Is there a more exciting young conductor on stage today than Klaus Mäkelä? Electrifying energy and probing interpretations have made him an audience favorite, a reputation cemented by his appointment as Chief Conductor Designate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Cleveland audiences were won over by his mesmerizing debut as a last-minute substitute in 2019; return appearances have all been highlights. Last weekend’s program – the second of a two-week stint – contrasted Mahler’s incomparable Fifth Symphony with a recent work by Unsuk Chin.

Klaus Mäkelä
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

SPIRA – Concerto for Orchestra was composed by Chin on commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2019. Its title alludes to the so-called Spira mirabilis geometric pattern found in nature – from shells to galaxies – that has often been referenced in the arts. A pair of vibraphones opened, creating an otherworldly soundscape, and the recurrence of the vibraphone material throughout the work’s 20-minute duration offered grounding in the otherwise labyrinthine textures. Germs of ideas and gestures obliquely took shape across the orchestra with tightly-wound energy seemingly ready to burst.

As a concerto for orchestra, the work followed in the tradition of Bartók or Lutosławski, amounting to a vivid celebration of orchestral virtuosity with Mäkelä a committed and persuasive guide along the way. The ending was particularly striking with tremolos in the high strings almost disembodied, and the vibraphones returned before matters evaporated into silence.

Mahler’s Fifth has little in common with SPIRA apart from its unflagging intensity and use of a vast orchestra. Mäkelä’s baton was at rest during the opening trumpet solo, granting principal Michael Sachs interpretative latitude for a call to arms brash and arresting before the orchestra joined in cataclysmic fury. There was no question that this goosebumps-inducing first movement was a funeral march, a dirge that penetrated mournful depths, occasionally warmed by arching lyricism in the strings.

A ferocious energy opened the Stürmisch bewegt second movement, with remnants of the preceding Trauermarsch hauntingly bubbling to the surface. Mäkelä respected Mahler’s overarching tripartite structure, conceiving the first two and final two movements as contrasting pairs. Amidst the ferocity, hints of the magnificent chorale began to crystallize, at last shining through in vigorous brilliance, only to retreat back into the shadows but not without clear suggestion of the symphony’s ultimate trajectory.

Klaus Mäkelä conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The longest movement and the centerpiece, the Scherzo took us into a rustic realm, likely inspired by the composer’s summer residence at Maiernigg where the bulk of the work was written, far away from the bustle of the city. Still, this was hardly a simple idyll, probing the same profundities as the outer movements. A true test of his mettle, principal horn Nathaniel Silberschlag boasted a gleaming tone in the substantial solo passages. A section for pizzicato strings was given with particular delicacy, returning again with the lovely addition of clarinet before a thunderous close in the brass.

Beginning as barely a whisper, one of Mahler’s most inspired melodies unfolded in the Adagietto, wherein an orchestra reduced to strings and harp looked inwards for peace and tranquility. The resonance of the strings was especially affecting as it surged to an impassioned climax, and Mäkelä’s moderate tempo choice was quite effective. A clarion horn call opened the finale, fizzing with a well-earned exuberance. Conductor and orchestra romped through the contrapuntal passages with exacting clarity and an edge-of-your-seat energy. The chorale returned, this time fully unencumbered for a triumphant ending that simply left one breathless.