Klaus Mäkelä lauds the music of a fellow Finn

Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä discusses his affinity for the music of Jean Sibelius: "If you grow up in Finland, being a musician, it’s something that just surrounds you."

Marco Borggreve

At the young age of 26, Klaus Mäkelä has achieved many milestones. He is the chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of Orchestre de Paris. This season, he guest-conducts the Cleveland Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

When the Finnish maestro makes his CSO podium debut in concerts April 14-15, he will lead a modernist program of Anders Hillborg’s Eleven Gates, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 (with soloist Daniel Lozakovich) and Stravinsky's The Firebird.

For his major-label debut, he recorded a complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic on Decca. Released in late March (April 8 in the U.S.), the four-disc set is receiving raves. Gramophone magazine declared: “Mäkelä’s cycle is all of a piece, accomplished, insightful and full of the beauty and intrigue that make these works so perennially exciting. An uber-auspicious debut.”

In a recent interview with the site The Arts Desk, Mäkelä discusses his connection to Sibelius, a fellow Finn.

Did you feel Sibelius was drummed into you when you were young, or did you just respond to it spontaneously?

KM: If you grow up in Finland, being a musician, or even not being a musician but especially so as a musician, it’s something which just surrounds you. We sing his Christmas carols and songs, and Finlandia is something which everybody knows. Then when you start playing an instrument, if you’re in a string orchestra, you play the Impromptu and Romance, and then the small suites, and the first thing you play in a youth orchestra is of course Sibelius 2.

The great thing about this composer is the variety, the range of different music, even in the symphonies. ... As we have the nine Beethoven symphonies, each one of which seems like a person with totally different characteristics from another, Sibelius is in a way the same, so it’s such a fascinating journey from the First Symphony, the raw energy but also the sentimental long lines, and the most beautiful melodies, then the Second, which is much clearer and brighter, even though it’s seen as this patriotic struggle for victory.

The Third Symphony is much more classical, also from the form point of view, which is really strange. Then the Fourth, which is the most serious, and melancholic, unlike anything, and that’s maybe his greatest masterpiece. The Fifth is his reaction to European modernism, which he rewrote twice, which is such an incredible thing as well. Then the Sixth and Seventh, which is the most beautiful piece ever.

Although Sibelius is known for his symphonies, which of course are architecturally very demanding, he was also at his best in his miniatures. He wrote so many small pieces — those Humoreskes for violin and orchestra, the songs — and he was very charming in those, and they went around singing them in the streets of Helsinki, with mocking lyrics, like, “He’s always going to the same bar, there he is, there he is.”

Then of course with Mahler 1, it’s like the Sibelius in that there is a local quality, probably related to the language, but it’s also universal. What Mahler draws on is what he knew from childhood. That’s another fascinating example of drawing the universal from the specific, isn’t it?