It’s hard to talk about Klaus Mäkelä without mentioning his age. At 27, the Finnish maestro already leads the Orchestre de Paris and Oslo Philharmonic, and has been announced as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s next director.

Klaus Mäkelä
© Marco Borggreve

But it’s hardly the meteoric rise it may seem. “I’ve always felt that things have gone at a very comfortable pace,” he explains, “which has helped me feel both comfortable and confident in myself”.

Mäkelä started conducting aged twelve, studying with the eminent Jorma Panula, whose former students include Esa-Pekka Salonen, Susanna Mälkki, Sakari Oramo, and Dalia Stasevska. “Every Saturday, we conducted in front of an orchestra of our friends and colleagues,” Mäkelä explains, “and over time it became the most natural and comfortable thing to be in front of an orchestra. And when you are natural and comfortable onstage, only then can you communicate with the orchestra – you can’t force authority!”

The real learning, he says, comes with experience. “When you start working with orchestras, that’s when you really learn what to do and what not to do. It’s so much about psychology, and understanding what people need from me in the moment”.

He first conducted the Orchestre de Paris in 2019, and scarcely a year later he was announced as its next music director.

“We met for the first time playing Shostakovich,” Mäkelä recalls, “and I was blown away by their musical intelligence and sensitivity – it was different from any other orchestra I had conducted before”. He officially took up the Music Director role in 2021 following a two-year transition, a period which he recalls fondly. “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! I suppose it always takes a few years to build this kind of deep connection, but now we are in a moment where it feels very special to play together every single time.”

The life of a touring conductor is a busy one, and this season alone Mäkelä makes his debut with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Gewandhausorchester among others. He is speaking to me from backstage following a rehearsal with the Cleveland Orchestra. “This orchestra is an absolute miracle,” he enthuses, “and you can’t even describe how it feels to hear it onstage. We’re doing Mahler 5 which I’ve done many times, but today in rehearsal I just thought it sounded completely different from every time I’ve done it before.”

How does he switch between orchestras, sometimes on a week-to-week basis? “I’m a tourist – I always take a little something with me when I leave – a special moment or sound that I cherish. And the next time I do a piece, I have this bank of different sounds that I remember.”

But the Orchestre de Paris obviously has a special place in his heart. “It’s an orchestra of personalities!” he enthuses. “There’s the most wonderful style, very French, and it has to do with the fact that everyone is French or French-trained so there is a very homogenous sound.”

Klaus Mäkelä conducts the Orchestre de Paris
© Mathias Benguigui

He’s particularly excited about the woodwind section, famous for their French-trained sound. “It’s one of the greatest woodwind sections in the world! I would think I wanted a solo played a certain way, but then I’d hear the principal flautist Vincent Lucas do something else that I couldn’t have even imagined in my wildest dreams – it’s absolutely mesmerizing and so much better than what I originally wanted!”

As part of their spring/summer European tour, Mäkelä and the orchestra travel to Lugano this May, with a demanding programme of Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. The Shostakovich represents a homecoming of sorts, as Mäkelä’s first concert with the orchestra featured the composer’s Fifth Symphony.

“Shostakovich has always been a composer that is close to my heart,” he recalls. “When I was young I always loved his Cello Sonata, and I played it a lot. I grew up considering Shostakovich as one of the great composers”. This time they perform the demanding Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the Leningrad for its programmatic subject matter. “It’s a very powerful historical document, and completely terrifying,” he explains.

“It has this exhausting shape – which makes sense given the subject matter – and it’s very tiring emotionally and physically to perform. You need to give so much emotion and focus, and you really feel as if you’ve been drained as a performer. And then you have the most glorious reward at the end!”

Mäkelä and the orchestra have just come from a tour and recording of Stravinsky’s ballets (released on Decca at the end of March). Shostakovich was the obvious next step. “We tend to think of Shostakovich as being brutal, almost blasting at times, and French orchestras tend to be the complete opposite,” Mäkelä observes. “They bring a different colour to Shostakovich which is really interesting, but with no lack of burning intensity.” It also seemed a timely piece to programme, as he explains. “It’s a very powerful journey from absolute darkness to light, and a necessary one to share today with the war in Ukraine. It feels like something we must play now.”

Klaus Mäkelä rehearses with the Orchestre de Paris
© Mathias Benguigui

The programme also features Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, with Italian pianist Beatrice Rana as a soloist. “It’s a wonderful piece because it offers the orchestra the opportunity to really shine rather than only accompanying,” Mäkelä says. “It’s very important to accompany the soloist – Rachmaninov tends to be quite thick, quite juicy, but it also requires a sensitivity and subtlety. So often Rachmaninov is just blasted out, but I’m sure that when Beatrice plays it will be delicate and dynamic and not only strong.”

The Rachmaninov will be extra special given that 2023 is the 150th anniversary of his birth. “It’s great to celebrate Rachmaninov!” enthuses Mäkelä. “I love listening to historical recordings, and his touch and phrasing are reminiscent of an old style that has nearly vanished. It’s a sense of nostalgia, looking back at deep memories, that reminds me of Mahler. It’s also a lot of fun to perform, because the expression is so pure that it’s irresistible!”

“In the Shostakovich you have four epic images and in the Rachmaninov you have all of these little variations that come together like a mosaic,” Mäkelä comments, comparing the two works. “And even though it’s a variation work, Rachmaninov still manages to connect all the variations so it doesn’t feel fragmented. Shostakovich is really a master at developing a very simple motif – they are a little bit like the motifs in the Rachmaninov, built from very simple blocks, and it’s fascinating to explore how they are developed.”

How does he approach these gargantuan works as a conductor? “When I start studying a big work I always start with very small segments,” Mäkelä explains. “The structure is very important, and when I start to put it back together that’s when it starts to make sense for me. I try and ask a lot of questions: why did the composer write this and not that? Why did they choose this note and this dynamic and this articulation? In the beginning you have a lot of questions – only questions and very few answers – but the further you go you start discovering some of the answers for yourself.”

But only so much studying can be done on the page. “Then comes the next challenge, which is combining your concept with that of the orchestra. Every orchestra is different, and I’m not aiming to have the same performance with different orchestras. My concept of a piece evolves each time, and I try and challenge it between each performance and each orchestra!”

Klaus Mäkelä and the Orchestre de Paris perform at LuganoMusica on Friday 12th May. They are on tour throughout Europe from March until mid-July.

This interview was sponsored by Fondazione LuganoMusica.