The Orchestra Messiah?

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The biggest noise to be heard in orchestral music is not the click and whirr of audience smartphones shooting TikTok clips in the slow movement. Nor is it the straining of CEOs shoving diversity, inclusion and equity monitors onto the payroll.

No, folks, the really big noise in symphony halls is a beanpole Finn who finds himself, aged 28, at the head of four major orchestras, two of them world-beaters. Now, how the Helsinki did that happen?

Klaus Mäkelä

Klaus Mäkelä is a conductor and a cellist. Six years ago, he was hired as music director by the Oslo Philharmonic; two years later he added the Orchestre de Paris and in 2022 the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam.

Last month, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra inked his name on a million-plus dollar contract. Even if he could walk on water, lanky Klaus would have trouble remembering the names of the 500 musicians at his command — let alone the plethora of symphonies he must learn to keep them all in work, on tour and keen to play. This Finn has more titles than anyone since Herbert von Karajan, and he has yet to put a significant personal score on the board.

His decca recordings of Sibelius and Stravinsky are unconvincing — ceviche in patches, if not totally raw. His live concerts are perhaps more exciting, but the potential is priced above the tangible product. How four fine orchestras put their future in such soft hands is a mystery, unless they all bought into the same brand. The brand in batons these days flies a blue-cross Finnish flag.

I won’t bore you with a catalogue aria; a dozen names will suffice. Esa-Pekka Salonen, 65, is at the San Francisco Symphony. Sakari Oramo, 58, heads a pack of Finns at the BBC, along with Dalia Stasevska, Anna-Maria Helsing at the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Storgårds at the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. Mikko Franck, 45, has presided at Radio France for ten years.

Osmo Vänskä, 71, transformed the Minnesota Orchestra. Hannu Lintu, 56, head of Finnish National Opera, also leads orchestras in Lisbon and Lahti. Susannah Mälkki, 55, is in line for a big US band. Pietari Inkinen, 44, conducted Bayreuth’s Ring last summer.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, 68, is chief of the Helsinki Philharmonic. Eva Ollikainen, 42, directs orchestras in Iceland and Italy. Santtu-Matias Rouvali is music director of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. And more. All this from a country with a population the size of Scotland’s (go on, name two Scottish conductors).

Finns come in many forms. Salonen is the acme of jet-set sophistication. Vänskä goes biking with Hell’s Angels. Rouvali, 38, told a Radio 3 presenter who asked what his day was like that he had just killed a boar in the forest and was preparing it for dinner with pesto sauce. Stasevska, who married a jazz musician, runs mercy missions into Ukraine.

What the Finns have in common is a teacher, a culture and an agent. Their professor of conducting was Jorma Panula, who scrutinised teens in the Sibelius Academy orchestra less for musical ability than for leadership qualities.

A violist would get a nod and a baton: beat or drop out. Use your hands, yelled Panula, not words. Panula, now 93, has modified monosyllabic truculence with an occasional grunt of approval.

His method chimed well with Finns, who are phlegmatic at the best of times. Finns invented mobile phones and hardly use them. Wars with Russia and a language that has no close relations except Estonian have bred a hardy isolationism. Remoteness and self-sufficiency are key components in a conductor. More than half of Panula’s graduates share the same management at HarrisonParrott.

Mäkelä, though, is the tallest shoot in the pack. The agency’s founder Jasper Parrott speaks of him with tears in his eyes as the one the world has waited for. Mäkelä has social graces, an eye for the camera and an appetite for personal risk.

A love affair with the flamboyant Chinese-US pianist Yuja Wang, eight years his senior, was lived out in phone images on her social media. Then, after 14 months, their breakup had orchestras frantically unscrambling four years of joint dates. As Yuja sulked, Mäkelä wore a feline smile. He jumped three rungs on the celebrity scale.

Mäkelä’s plan is to wind down Oslo and Paris over the next couple of years whilst gearing up for Chicago. There is, of course, a calculated risk that the gloss will wear off by 2027; all the hype in the world will not help a maestro who short-changes the windy city. He’s good, say some, but not that good. Rouvali, in rehearsal and concert, is more penetrative. Rouvali’s trajectory, via Copenhagen and Gothenburg, has been discreet. He is next in line for one of the world summits.

critics lebrecht peltokoski
Tarmo Peltokoski

Even more promising is Tarmo Peltokoski, born at the turn of the century and the youngest baton ever to be signed by the elite Deutsche Grammophon label.

A private student of Panula’s, Peltokoski conducted a full Ring cycle at 22 and went on to head orchestras in Vilnius, Bremen and Toulouse. His debut DG recording of the last three Mozart symphonies, released this month, explodes with vitality.

Peltokoski has the power to turn old music into new. He also plays four-hand piano for fun with Yuja Wang. The future of conducting is looking brighter. The future is looking Finnish.

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