Alex Ross: Why Conductors Are Collecting Orchestras


“I love my three orchestras,” the twenty-eight-year-old Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä said the other day on WQXR, during a broadcast from Carnegie Hall. Mäkelä was leading an all-Stravinsky concert with the Orchestre de Paris, of which he has been the music director since 2021. The other orchestras in question are the Oslo Philharmonic, which he has led since 2020, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, where he holds the title of Artistic Partner. In 2027, Mäkelä will become the chief conductor of the Concertgebouw, which would appear on any shortlist of the world’s finest ensembles. No conductor in modern history, not even the lavishly hyped Gustavo Dudamel, has ever risen so quickly to the peak of the profession.

And now there are four. The Chicago Symphony, arguably the supreme exemplar of American orchestral virtuosity, announced on Tuesday that Mäkelä will become its next music director in 2027, succeeding Riccardo Muti. Mäkelä explained in a press release that Chicago and Concertgebouw will eventually become his “main responsibilities,” but that he plans on returning to the Paris and Oslo orchestras “on a regular basis after my official tenures are completed.”

To quote Vince Lombardi: “What the hell’s going on out here?” Why has the classical-music world capitulated en masse to a relative novice? Explanations diverge. Some believe that Mäkelä is, in fact, a new god in the musical pantheon, deserving of whatever offers come his way. The writer and filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, who has made documentaries about Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter and who recently devoted one to Mäkelä, calls him “very simply . . . the greatest conductor of the twenty-first century.” Hannah Edgar, in the Chicago Tribune, reports that Mäkelä was the overwhelming first choice of the Chicago musicians. Others see a case of attractive appearances outweighing dull reality. The American critic David Hurwitz has dismissed Mäkelä as the “blond bombshell of conducting,” the “Ken doll of classical music.”

Whether Mäkelä will evince the layered complexity that Ryan Gosling brought to the role of Ken in “Barbie” remains to be seen. So far, he’s struck me as a gifted young musician who exhibits assured technique on the podium but has yet to find a distinct interpretive personality. With the Oslo Philharmonic, he has recorded a Sibelius cycle; with the Orchestre de Paris, he has issued two albums of Stravinsky and Debussy. Tempos are sensibly chosen, textures are sensitively shaped, ensemble is precise—yet everything lacks urgency. Mäkelä’s account of “The Rite of Spring” is so nondescript that it should never have been released. Plainly, he makes a strong first impression. His staying power is unproven.

Let’s set aside the matter of Mäkelä’s qualifications, though. Even if he were as stupendous as his most ardent fans make out—embodying some dreamlike fusion of Toscanini’s fire, Furtwängler’s profundity, Bernstein’s passion, and Boulez’s perfectionism—his elevation to the status of intercontinental musical Messiah would be questionable. Both the Concertgebouw and the Chicago Symphony are orchestras at the very highest level, and they deserve a conductor’s full attention. The definition of a music director has undergone a mutation in recent decades: such doubling- and tripling-up of appointments has become commonplace. Celebrity conductors, who often earn more than a million dollars a year, seem incapable of confining themselves to one job at a time. Mäkelä-mania is only the most blatant instance of a widespread and artistically dubious syndrome.

Once upon a time, young conductors got their start with regional ensembles and worked their way up to the supposed big leagues. At Mäkelä’s age, Bernstein was leading exploratory concerts at the New York City Symphony. Furtwängler was based in Lübeck, Herbert von Karajan in Aachen, Otto Klemperer in Barmen. (Not Bremen—Barmen.) Fritz Reiner, who brought the Chicago Symphony to electrifying heights in the nineteen-fifties, launched his American career in Cincinnati, when he was thirty-three. Georg Solti, Chicago’s chief in the seventies and eighties, got his start as a répétiteur—an operatic assistant who worked with singers at the piano as they rehearsed.

The Oslo Philharmonic would have been a logical place for Mäkelä to hone his craft. It was good enough for the late Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons, who came to Oslo in 1979, when he was already in his thirties. At the time, he was serving as the second conductor at the Leningrad Philharmonic, under the great Yevgeny Mravinsky. Jansons stayed in Oslo for more than twenty years, making dozens of recordings, including a brilliant Tchaikovsky cycle. In 1997, he went to the Pittsburgh Symphony. Finally, in 2004, he arrived at the Concertgebouw.

This isn’t to say that young conductors can’t bring a welcome blast of energy to venerable institutions. The L.A. Philharmonic has a history of hiring music directors in their twenties or early thirties—Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Dudamel. Willem Mengelberg took over the Concertgebouw when he was twenty-four; Simon Rattle was twenty-five when he arrived at the City of Birmingham Symphony. But in their early years these prodigious neophytes tended to devote themselves single-mindedly to their ensembles. They built something substantial before moving on. In general, the most notable conductor-orchestra pairings have been exclusive ones. Think of George Szell’s pursuit of precision at the Cleveland Orchestra, Koussevitzky’s energetic fostering of American music in Boston, Stokowski’s modernist crusades in Philadelphia, Bernstein’s glamorous revolution at the New York Philharmonic.

These days, conductors apparently consider themselves failures if they aren’t racking up hundreds of thousands of frequent-flier miles every year. Andris Nelsons leads both the Boston Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Yannick Nézet-Séguin divides his time between the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal; not surprisingly, he is prone to cancellations. Fabio Luisi is spread across three continents, maintaining roles at the Dallas Symphony, the Danish National Symphony, and the NHK Symphony, in Japan. The British conductor Daniel Harding, in what seems a meta-commentary on the profession, has become a commercial pilot for Air France, capable of flying himself from one gig to another. (Harding has, in fact, proved more wary of taking on multiple titles than most of his contemporaries.)

