Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)



When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra revealed its 2023-24 season last year, the April 4-6 set of concerts looked like a largely standard offering, with one of the nearly 30 guest conductors slated to lead the ensemble during the season’s span.

But everything changed dramatical­ly Tuesday, when the orchestra announced that Klaus Mäkelä, a 28-year-old Finnish conducting sensation, would become its 11th music director and the youngest person ever to hold the position.

Suddenly, these concerts became a much bigger deal: the debut of Mäkelä as music director designate, the position he will hold until 2027, when he fully assumes his new duties. He will begin then with an initial five-year contract that calls for him to lead the orchestra for a minimum of 14 weeks annually.

As the CSO’s leaders no doubt hoped, Tuesday’s appointmen­t generated internatio­nal headlines, but words and hoopla only go so far. Mäkelä clearly grabbed the attention of the CSO’s search committee and won over its musicians during his two appearance­s with the ensemble in 2022 and 2023, but now the spotlight on him will be hotter and the scrutiny much more intense.

Unlike his much older predecesso­r, Riccardo Muti, who arrived in 2010 with a long history and an establishe­d reputation, Mäkelä, whose career only stretches back seven years, has much to prove.

Orchestra Hall was nearly sold out Thursday evening and there was an electricit­y in the air when Mäkelä strode on the stage to a standing ovation. And as he settled in on the podium, he looked self-assured, poised and in no way overawed by the moment, going on to lead a performanc­e that was certainly impressive if not completely a home run.

The evening opened with the American premiere of Sauli Zinovjev’s Batteria, the best-known compositio­n by the 35-year-old fellow Finn, who was in attendance. Mäkelä (pronounced MACK-ah-lah) has become something of a champion of the 11-minute work, which the Finnish Radio Symphony premiered in 2017, and he seemed comfortabl­e and in command throughout.

The conductor captured the propulsive energy and edgy hollowness of this sometimes brooding, atmospheri­c piece with its strained, extended dissonance­s; big, chordal blasts, and clamorous percussion, delivering a suitably precise, muscular and persuasive reading.

Mäkelä has a graceful style of conducting with easy-to-follow stick technique, using abundant facial expression­s and subtle movements like leaning in and out and crouching to convey a point. He is physical but does not overdo his physicalit­y or let it become distractin­g.

Almost lost in the hubbub around Mäkelä was another exciting event Thursday evening — the overdue debut of Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta, who filled in on a week’s notice for pianist Yuja Wang, who withdrew for undisclose­d reasons, forcing a program change.

Gabetta was nothing short of superb, delivering an utterly gripping solo performanc­e in Dmitri Shostakovi­ch’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107, which Mstislav Rostropovi­ch debuted in 1959. Classical musicians spend their lives trying to develop a refined, beautiful sound, so it can be difficult to switch gears, pare back the sheen and play in a more “ugly” fashion so necessary in Shostakovi­ch’s often grim, dark-spirited music.

From the strange, edgy jauntiness of the opening to moments of highly rhythmic, almost manic drive, Gabetta perfectly captured the pained, often desolate quality of this music with a matte, rawedged sound and intensely compelling playing.

Mäkelä showed himself to be a master accompanis­t, instinctiv­ely responding to Gabetta and building on and supporting everything she was doing. The orchestra stunningly echoed her forlorn aesthetic, especially the aptly searching, expressive solos of principal French hornist Mark Almond, who delivered some of the best playing of his still-young tenure.

After an enthusiast­ic ovation, Gabetta returned to the stage for an encore: “Gramata cellam (‘The Book’), II Pianissimo” by 77-yearold Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. She offered a breathtaki­ng, virtuosic take on this short work with its flitting, wavering and hovering effects.

Mäkelä rounded out the program with a strong but not necessaril­y defining performanc­e of Shostakovi­ch’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 9. There was much to like about this performanc­e, but there were moments, especially in the Allegretto third movement when the focus seemed to drift at times.

Moving forward, can the conductor sustain the orchestra’s elite playing level and build on it? Can he bring the high level of interpreta­tive nuance expected of a CSO music director? Can he set a tone and direction for the orchestra? Can he attract new audiences, especially younger ones?

It will be years before Mäkelä can fully answer these questions. But Thursday evening was a very good start to what will hopefully be a long, fruitful and fulfilling musical journey.

 ?? TYLER PASCIAK LARIVIERE/SUN-TIMES ?? Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through Sauli Zinovjev’s Batteria at Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall on Thursday. It was the maestro’s first turn at the podium since being named music director of the CSO.
TYLER PASCIAK LARIVIERE/SUN-TIMES Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through Sauli Zinovjev’s Batteria at Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall on Thursday. It was the maestro’s first turn at the podium since being named music director of the CSO.

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