Looking Past the Celebrity Conductor


© Alex Ross, December 19, 2022


Hype is buoying the young phenomenon Klaus Mäkelä, but Xian Zhang, at the New Jersey Symphony, shows a better way forward for the art.

We need more conductors who focus on a single city and put down roots. Illustration by Luis Mazón

Some years ago, when I was interviewing the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, she poked fun at the idea of a youthful star conductor: “Do you want yourself to be operated on by a genius twenty-year-old heart surgeon? Do you want to go to the theatre and see a teen-ager play King Lear?” Uchida's point was that practitioners of the arm-waving profession tend to grow better and wiser with age. Orchestras register not only the gestures a conductor makes in front of them but also the history of music-making that those gestures reflect. Herbert Blomstedt, who is ninety-five, can mesmerize a jaded first-tier ensemble with a gentle wave of his hands. It's more than a question of personal mystique: it's trust in a cumulative record of collective work.

That said, conducting isn't simply an old person's game. Willem Mengelberg, a major figure in early-twentieth-century music, assumed control of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in Amsterdam, when he was twenty-four. Zubin Mehta and Gustavo Dudamel both took the helm of the L.A. Philharmonic when they were in their twenties. The City of Birmingham Symphony helped launch the careers of Simon Rattle, Andris Nelsons, and Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla. Now comes Klaus Mäkelä, a twenty-six-year-old Finn who has shot to podium fame as precipitately as anyone in history. He leads the Oslo Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris, will become chief conductor of the Concertgebouw in 2027, and is being eyed by several American orchestras. He made his New York Philharmonic début in early December.

With high cheekbones and sleekly styled hair, Mäkelä looks the part of the dashing European maestro, particularly if you are seeking a Generation Z reboot of Herbert von Karajan. Perhaps with that resemblance in mind, the Decca label signed Mäkelä and, earlier this year, released his first recording: an entire cycle of the Sibelius symphonies, with the Oslo Philharmonic. The idea that someone in his mid-twenties could have mastered these complex and elusive scores is improbable on its face, and Mäkelä, for all his obvious talent, shows his immaturity on nearly every page.

Take the Sibelius Fifth—a marvel of continuous transformation in which colossal themes gestate from atmospheric textures. Mäkelä has an excellent ear for sonority, especially in the string section. (He started out as a cellist.) All manner of fascinating details emerge: for example, regimented bumblebee activity underpinning the desolate bassoon solo in the first movement. Yet clarity often comes at the price of momentum. More than a few passages sound like those moments in rehearsal when a conductor asks players to slow down so that nuances can be checked. The movement never accelerates into full, thundering flight. Throughout the symphony, there is too much string legato, too little terracing of dynamics, and an awkward grasp of structural transitions. The same critique can be levelled at most of the rest of the cycle, with the notable exception of the Fourth Symphony, which makes a virtue of lugubrious stasis.

I suspect that in later years Mäkelä will be embarrassed by this premature début. Anyone of his age would have gone similarly astray; most conductors make their mistakes outside the international glare. Karajan, for one, spent many years in the German cities of Ulm and Aachen before moving on to Berlin. Only after repeated efforts can a conductor discover which choices capture the attention of audiences and which ones bore them. Let's hope that Mäkelä can ignore the oddly cultish aura that surrounds him and learn from his inevitable wrong turns. Otherwise, he will fade into the ranks of photogenic prodigies past.

Mäkelä has one substantial gift: he seems to win the respect of almost every orchestra he works with. The New York Philharmonic, which has a history of disdaining hot-shot young conductors, proved to be no exception. From the start, I had the impression that the players liked the slender Finn and were responding to him alertly. Seldom in recent years have the strings sounded as warm and rich as they did under Mäkelä, who, despite a fair amount of calisthenics on the podium, gives a crisp beat.

At the Friday-morning matinée, Mäkelä achieved mixed results. Jimmy López Bellido's “Perú Negro,” a tone poem based on Afro-Peruvian traditions, was vivid but monochromatic. Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony, with its tragic opening movement and two ironic scherzos, exhibited some of the same issues that mar Mäkelä's Sibelius: atmosphere swallowed up momentum, and the finale fell short of the required hysteria. Tchaikovsky's “Pathétique,” though, received a performance of exceptional cohesion, with organically flowing tempos and finely controlled balances. (The Philharmonic seems to be compensating well for the acoustic shortcomings that have troubled Geffen Hall since its renovation.) Even if high passion was lacking, the reading had considerable impact, above all in the great lamenting Adagio.

Mäkelä made an unfortunate choice in the “Pathétique.” After the bombastic coda of the third movement, which all but begs for applause, he plunged straight into the Adagio, with the result that the first couple of bars were drowned out by audience noise. The custom of remaining silent during pauses between movements took hold only after Tchaikovsky's death; the composer would have expected clapping after the third movement, and, I've always felt, planned to dispel that jubilation with the sobbing first bars of the Adagio. If he had wanted no pause, he would have indicated as much. Mäkelä is hardly the only conductor who attempts an irritating form of crowd control at this moment; he should discard the pretension and trust in the music.

In November, the New Jersey Symphony celebrated its centennial with a gala concert at Prudential Hall, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark—a venue that opened in 1997 and immediately proved superior to Avery Fisher Hall, as Geffen was then known. The New Jersey Symphony dwells in the shadow of the New York Philharmonic, but it has long displayed an adventurous, progressive spirit. The conductor Henry Lewis, who was based there from 1968 to 1976, was the first Black music director at a major American orchestra. The ensemble is now led by Xian Zhang, a forty-nine-year-old Chinese-born conductor who first won wide notice when she held an associate position at the Philharmonic, in the Lorin Maazel era.

Diminutive but dynamic, Zhang is an immaculate podium technician who incites playing of uncommon vitality. Last season, at the L.A. Phil, she facilitated the most flat-out electrifying account of Beethoven's Seventh I've ever heard. At the Newark gala, she elicited an exuberantly violent version of Ginastera's Four Dances from “Estancia,” with members of the New Jersey Ballet performing in tandem. Zhang is also a strong proponent of contemporary scores, emphasizing those of nonwhite and female composers. Perhaps most important, she is an empathetic musician who mediates among the players more than she dictates to them. The main attraction of the gala was Yo-Yo Ma, who delivered Dvorák's Cello Concerto with his usual authority and spontaneity. Zhang not only followed Ma's freewheeling, ruminative approach but also internalized it, so that there was no evident tension between orchestra and soloist.

Although Mäkelä garners more publicity, Zhang strikes me as the likelier future of the art. We don't need more itinerant maestros who draw big salaries in multiple cities, carrying their putative genius in their hand luggage. We need more directorships along the lines of Marin Alsop's, at the Baltimore Symphony, or Osmo Vänskä's, at the Minnesota Orchestra—ones in which a conductor focusses on a single city and puts down roots. This is how American orchestral culture unfolded before jet travel. George Szell, during his storied tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted up to three-quarters of its concerts in a given season. The culture of lyrical perfection that he fostered remains his monument.

Published in the print edition of the December 26, 2022, issue, with the headline “Stick Figures.”

Alex Ross has been the magazine's music critic since 1996. His latest book is “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.”