Last year, the venerable Chicago Symphony Orchestra—one of America’s Big Five—ended an era, when its longtime music director, Riccardo Muti, 82, stepped down. Muti will serve as the ensemble’s music director emeritus, and the young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, 28, has been named his replacement, effective with the 2027– 2028 season. Mäkelä, now the Zell Music Director Designate, will be the 133-year-old orchestra’s youngest-ever music director, serving on an initial five-year contract. He made his debut in the designate role last week.

Mäkelä is an accomplished musician, with an impressive international career. He is currently music director of both the Orchestre de Paris and the Oslo Philharmonic, posts he intends to leave when he takes over in Chicago in 2027, though he will also take over the prestigious Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Netherlands that year. Some commentators have harped on his unusually high number of commitments and raised questions about his age, but judging by his Carnegie Hall debut last month, in which he conducted the Orchestre de Paris in Stravinsky’s scores for The Firebird and Rite of Spring, Mäkelä is a superbly energetic and highly focused conductor who got where he is through raw talent.

The Chicago Symphony’s search committee certainly thought so. Of the committee’s 12 members, half were Symphony musicians, with all but one serving either as principal or assistant-principal instrumentalists. William Buchman, a longtime CSO bassoonist and the search committee’s vice chair, hailed Mäkelä as “a conductor of extraordinary ability” and praised his “natural leadership” and “the clarity of his musical ideas,” which he said “made it feel effortless to perform at the high level for which we strive.” The orchestra’s board of trustees agreed, approving Mäkelä’s appointment in a unanimous vote. Symphony president Jeff Alexander told the New York Times that members of the leadership thought so highly of Mäkelä’s 2022 CSO debut that they secretly attended his performances in venues as far afield as Norway and Japan with an eye toward hiring him.

One hopes that the CSO maintains the standards of excellence to which Mäkelä holds himself. Alas, Chicago is a blue city, with all the attendant afflictions. Unlike arts organizations in more thriving metros, Chicago’s mighty Symphony is losing audiences, with subscriptions and attendance tracking below pre-pandemic numbers. Mäkelä has said that he will commission new works and revisit neglected classics to expand the orchestra’s appeal. “Ideally,” he told the Times, “we would have a very wide-ranging diverse audience.”

There is that dreaded “d” word, a by-now familiar obsession of the arts commentariat. As the Times ruefully clucks, the CSO’s musicians are, like Mäkelä, mostly white males, and its ensemble currently includes only “a few” blacks and Latinos. Its gender breakdown is 59 men and 34 women, with 15 vacancies stemming from pandemic-era hiring complications. Mäkelä, who will reportedly have immediate input into auditions, says filling that backlog is “an opportunity for change,” though he stopped short of saying that he would abandon blind auditions and other hiring procedures designed to secure the most talented musicians, regardless of race or gender.

Nevertheless, in June 2020, the Chicago Symphony adopted “new guidelines” intended “to track the evolution of . . . diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in programming and practices,” including in the recruitment of musicians and artists who may be judged by standards other than musical talent. A month later, the Times’s former chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini whined that since “American orchestras remain among the nation’s least racially diverse institutions,” “blind auditions are no longer tenable,” arguing that recruiters should consider musicians’ “race, gender, and other factors.”

Who knows what will happen in Chicago as Mäkelä establishes himself? Unusually for the Anglosphere’s classical music world, the CSO’s website offers refreshingly little DEI content, even in discussions of its expansive community outreach programs, which can be, but are not necessarily, vectors for implementing DEI policies. Compare that with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, whose hapless general manager Peter Gelb has cast the company as an explicitly “anti-racist institution” that he claims is “diverse, equitable, and inclusive”—all with predictably dismal results. The transition from Muti to Mäkelä will bring many changes to the Chicago Symphony. To retain the Symphony’s artistic stature, Mäkelä would do well to remember why he was chosen to lead it—and stay away from the diversity gambit that has ruined other great ensembles.

Photo by Markus Scholz/picture alliance via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next