched and listened as the Orchestra moved through what he calls an “extraordinary period of renewal and rejuvenation,” guided by artistic leaders such as Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Muti. Over time, Mulcahy said, the CSO has become widely recognized among the elite orchestras in the world. “This is especially apparent when you look at the caliber of musicians joining in recent years.”

Mulcahy said that achieving and sustaining this level of musical artistry informed the committee’s discussions of the orchestra’s future. “Working with Mäkelä, we see not only complete mastery of the orchestra, but deep insight into the composer, and a vision he is able to project with great credibility. Mäkelä’s artistic conviction inspires the musicians to go way beyond just the notes. There is so much to look forward to.”