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Oiling the machine: Klaus Mäkelä on taking up conductor posts in Oslo and Paris


When it was announced in June that the next Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris was to be Klaus Mäkelä, eyebrows were raised. Not only because of his youth – he’s just 24 – but also that the Finnish conductor had yet to take up his new appointment at the helm of the Oslo Philharmonic. A case of too much too soon? Yet watch him conduct or listen to him in conversation and there’s a maturity beyond his years, as I discovered recently when we spoke about the start of his Oslo tenure. 

Watching the performances online of Mäkelä conducting both the Oslo Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris at their first post-lockdown concert with an audience at the Philharmonie in July, the thing that struck me about Mäkelä was his style – very precise, with economical gestures. Mäkelä studied with Jorma Panula, “the grand old man of Finnish conducting,” he tells me. “He just turned 90 – we had a huge party for him and Jukka-Pekka Saraste organised a concert. I started studying with Panula when I was 12. I was playing cello in the youth department of the Sibelius Academy but I badly wanted to conduct. It was my chance to stop dreaming about it and try. 

“I studied with Panula for six years. I also travelled a lot with him. He was one of those teachers who is a master pedagogue, always choosing the right words, but also – being very Finnish – not a man of many words. So it was the quality, not the quantity of the words, which mattered. Teaching conducting is much more difficult than teaching an instrument. Conducting is so abstract. If you compare Finnish conductors like Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Osmo Vänskä, for example, they all studied with the same teacher, but they are all very different. 

“Every orchestra needs something different, so the conductor has to have this huge toolbox, and then always take the right tool that you need for the occasion. Of course, the more tools you have, the better, but I think that trust is the most important thing because if you give your trust, if you trust the musicians, they will most probably trust you back.”

In orchestral life – as in real life – first impressions can be crucial. Mäkelä first conducted the Oslo Philharmonic in May 2018; by October, he was announced as their next chief conductor. How was this swift relationship forged? “The repertoire, I think, was crucial,” Mäkelä reflects. “There are certain pieces that reveal more than others. On this occasion, we played Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, which is quite a difficult piece, but I was deeply taken by their way of playing that music. Their willingness to work at it was impressive.”

For Finnish conductors, Sibelius comes with the territory. For his first season in Oslo, Mäkelä has planned a Sibelius cycle. “I had long thought this would be the perfect start for me, programme-wise, and I know they were very much hoping for Sibelius. It’s the perfect thing to do because it’s very much part of their DNA, but they hadn’t been playing it for some time now.”

But Mäkelä isn’t just lumping the seven symphonies together. “The perspective is interesting because each symphony is so different and we thought we could reinforce that by telling a story with the programming, emphasising some of the qualities and characteristics which are not always recognised. The Second, for example, is often portrayed as a patriotic, very political symphony, but Sibelius always denied these political connections and interpretations. Much of the Second was composed on holiday in Italy, so one of the most ‘Finnish’ pieces of music was actually composed nowhere near Finland – so we combine Sibelius 2 with music from Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Vivaldi’s Double concerto for 2 cellos to maybe bring a certain lightness, brilliance and transparency.

“Sibelius grew up in a small place nowhere near Helsinki, so the first time he heard a full orchestra was only when he was about 20. Yet within a few years, he had written huge pieces like Kullervo and the First Symphony.” We talk about the First, very Tchaikovskian, very Russian in colouring. “I think it is one of the best First symphonies out there – along with Mahler 1.”

Mahler’s First was how Mäkelä chose to open his Oslo tenure, along with the world premiere of Sauli Zinovjev’s Wiegenlied, a concert that will be streamed. Why Mahler 1? “There’s a bit of a tradition of young conductors making Mahler 1 their opening concert,” Mäkelä laughs. “It is just a wonderful celebration of playing together – every instrument has something interesting to play. From the sounds of nature at the beginning, to the street music and all its caricatures. Trying to get all this from just one week of rehearsals was a challenge, but I love the way they played it in this concert.” 

Mäkelä follows in distinguished footsteps in Oslo, most notably Mariss Jansons who did much to establish the orchestra’s reputation during his 23 years there. “Because the tenures of chief conductors get shorter and shorter, it can make some orchestras lose their identity a bit, their sound especially. Mariss did a huge amount of work and his spirit is still in the orchestra every day. 

“Different countries have different schools of playing. Even though it’s an international industry, the Oslo Phil still contains a lot of Norwegian musicians, which is lovely. The Norwegian violin school, for example, is very strong, full bodied and quite classic. The same applies to the brass – there are lots of brass bands in Norway, compared with other Scandinavian countries or Finland. The style is very refined.”

In May, before he’d even taken up his Oslo appointment, Mäkelä’s contract was extended to seven years. A statement of commitment? “My initial contract was only for three years – understandable as I’d only conducted them once! – but you can only plan so many years in advance. Then we had several concerts together and we all realised that it just felt very much like ‘home’. We all felt incredibly comfortable – in a good way – and thought we could plan much further in advance.”

“Building programmes is one of my passions! It’s a big part of the conductor’s job, especially when devising programmes for your own orchestra. When you’re guesting, everything is easy because you’re just focusing on that one week. You look at the repertoire they play and the way they play – you don’t want to teach a very old-fashioned orchestra how to play Mozart in a HIP style, for example, that’s a waste of time. But as a Chief Conductor, there are so many things you need to think about, but one of the most important things is to choose pieces that don’t ‘eat’ from each other. Sometimes it can be a brilliant thematic connection, or it can be a contrast in period, in time, or a variation on that, but the approach from the first piece to the last should work… I always try to think about how you go from one piece to another, both for the audience, but also for the orchestra.” An illustration of Mäkelä’s thoughtful approach to programming is an April concert which moves from Dutilleux to Anna Thorvaldsdottir via a Mozart piano concerto, before pairing The Blue Danube with Ravel’s implosive La Valse

Mäkelä takes up his Paris appointment for the 2022/23 season. Was taking on two musical directorships a deliberate choice to base himself in two cities? “When Paris offered the job, I thought it would be the perfect thing to do. And then, of course, Corona came which, in the event, made me realise even more that this is exactly the right thing to do – it’s much more sustainable, artistically, to focus on two orchestras with a totally different profile and totally different repertoire. To work with both these orchestras, which both play on such a wonderful high level, is a real pleasure because I don’t have to start from scratch.” We liken it to fine tuning a really good engine, “oiling the machine”.

The Orchestre de Paris has, of course, a completely different sound to Oslo. “I love it. I’m so fascinated by it. A lot of it has to do with the French school of playing and the Philharmonie makes a difference. It’s interesting with halls, because you’ve got some like the Concertgebouw or the Musikverein which have personality, then you have halls which are almost like a laboratory, like the Elbphilharmonie. But in Paris, they have managed to get personality but also this transparency of sound.”

A new hall for Oslo is key for Mäkelä. “The orchestra – which is playing at the highest level – needs a better hall to keep developing. It’s really crucial.” Mäkelä, who enjoys visiting art galleries in his spare time, tells me about a new National Museum in Oslo and a new National Gallery. There’s a real ‘cultural buzz’ in Oslo and he wants the Philharmonic to be part of that. “I think it gives Oslo a nice boost. And I hope it will give a nice boost to the concert hall project as well.” He reveals there are plans. “We are optimistic it will happen within the next seven years. I’m ready to fight for it.” 

Click here to watch the stream of Mahler 1.