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Klaus Mäkelä to Lead Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has been led for decades by conducting titans including Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, announced Tuesday that its next music director would be Klaus Mäkelä, a 28-year-old Finnish conductor whose charisma and clarity have fueled his rapid rise in classical music.

When he begins a five-year contract in 2027 at 31, Mäkelä will be the youngest maestro in the ensemble’s 133-year history, and one of the youngest ever to lead a top orchestra in the United States.

Mäkelä, who will become music director designate immediately, said in an interview that he did not think his age was relevant, noting that he had been conducting for more than half his life, beginning when he was 12.

“I don’t think about it,” he said. “Music doesn’t really have any age.”

Mäkelä, who will also take over as chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2027, said he was joining the Chicago Symphony because it has “that intensity — that same sound from the past.”

“You felt as if anything you would ask, they could actually improve and do more,” he said, recalling his recent guest appearances there. “For a conductor, that is a very, very special feeling because you see that there really are no limits to what you can achieve.”

Mäkelä will be in Chicago this week conducting the orchestra. He was set to appear with the star pianist Yuja Wang, with whom he was in a relationship until recently. The two were a classical music power couple who sometimes performed together. Wang withdrew from the concerts last week without giving a reason. She will be replaced by the cellist Sol Gabetta.

Jeff Alexander, the Chicago Symphony’s president, said in an interview that Mäkelä’s connection with the musicians was palpable from their first few minutes rehearsing together in 2022, preparing a program of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Hillborg.

The orchestra’s leaders soon began tracking Mäkelä, secretly attending his performances in New York, San Francisco, Tokyo and Oslo. They formally offered him the job in February 2023 when he returned for a program of Mahler, Sibelius and López Bellido.

“Every experience,” Alexander said, “started to reconfirm our initial feeling that this really could be a special new relationship.”

Mäkelä, one of the industry’s most in-demand conductors, already leads the Oslo Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. He said he would step down from those ensembles when his contracts expire in 2027 so that he could focus on the orchestras in Chicago and Amsterdam.

Mäkelä’s appointment will bring a generational shift to Chicago: He succeeds Muti, 82, the veteran maestro who led the Chicago Symphony from 2010 to 2023 before becoming music director emeritus for life.

The Chicago Symphony, with an endowment of $385 million, is one of the wealthiest and most celebrated in the United States. But it faces challenges, including lingering financial pain from the pandemic, rising costs and a long, gradual decline in subscriptions, which had once provided a lucrative source of revenue. Attendance at concerts is still below prepandemic levels — about 79 percent this season compared with 83 percent — though it has been steadily rising.

The orchestra hopes that Mäkelä can help attract new audiences to classical music, including younger concertgoers.

“There is nothing wrong with old people,” Mäkelä said. “But of course, ideally, we would have a very wide-ranging diverse audience.”

During his tenure, Mäkelä said he hoped to tackle standard repertoire like Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, as well as less commonly performed works like Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” and William Walton’s choral work “Belshazzar’s Feast.”

He also said he would make commissioning new pieces a priority, naming Unsuk Chin, Thomas Larcher, Andrew Norman and Anna Thorvaldsdottir as some of his favorite contemporary composers.

“I feel that we can have a completely new chapter for the orchestra in terms of repertoire, in terms of developing the same amazing sound,” he said, “but having it as flexible as possible.”

The Chicago Symphony is also working to bring more women and people of color into the ensemble. The orchestra has 59 men and 34 women, and only a few Black and Latino members.

Because the pandemic delayed auditions, the orchestra has an unusually high number of vacancies, 15, which Mäkelä said was an “opportunity for change.” He will start weighing in on auditions immediately, the orchestra said.

Mäkelä, who trained at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, said some of his models were Esa-Pekka Salonen, a fellow Finn who recently announced he was stepping down from the San Francisco Symphony, pointing to his experiments with music and technology. And he expressed admiration for Kirill Petrenko, the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, saying he had shown courage in programming.

This week’s concerts will be Mäkelä’s third visit to Chicago. He said he liked the city’s art, architecture and food and did not fear its formidable winter season.

“I’m not terrified of the weather, being Finnish,” he said. “It seems pretty cozy.”

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