Tapped as music director, Mäkelä makes an exhilarating CSO stand with Shostakovich  

Fri Apr 05, 2024 at 1:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Klaus Mäkelä conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Klaus Mäkelä was announced as the future music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this week, effective in 2027.  Yet the Finnish conductor remains something of an enigma to local audiences, having only appeared with the orchestra on two previous occasions (in 2022 and 2023). 

Even so the 28-year-old maestro was welcomed upon his entrance Thursday night at Orchestra Hall with thunderous cheers and a standing ovation. The clamorous reception likely would have continued, but, after a brief acknowledgment, the music director designate quickly got down to business, turning to face the orchestra and lead the U.S. premiere of Sauli Zinovjev’s Batteria.

One of the most encouraging aspects of Mäkelä’s local appearances is that he has included a major contemporary work at every concert. That’s a far cry from CSO programs in general and those led by his predecessor in particular, where new music was eyed with suspicion and warily poked with a stick once or twice a season.

Mäkelä’s choices in contemporary fare have been discerning and Zinovjev’s Batteria is the most rewarding new music he has brought to Chicago to date. The 11-minute work begins arrestingly with three loud chords and two sets of chimes; the strident, metallic timbre represents church bells—inspired, says the composer, by acts of terrorism that took place in Paris, Brussels and Nice while he was writing the piece. 

Yet Zinovjev is an apolitical composer and Batteria is not agenda-driven music. Rather, this work, scored for large forces, is bracing, spirited and humanistic—“dedicated to life” (A la vie). There is a tightly coiled explosive energy set against an inexorable, tick-ticking motif that dominates the work.

Brief respites—as with the balm of two flutes and a reflective passage for harp and piano—provide contrast yet an underlying tension remains. The music courses on with aggressive, rock-edged momentum (Zinovjev was a guitarist in a rock band in his teens) and the waves of sonic intensity lead to a huge climax capped by a reprise of the chimes. Stopped-note horns presage a final upward surge of sweeping energy.

Written in 2016-17, Batteria was Zinovjev’s first major work for orchestra and it is an astonishingly assured debut, scored with panache and bristling with youthful vitality. Mäkelä balanced the large faces skillfully even in the most hectic passages, drawing a performance of crackling energy and total conviction from the musicians across all sections. The Finnish composer was in the house and Zinovjev was called to the stage by Mäkelä, where he was applauded warmly and enthusiastically by the audience.

This week’s program originally had slated Yuja Wang as soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The celebrated pianist—and Mäkelä’s ex-girlfriend—cancelled and was replaced by Sol Gabetta, who made her CSO debut in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1.

While no doubt disappointing for the many local Yuja faithful, the repertoire switch made for a more linear program—if also demonstrating why one large Shostakovich work on a single program is often enough.

Shostakovich’s popular concerto has not been heard at CSO concerts in eight years and Gabetta proved a sturdy solo protagonist. The cellist possesses a polished technique though Thursday night’s performance was not immaculate with some fleeting pinched notes and fractional hesitation on position shifting in the more virtuosic sections of the cadenza.

But this was largely a worthy and idiomatic solo performance. Gabetta’s pleasing tone and light-footed agility galumphed amiably through the dogged first movement, though so compelling was Mäkelä’s boldly projected accompaniment that at times it threatened to take the spotlight away from the soloist.

Gabetta had the full measure of the Moderato’s grim introspection with nicely spare and withdrawn playing, the distant celesta impeccably balanced. 

Sol Gabetta performed Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with Klaus Mäkelä and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The soloist was at her finest in the extended cadenza, aptly conveying the searching essence while exploring a wide range of dynamics. Gabetta charted the increasingly assertive bravura of the cadenza into the finale, which proved more tempestuous and triumphant than usual by virtue of her fine solo work and Mäkelä’s high-stepping accompaniment.

One telling aspect as to whether a conductor is a good fit with an orchestra is that everyone seems to play better under his direction. Such was the case with principal horn Mark Almond, who impressively handled the prominent obbligato solos in the concerto with dispatch and assurance.

Encores have become ubiquitous for CSO concerto soloists whether deserved or not, yet in Gabetta’s case, the bonus proved nearly as compelling as the concerto. 

The Pianissimo movement from Peteris Vasks’ Grāmata čellam (The Book) for solo cello is less reflective of the Latvian composer’s luminous style than his music for strings. Yet in this hushed music Gabetta coaxed an array of rarefied hues as well as bringing an accomplished vocalise to the performance. The final, feather-soft diminuendo of a twittering avian phrase was magical.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 closed the evening. The composer’s first work to be completed after the death of Stalin, the nearly hour-long Tenth has all the handprints of Shostakovich’s previous works in the genre, cast in a grander and more epic form. The music is more personal as well; the composer’s DSCH musical motif becomes increasingly manifest as the symphony moves from bleak darkness to a hopeful searching and overcoming of dangers en route to a hard-won, blazing coda.

