Your NPR news source
Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä will be the CSO's youngest-ever music director.

Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä will be the CSO’s youngest-ever music director. The 28-year-old, seen leading a rehearsal this week, will officially step into the role in 2027.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2

15 minutes backstage with Klaus Mäkelä, the sneaker-sporting phenom who will soon lead the CSO

🎧 Click the red listen button to hear WBEZ’s interview with Klaus Mäkelä.

There’s a freak spring snow happening outside, but Klaus Mäkelä is unfazed, both by the weather and the metaphorical swirl that’s happening around him. In the music director’s office backstage at Symphony Center, the 28-year-old seems completely at ease, despite having been the talk of the classical music world for weeks.

Just 24 hours prior the Chicago Symphony Orchestra finally announced that he will be the CSO’s new maestro, replacing Riccardo Muti, who stepped down last summer. But there will be a wait. The young conductor is not officially taking the baton until September 2027, though he’ll be in town a lot more, including for a series of concerts this weekend.

Sporting a stylish monochromatic outfit and Saint Laurent sneakers, Mäkelä doesn’t seem like the new guy in town. He has the confidence and assuredness of a seasoned pro, which — despite his age — he is. He already heads orchestras in Oslo and Paris — and he credits his time in the French capital for his fashion sense.

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night.

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night, the first concert since the CSO announced Mäkelä will be the orchestra’s next music director.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

And, being a Helsinki native, the snow doesn’t bug him either. “It’s cozy,” he says.

WBEZ sat down with Mäkelä in advance of this weekend’s concerts to talk about becoming CSO’s youngest-ever music director, his plans to attract new audiences and why he chose Chicago.

This has been the biggest news; the classical music world has been buzzing for weeks speculating that you may be the next music director. And obviously you have deep relationships with orchestras in Europe already, so why come to Chicago?

I fell in love with the orchestra. And I fell in love with the orchestra’s appetite for excellence and their brilliance. And then when I came back after the news was announced, and we started the first rehearsal, it felt so right. It felt absolutely wonderful.

You’ll be the youngest music director in CSO history. How do you think that will impact some of the choices you will make in this role?

I think music has no age. And I don’t really know how it would impact any of my decisions. But I hope more young people will come to the concerts if they see that there’s a young guy there too.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Klaus Mäkelä (@klausmakelaofficial)

Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. You’ve talked about wanting to have younger and more diverse audiences at the symphony. What is your plan to make that happen here in Chicago?

I think it all comes down to creating the right experience. And a classical music concert is, in a way, a wonderful experience. Because it’s against all the busyness and exhausting pace of the modern world. It’s a mindfulness experience, where we get really provoked by different artistic impulses, and you get to reflect. I love going to a concert. It’s such a wonderful feeling to just sit down and put your phone away and be by yourself. And it’s also so wonderful, because it’s such a collective and a personal experience at the same time. You feel part of a group, you concentrate together, but then you also feel completely by yourself and it’s really a time to reflect.

You will officially start in this role in 2027. How much of an involvement will you have in the interim? There are pressing needs, of course, like some vacancies in the orchestra. What will your involvement look like before 2027?

I’m very happy that we’ll have kind of a three-year crescendo to the official start of my tenure. Of course, I will be as much involved as I can, in terms of auditions, for example. I mean, we have a great opportunity to fill 15 positions. But it’s a wonderful way for us to get to know each other better with the orchestra, we can experiment in different repertoire and then by the time I start 2027, then in a way we can start for real.

What have the relationships been like so far with the musicians here in Chicago? What has their reception to you been like so far?

I really found a partner from this orchestra, a partner, which will work very very hard. And it’s such a lovely group of people, they’re really warm hearted, gifted, extremely talented. And we share the same ambition. We want to do things really as well as we can and we know that it needs a lot of hard work, but then we do it for the love of music, and it will be really lovely to start this journey together.

