What the English would call “a red letter day”, the French would call “un jour à marquer d'une pierre blanche” – a day to be marked with a white stone. Yesterday, not only was it the first time audiences were readmitted to concerts at the Philharmonie since the lockdown was relaxed, it was also the first time that Klaus Mäkelä conducted the Orchestre de Paris after he was recently appointed its Music Director Designate, a post he officially takes up in 2022. A double cause for socially distanced celebrations and it’s not even Bastille Day yet! 

Klaus Mäkelä
© Philharmonie de Paris

Mäkelä only made his debut with the orchestra a year ago, but he obviously made a big impression. This is the second big post to come his way, for he succeeds Vasily Petrenko as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic in September. Remarkably, he is only 24 years old. With a handkerchief neatly folded in his jacket pocket and a nervous smile, he looked like he was set for his first day at school as he took to the podium, but looks can be deceiving. There is a maturity about the Finn’s conducting that belies his years. 

Where many young guns turn on the histrionics and flail their arms around, Mäkelä is a model of economy. His beat is small but meticulous, his gestures contained, sometimes restricted to a raised eyebrow, a tweak of the fingertips or a shrug of the elbow. It proved the perfect match for Maurice Ravel’s fastidious orchestration in Le Tombeau de Couperin, where Mäkelä teased at the gauzy textures to unveil woodwind solos of real distinction, particularly from principal clarinet, Pascal Moraguès. Alexandre Gattet’s oboe danced nimbly in the Forlane and the Rigaudon was marked by crisp rhythmic precision. 

Pascal Moraguès (clarinet)
© Philharmonie de Paris

Crisp precision did not quite extend to the first chord of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, but with nearly four months out of action, a little rust in ensemble could be forgiven. Mäkelä kept the orchestra on a tight rein, although his gestures were more expansive here than in the Ravel, but this was an account that never really got airborne until the third movement. The slow introduction felt cautious, leading to a Vivace which rarely set the pulse racing. This was big band Beethoven – 50 strings, six double basses lined up along the rear – and, like an ocean liner, took its time to manoeuvre. Mäkelä’s control was admirable, even if his interpretation wasn’t quite my cup of tea. 

Orchestre de Paris
© Philharmonie de Paris

But there was nobility in the Allegretto, where Philippe Berrod impressed on clarinet (most of the woodwind principals were changed for the symphony) and the Scherzo was bruising and boisterous, even if the Trio gazed at its navel too much. Mäkelä summoned an energetic finale, though, with a rip-roaring coda that elicited cheers and wild applause from an enthusiastic audience of at least a thousand, a mightily welcome sound after all these streams from empty halls or smatterings of 100 or so. Applause is music to musicians’ ears. In Paris, the enforced diet of silence is ended. Bring on the feast. 

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.