With each CSO concert Mäkelä has built on the success of the previous one, and Thursday night’s performance of Shostakovich’s symphony gave local audiences his most impressive achievement to date. The young maestro is no longer over-conducting the music; while he is still an attentive and dynamic presence on the podium, he is now more apt to give a quick glance or make an adjustment with more economical means. 

Mäkelä directed the score with a firm focus, unfolding each movement in an organic and concentrated fashion that made both musical and structural sense, of both the movement and the larger architectural arc.

The conductor also seems to prefer a warmer, more rounded string sonority—yet one that is not soft or flabby—from the orchestra, as in the opening passage for cellos and basses arising out of the shadowy depths in the first movement. Mäkelä charted the desolate landscape of this long movement in wholly compelling fashion, building patiently and surely to a floor-shaking climax and back down with an extended, skillfully moulded diminuendo at the end. Eloquent horn and bassoon solos from Almond and Keith Buncke, respectively, highlighted the movement’s journey. 

Solomon Volkov’s claim that the frenzied second movement is a portrait of Stalin has been discredited (aptly, since the animated energy doesn’t quite reflect the murder of nine million people). While Mäkelä ensured the music’s relentless, mechanized brutality came across with daunting impact, the Allegro also proved an undeniably exhilarating showpiece at his lightning tempo.

The halting third movement was exceptionally well done with the hard-working Almond contributing more worthy solo work. Mäkelä’s spacious handling of the finale’s slow introduction proved especially effective, making the sudden appearance of the cheerful, clarinet-burbling main theme more convincing and less abrupt than usual. With a headlong tempo,  Mäkelä ratcheted up the speed and urgency, accelerating to a whirlwind coda with Shostakovich’s motif ringing out in aptly defiant victory at the coda.

The CSO musicians are already playing extremely well for their music director designate. This successful concert indicates that the orchestra made an inspired choice with Klaus Mäkelä as their future leader. Time will tell if this marriage turns out to be effective over the longer haul, but with this week’s performances the Mäkelä-CSO partnership is off to a flying start.


For all his impressive musicianship and fame and success at such a young age, Klaus Mäkelä also seems like a genuinely nice and self-effacing guy. 

One has to say “seems” since Mäkelä was poorly served this week by the CSO’s PR/marketing dept. and their overpaid outside consultants. Not only did they limit the conductor’s interviews to out-of-town outlets and dying legacy newspapers—both of whom hardly ever review the orchestra—but they managed to compound the insult by refusing interviews to the Chicago musical press that covers the CSO most regularly and actively. 

Genius move. Let’s hope the music director designate will be assertive about saving the orchestra from its own feckless staff blunders going forward.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 

Posted in Performances

12 Responses to “Tapped as music director, Mäkelä makes an exhilarating CSO stand with Shostakovich  ”

  1. Posted Apr 05, 2024 at 1:35 pm by Guest

    The distinction between local and out-of-town outlets is irrelevant today in terms of reach, we all find and access our articles via Google, and everything pops up.

    So the CSO’s snub of, presumably, this site is all the more hypocritical because the CSO often quotes this site’s reviews in its PR efforts. And not to state the obvious, this site is the only outlet that reviews every CSO concert whereas the two legacy local presses not only no longer have a classical music desk, they rarely review the CSO.

    So what was the PR department afraid of from this site? Tough questions.

  2. Posted Apr 05, 2024 at 5:15 pm by Bob Lindgren

    I had added this program to my subscription largely because of Yuja Wang and the Bartok. However, I attended last season’s Makela program and was very impressed so I never thought of not attending because of Wang’s disappointing cancellation. Then, when the MD announcement was made, the tenor of the evening changed considerably. It became a celebrity occasion, but I thought Makela handled it perfectly. Obviously pleased with the wildly enthusiastic reception, he nonetheless moved very professionally into his job for the evening.

    The introductory US premiere of Batteria by Zinovjev was very powerful, one of the best examples of contemporary music in recent CSO concerts. It was a compelling and convincing piece of music. Both Shostakovich pieces were very well done. The delightful cello concerto was beautifully played by Ms. Gabetta and, as Lawrence Johnson opined, the unexpected encore was ravishing.

    The Shostakovich symphony was a well-conceived and delivered performance and I agree that the musicians seem to engage with Makela in an unusual and encouraging way. A partnership in the making felt almost palpable. I was personally delighted to learn of Makela’s appointment and I think a director with his youth, energy and respect among the prominent performers of his generation bodes well.

    The Orchestra needed this and the City of Chicago as well. I have been concerned that the unfortunate decline in Chicago’s reputation may have hindered the recruitment of the kind of leader we need. There is still a lot to be learned, for instance how will he fare in more traditional but core repertory? Next season he will pair with Trifonov on the Brahms B-flat concerto. I am already looking forward to that.