Klaus Mäkelä has been named the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's next music director

Mäkelä admitted he was feeling a bit nervous about this week’s concerts in Chicago despite not generally being a very nervous person. The young maestro also said he’s ‘extremely proud.’

© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2

What do you think the CSO will look like under your leadership?

Of course, I will make my choices in terms of repertoire. I love all kinds of music: I passionately love old music, I passionately love contemporary music, I love the classics, I love the weird curiosities sometimes. A great modern orchestra is a very flexible orchestra, which has a very individual, rare sound like the Chicago Symphony truly has, but then it’s also very flexible. We still sound like the Chicago Symphony, but we can have lots of different styles. And I think it comes down a lot to the trust between the orchestra and the audience, that the audience feels that whatever we present is worth hearing.

I’ve heard you talk about that Chicago Sound a couple of times. Can you describe, when you hear that, what that sounds like to you?

It’s an amazing sound. Its brilliance, its shine, its strength, its everything. And it’s really touching to hear. I was thinking about yesterday, when I started rehearsing, I listened to all the recordings — I love the old recordings and all the recordings of the past — and there were some moments when I thought: Oh my god, this sounds exactly like a Fritz Reiner recording [Reiner was CSO’s maestro in the 1950s] or a [Georg] Solti [the Chicago orchestra’s longtime music director] … And I think that’s incredible that they’ve managed to preserve it. And of course, my job is to also further develop it, but also preserve it. And I think it’s so wonderful because in today’s world, orchestras start sounding the same. And we need voices which are really original.

Fritz Reiner, new maestro of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra runs through a rehearsal before the opening of a concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Oct. 15, 1953.

Conductor Fritz Reiner, back when he was the new maestro of the CSO. In this photo, Reiner runs through a rehearsal before the opening of a concert at Orchestra Hall in Chicago in October 1953.


That’s so interesting. How are you feeling about getting out in front of Chicago audiences this week now that this announcement has been made public?

I feel extremely proud and maybe a tiny bit nervous too, even though I’m not a very nervous [person] generally. It’s really lovely. And I have great memories from Chicago the past two times I’ve been conducting here. The audience has been wonderful, really encouraging. And, of course, we do it for the audience.

We also do it for ourselves, because we love music, but there is nothing more rewarding than having an audience which was really touched by the concert. And you know, sometimes, with music — and with art and everything — even if you don’t like something, it can also be great. Because it’s not about liking or not liking, but it’s what it gives to you, what kind of thought it provokes. And that’s the great thing of art, it’s not about a matter of taste, but it’s about what it gives.

Chicagoans are very proud of our city; we love our city very much. Can you share a little bit about your impressions of Chicago and what you like about the city — as much as you’ve been able to see?

I can’t wait to explore the city more because I’ve been here twice now and this is the third time. And of course, I’ve been quite busy working, but I will soon spend a lot more time here.

I’m very touched by the architecture. I love architecture. And of course, visual arts is one of my passions and to just cross the street and go to the Art Institute is just insane. I mean, it’s one of the finest collections in the world. I’m also very much looking forward to getting into the food scene. And also other live music. Being a Finnish person, I love ice hockey and I know we have a very good team here, which had some Finnish players also throughout the years.

So there are many things I’m looking forward to discovering. And everyone keeps telling me I have to do the architectural boat tour, so I think I should.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Courtney Kueppers is an arts and culture reporter at WBEZ.

The Latest
With legal troubles behind him, the Chicago native will play the Lyrical Lemonade Summer Smash Festival on Sunday — his first performance in the area in over 10 years.
As her three-year tenure comes to a close, Jessie Montgomery reminisces over her time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and shares her inspirations.
Some residents and business owners are happy to see the traffic and noise leave and for the community to regain access to green space. Others are sorry to lose the excitement and crowds.
Looking for a retreat in or near the city? Here are 10 trails, parks, forest preserves, urban gardens and lesser-known spots to escape the hustle and hurry.
The festival will be exiting Douglass Park after a 10-year run that has been plagued by controversy in recent years.