American orchestra subscribers have become resigned to a phony civic ritual: a foreign-accented maestro flies in a few times a season for two or three weeks, stays in a hotel or a furnished apartment, attends a flurry of donor dinners, and dons the appropriate cap when the local baseball team makes the playoffs. Conductors who follow that life style can’t build a real connection to the city and its cultural communities. A telling counterexample is Marin Alsop, who led the Baltimore Symphony from 2007 to 2021, eliciting performances that balanced finesse and spirit. Alsop and her wife, Kristin Jurkscheit, settled in the city and sent their son to a local school. She built a music-education program, OrchKids, investing money she received from a MacArthur Fellowship. In all, Alsop has had as constructive an influence on this country’s orchestral life as any conductor working. By rights, she ought to be leading a top-tier ensemble. For now, she is the principal guest conductor in Philadelphia.

Conductors, especially the male ones, like to speak of their jobs in connubial terms. Nelsons said in 2017, “After all, the relationship is a bit like a marriage.” (He was speaking then of the City of Birmingham Symphony, not of Boston or Leipzig.) Christoph Eschenbach, who once directed both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris, has characterized his occupation as “a marriage with a hundred people.” Mäkelä, picking up the lingo, describes his alliance with the Orchestre de Paris thus: “We initially thought it would be a nice marriage, and it turned into something very special. Starting this season, I don’t know what happened—we very unexpectedly had a second honeymoon!” There’s something inherently obnoxious in the metaphor: it reduces a host of superb musicians to a spousal cipher. And it becomes all the more unpleasant when conductors are sustaining several such marriages simultaneously. It’s surely time for a little less polygamy in the music world.

The other big orchestral news in recent weeks also involved a conductor from Finland—one who blazed a trail for that peculiarly baton-happy nation. A few decades ago, Salonen was, like Mäkelä, a fresh-faced star, receiving glossy, sometimes silly, publicity. He once donned a cape for the cover of a Sibelius album. At the same time, though, he forged an identity as a forceful proponent of contemporary music and modernist classics. He recorded Messiaen, Lutosławski, Ligeti, his Finnish colleagues Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. In a forty-year career, he has held directorships at four orchestras: the L.A. Phil, the Swedish Radio Symphony, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and, since 2020, the San Francisco Symphony, carrying on the progressive legacy of Michael Tilson Thomas.

When Salonen was appointed in San Francisco, he laid out grand plans for the orchestra, and, despite the pandemic, he had begun to realize them: a network of artistic partnerships with younger creative figures, a slew of commissions, semi-staged opera productions, high-tech ventures. He and the architect Frank Gehry had been talking about transforming Treasure Island, the artificial island in San Francisco Bay, into an alternative platform for the orchestra. In January, Matthew Spivey, the orchestra’s C.E.O., sent out an in-house memo saying that unfavorable financial conditions would require sweeping cutbacks. Targeted for reduction were most of the forward-thinking activities that had brought Salonen to San Francisco in the first place. In response, the conductor decided not to renew his contract. He will leave San Francisco at the end of next season.

When artists and organizations part ways, they usually concoct an anodyne, face-saving statement. In 2021, Jaap van Zweden, three years into a disappointing stint with the New York Philharmonic, made it known that the pandemic had caused him to rethink his priorities and that he would be moving on. He has since signed contracts with the Seoul Philharmonic and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Salonen, like Louis Langrée at Lincoln Center last summer, dropped the polite evasion. In a statement, he said, “I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does.” The orchestra’s musicians demonstrated their support for Salonen by giving him a standing ovation—extraordinarily unusual behavior on their part. They also handed out leaflets to the audience, warning that the orchestra’s artistic standing was in jeopardy.

A week after the news of Salonen’s departure broke, I heard the San Francisco Symphony play under his direction at Disney Hall—part of a mini-tour of California. (Future touring has now been called off.) The centerpiece of the program was John Adams’s symphonic triptych “Naïve and Sentimental Music,” which Salonen premièred in Los Angeles, in 1999. It is a piece of enormous expressive power, mixing Wagnerian opulence and machinelike drive. The orchestra delivered it with almost apocalyptic intensity, as if mounting a wordless protest. What more can a conductor achieve than to usher music like this into the world?

The management and board have explained their position at length, citing looming deficits and pandemic aftershocks. Yet they are also contemplating what is certain to be a monumentally expensive renovation of Davies Hall, the orchestra’s home. Cancelling a few commissions will make little difference. The list of cuts could almost have been designed to drive Salonen away. Mark Swed, in a blunt commentary for the Los Angeles Times, sees the situation as symptomatic of arts governance across the country. He writes, “Many boards have become increasingly corporate, increasingly powerful and increasingly clueless.”

There is a magnificent surfeit of talent in today’s musical scene. The fixation on Mäkelä is bizarre because so many skilled conductors are coming forward—and not just Nordic guys with prominent cheekbones. (In the past few years, I’ve heard memorable concerts with Dalia Stasevska, Elim Chan, Karina Canellakis, Eva Ollikainen, and Xian Zhang, to name just a few.) We don’t need more junior maestros who gallivant between commitments like rakish lieutenants in a Viennese operetta. There is also no lack of gifted composers, singers, and instrumentalists. Dozens of orchestras across the country perform at a level worthy of Carnegie Hall, as the much missed Spring for Music Festival proved. What we need are administrators and board members who can make intelligent, artistically informed decisions about the possibilities that teem around them. In the realm of the arts, the powerful and the wealthy need to assume the mentality of listeners, aides, facilitators. This, not surprisingly, is hard for them to do. ♦



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