Review: The Rising Star of Conducting Arrives in New York

Now New Yorkers know what the hype is all about.

The hype, that is, around the 26-year-old Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä. He’s the fastest-rising maestro of his generation, a darling of fellow musicians and orchestra administrators alike. It seems that every time I meet with someone in the industry lately, there comes a moment in the conversation when I’m asked, “Have you heard Klaus Mäkelä?”

Outside New York, it’s been hard not to. He has collected podium appointments so quickly, an ensemble as prestigious as the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam was willing to create a title, artistic partner, to keep him in reserve until he officially becomes its chief conductor in 2027. That’s when his contracts will be up at the Orchestre de Paris and the Oslo Philharmonic; already, there are whispers about where he could go next.

Chances are, he will not go to the New York Philharmonic, where he made his debut on Thursday. (For those keeping track, Leonard Bernstein was just a year younger when he got his unexpected big break.) This orchestra — whose music director, Jaap van Zweden, will depart at the end of next season — needs a new conductor much sooner than Mäkelä is available. But perhaps he has a future as a frequent guest; his first outing with the Philharmonic was a promising one, under an even bigger spotlight than planned, with a program of only symphonic works after the concerto soloist, Truls Mork, withdrew because of an injury.

The Philharmonic, at its most exasperating, can be a brash and unbalanced ensemble. Under Mäkelä’s baton on Friday morning, however, it was largely measured in delivering what has become, to mixed results, his trademark clarity. He brought a transparent, levelheaded approach to the emotional extremes of two Russian, B-minor symphonies premiered nearly a half-century apart — the Sixths of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich — as well as to a contemporary work, Jimmy López Bellido’s “Perú Negro.”

López Bellido is a favorite of Mäkelä’s among living composers. It’s easy to hear why; this is music that, on the surface, sounds like a successor to other works in Mäkelä’s repertoire that employ enormous orchestral forces, such as the Ballets Russes scores of Stravinsky that he will take to the Aix-en-Provence Festival next summer, or the post-Romantic symphonies of Mahler that he has toured.

Unlike those, however, “Perú Negro” — premiered in 2013 as part of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s centennial and originally conducted by López Bellido’s friend Miguel Harth-Bedoya — thrills and entertains, but reveals itself all too readily.

This piece has the hallmarks of López Bellido’s style, such as rich orchestration and maximal gesture, along with homages to the folk songs and rhythms of the Black Peruvian music that the title hints at. Although Mäkelä was up against the newly renovated David Geffen Hall’s bright acoustics in taming the Philharmonic’s sound, he led a lively account, which was met with a standing ovation.

But the memory of it was quickly swept aside by the Shostakovich that followed — in particular the similarly grand, breakneck finale. There, you could hear what was lacking in “Perú Negro”: ambiguous exuberance, Janus-faced passages that misdirect and provoke, both inviting and impenetrable, forever irreconcilable. López Bellido could take a lesson from that, as someone who clearly knows how an orchestra can sound, but not necessarily what it can say.

The Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky symphonies were studies in letting a score speak for itself. Whether that works is largely a matter of taste, and ensemble. I heard a similar touch in a Mahler Four that Mäkelä conducted last year in Munich; there, the cool performance didn’t deliver on the symphony’s heavenly climax. But his Mahler Six in Amsterdam this summer was a revelation of terror directly expressed.

At the Philharmonic, Mäkelä kept some of the orchestra’s characteristic imbalances in check — such as the outsize sounds that rendered the winds section virtually invisible in the Beethoven Nine led by van Zweden in October — but hadn’t quite rewired the players. He did, though, manage to lend both symphonies a legible, compelling shape, if at a bit of a remove. The most evocative moments came not from the entire group but from soloists: Frank Huang’s violin fleetly galloping in the Shostakovich; Judith LeClair’s bassoon dolefully opening the Tchaikovsky; and Anthony McGill’s clarinet reprising that work’s second theme with rending sweetness.

The third movement of the Tchaikovsky, a perennial audience favorite, especially benefited from Mäkelä’s lucid reading, whose transparency brought equal attention to the itinerant melodic line and the dense orchestrations surrounding it. There was a sense of what the composer might have been thinking when he wrote to his publisher, Pyotr Jurgenson, that he was “happy in the knowledge that I have written a good piece.”

I found myself, though, wanting to know more than how Tchaikovsky viewed his own music. Mäkelä’s conducting was so deferential to the score, it was tempting to shake him and ask, “But what do you really think?” Classics like this symphony warrant not just recitation, but also repeated examination.

Then again, it’s helpful to remember that we are talking about a 26-year-old. Who hasn’t changed drastically throughout their 20s — in life, in work, in worldview? It will be interesting, and worthwhile, to see where that growth takes Mäkelä. He has proved that he can wrangle the war horses. Now it’s time to see what else he can do.

New York Philharmonic

Performed on Friday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan.

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