    Wonderful evening of music.

  3. Posted Apr 05, 2024 at 9:50 pm by Aileen

    Stunning performance! The energy was palpable and it was great to see the hall nearly sold out. Looking forward to this new phase with the CSO.

  4. Posted Apr 06, 2024 at 7:54 am by Richard T

    Well, this was superb! The symphony was arguably played slower than strictly necessary even for this specific interpretation, but there were no longueurs, and there was never a sense that he was just rambling about. The end came swiftly and in an unexpected way; but it happened naturally and organically and there was never a sense that he was calling attention to himself or going “Look Ma! ain’t I clever!”

    I did not notice any “fractional hesitation” on the part of Sol Gabetta on Friday night during the cadenza. But even if it had been there and I had missed it, I wouldn’t quibble given that gorgeous burnished tone, that marvelous evenness of sound through the registers and through wildly changing dynamics, that long singing line she maintained through this jagged and contorted music. The hall was completed hushed from the slow movement onwards; even the kids who had been bused in from school and who had clapped after the first movement did not make the slightest pip.

    This bodes well for the future!

  5. Posted Apr 06, 2024 at 9:25 am by Lawrence A. Johnson

    To be clear, I was not referencing just CCR. All of my local colleagues who cover the CSO more regularly than the legacy media were stiffed on Mäkelä access as well.

  6. Posted Apr 06, 2024 at 11:25 am by Richard T

    Responding to Aileen:

    There were lots of empty seats on Friday And this is considering that perhaps up to one-fifteenth of the hall was sold to schoolchildren who were bused in. I fully expected a media circus, but there wasn’t any.

    Despite the prevailing opinion, I really think that ultimately it is quality, not media stardom, not matinee idol looks, that will sell tickets.

  7. Posted Apr 06, 2024 at 12:55 pm by Randy Wilson

    I was not as enamored of the symphony as some others were. It was simply too slow for me in the quieter, building sections and I was not feeling any urgency or shape to it. The allegro passages were stunning of course. And I loved the new piece and the concerto (and that truly unique encore).

    I was let down by the symphony but still keeping an open mind for our new music director to take the reins and prove himself worthy.

  8. Posted Apr 06, 2024 at 6:34 pm by Dave R

    Lawrence, great review as always. In regards to the CSO PR/media department, I hope there is a progressive refresh in this department to complement an inspired, innovative, and exhilarating choice for Music Director. This is a great opportunity to not only introduce a younger, more diverse generation to the CSO, but an opportunity for Makela to be an ambassador across the country for the beauty and passion of classical music–especially with continued interesting and varied orchestral works to inspire many tastes.

    The CSO administration has to make the CSO accessible in the digital age. This generation does not watch “TV” (CSO TV) much listen to a “radio” (CSO Radio). They stream and “TikTok”. Meet them where they are and make the CSO accessible by every definition of the word. Good for the CSO, good for the genre of classical music, and good for the cultural soul of our country…

  9. Posted Apr 07, 2024 at 2:13 am by Matti Loikkanen

    Jumalauta Klaus, Don’t let it get into your head!

  10. Posted Apr 07, 2024 at 10:15 am by james

    I was at the Thursday evening concert and agree completely with Aileen, above. Mr. Johnson should be commended for his observation that Dr Almond played beautifully. I believe the CCR review was the only one that mentioned this very important point.

    As a non-musicologist, it was emotionally evident to me that the orchestra loved playing for KM. I hope the cellist is invited back, she was wonderful.

  11. Posted Apr 07, 2024 at 12:51 pm by RB

    I was there Friday night, house was quite full, audience was fully engaged, and the orchestra played spectacularly. As a “young elderly” who drives from out of state to a few concerts each year, it is sobering to realize that K.M. will probably be the last CSO Music Director in my concert-attending life…

    But he is very good, it looks like the orchestra loves him, and I hope he is as good at administration as he is at music-making. I agree with the reviewer that this was a lot of Shostakovich for one night, and some relief from the biting sarcasm of the music would have been welcome, but the last-minute concerto substitution surely was a challenge (and honestly, the 2nd movement of the concerto was the highlight of the evening for me). I had read in advance the review’s praise of Dr. Almond’s performance, and was looking forward to it. I wish him all the best as an artistic contributor to the CSO, but having heard Mahler 5 and 9 last season, I’m not sure that the new guy is on a par yet with the old guy, artistically or technically.

    But what a joy to hear the jaw-dropping, heart-moving performance of the current clarinet and oboe principals!

  12. Posted Apr 08, 2024 at 10:49 am by Peter Todd Borich

    Just an exciting night with wonderful music making. Only wish that the Music Director Designate was properly feted at the beginning of the concert. The lack of announcement to the audience with a few words by the Maestro was somewhat puzzling.

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