Mäkelä makes impressive CSO debut in iridescent music by Stravinsky and Hillborg

Fri Apr 15, 2022 at 12:39 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Klaus Mäkelä conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Hillborg, Prokofiev and Stravinsky Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

It was an evening for prodigiously talented youth at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with debuts by a conductor and violin soloist who are both in their 20s Thursday night.

Klaus Mäkelä is the latest in a seemingly unending stream of gifted Finnish conductors. Chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Orchestre de Paris, the 26-year old Finn just released his debut recording on Decca—nothing less than a set of the complete Sibelius symphonies.

Eschewing concert formalwear for a well-tailored suit, the slender young maestro made a highly impressive CSO bow, showing in two brilliant works for large orchestra that he is the real thing.

The evening led off with the CSO premiere of Eleven Gates by Anders Hillborg. This quirky 2006 work is a striking bit of composition, spanning 20 minutes that encompass 11 short, often epigrammatic sections that flow into each other. 

The titles of the individual sections are largely whimsical—“Suddenly in the Room with Chattering Mirrors”; “D Major Still Life”; “Confused Dialogues with Woodpecker”; and “Toypianos on the Surface of the Sea.”

One can follow each pictorial section but Hillborg’s work is most striking in its overall ear for swirling textures and individual timbres. Scored for a vast Mahlerian orchestra, the Swedish composer conjures an array of arresting effects, from the unrolling evanescent violins of the opening to the segue into Wagnerian brass choraless. Majestic rising chords for full orchestra are set against scurrying strings, decisively slammed shut with a resounding piano chord that seems borrowed from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Later glowering low brass and winds appear to channel a Bernard Herrmann sci-fi score. Hillborg is clearly a master orchestrator and Eleven Gates manages to be mysterious, playful, majestic, and endearingly strange.

Mäkelä’s tautly focused direction, alert cueing and meticulous balancing drew a riveting performance of kaleidoscopic brilliance and whipcrack energy that made the strongest possible case for Hillborg’s music.

The major work on the program was another, much more familiar showpiece, Stravinsky’s The Firebird.  The original ballet is scored for larger forces than the familiar suite, including three harps and quadruple woodwinds, and was performed Thursday in its complete Terpsichorean version (minus dancers).

Here too, Mäkelä was completely on top of Stravinsky’s fantastical score. The conductor led an alert, detailed performance yet one that went with a strong, pulsing current of forward momentum. Kastchei’s “Infernal Dance” was duly thrilling and spectacular in its amplitude and sheer sonic impact, and the finale rose to a coda of glowing beneficence.

Yet the more subtle sections were just as striking, such as the graceful music for the Firebird and the enchanted princesses. More than anything else, this was an organic performance, each scene flowing seamlessly into the next with a sense of an unfolding compelling narrative. Throughout this iridescent score Mäkelä led the musicians with a confidence and podium control beyond his years.

The CSO front desk players were at their finest in the myriad of opportunities, particularly Robert Chen’s silken violin solos, bassoonist Keith Buncke’s understated eloquence and hornist Daniel Gingrich’s gracious horn solos.

The only regret about Mäkelä’s debut is that there is only a single repeat of this program Friday afternoon. But he will be back next season to conduct Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, so mark your calendars for February 16-18, 2023.

Daniel Lozakovich performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Klaus Mäkelä and the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The evening’s centerpiece brought another CSO debut with Daniel Lozakovich as solo protagonist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2.

The 21-year-old Swedish violinist comes with a string of impressive prizes and recordings, having signed a high-profile Deutsche Grammophon contract at age 15.

Performing on his “ex-Baron Rothschild” Stradivari, Lozakovich brought an unorthodox approach to this Russian warhorse. His hushed opening solo set the tone for the performance, playing with a light and airy timbre. The youthful violinist brought uncommon delicacy to the lilting second subject and the Andante was rendered as a rapt intimate reverie on a mere thread of silvery tone.

Yet in the outer movements and the finale, especially, one wanted a bigger sonority and playing of greater thrust and character. Lozakovich clearly has the technical chops and sailed through all the hurdles but the spiky marcato bite and virtuosic fire were too often missing in action.

The concerto seemed to get the short end of rehearsal time with coordination out of synch at times between soloist and orchestra With all the wind principals sitting out the concerto, oboes and flutes were not always ideally focused.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday. cso.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Mäkelä makes impressive CSO debut in iridescent music by Stravinsky and Hillborg”

  1. Posted Apr 15, 2022 at 12:56 pm by Dave

    A thrilling concert! Loved the smart, intriguing program and riveting performances by all involved. Bravi!

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