Interview with Klaus Mäkelä

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

It was by coincidence that I first came to meet Klaus Mäkelä. The conversation moved smoothly when we met on a plane from Helsinki to Oslo. When I asked the conductor whether he would be interested in doing an interview, he was positive. So here I am, entering the main hall of Oslo Concert hall through a secret door, witnessing a rehearsal.

– More substance!

The new chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, Klaus Mäkelä, knows exactly what he wants.

Where he stands in front of us in the Oslo Concert Hall – 24 years old but described as one of the world’s greatest conductor talents – it is difficult not to be fascinated by the movements. Few can surpass his charisma and enthusiasm.

– The role comes with great responsibility, the chief conductor confesses.

He is reminiscent of a kind of classical music’s Jacob Collier: Annoyingly talented, and with an impressive career. On stage, he may seem like a warrior, but when we meet the maestro himself, he shows himself to be a true gentleman, first and foremost proud of those he leads.

– Yeah, it’s wonderful. It’s an orchestra of wonderful tradition. Yeah, and you can still hear the wonderful work done by Mariuss Jansson. And sort of the really really detailed approach. The orchestra has to specifically beautiful sound (vet ik, he says.

– It’s own sound?

– Nowadays when there are so many orchestras around the world they all tend to sound more and more the same. When I hear the Oslo Philharmonic I say «this is the Oslo Philharmonic». And this is very good, Mäkelä says.

In a concert review, Norwegian Broadcasting critic Eystein Sandvik wrote that Mäkelä is the greatest conductor talent he has seen in his time as a music critic. In the same review, he raised the question of whether this could be the Oslo Philharmonic’s path into a new golden age ala Mariss Janssons, who conducted the orchestra for 20 years with enormous success.

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

Wants a new concert hall

After his first weeks as chief conductor, and after the opening of the Philharmonic’s 101st season, it feels natural to begin with the question of how the city has received him.

– The city has a very particular feeling which I like. I feel it has slightly the same homely feeling as in Helsinki, Mäkela says.

– And the citizens?

– The people have a similar kind of spirit, being quite relaxed. It’s been lovely! This time I’ve had the time to walk around and eat quite well, and so it’s been really nice! With the city being my musical home now I almost feel like a resident of Oslo already, he answers.

The new Chief Conductor knows what to say:

– The cultural life is wonderful here. For the visual arts it’s going so strong with the new National Museum and the new Munch Museum. It would be great to be part of the wave with a new concert hall which would be so important for us.

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

When the dogs meet

He is among the youngest in the Philharmonic constellation, and the youngest chief conductor in the Oslo Philharmonic ever.

Still, he does not show signs of nervousness. Mäkelä has conducted many orchestras, but how does it feel to be the chief conductor of an orchestra for the first time?

– There’s actually quite a big difference because when you are the chief conductor, being the responsible for this orchestra, it’s a very different feeling.

He doesn’t spare the metaphors.

– You know, when the dogs meet, they sniff their asses and that’s sort what you do when you guest conduct an orchestra for the first time. You have a little bit of time to feel each other out, but then when you come back to the same orchestra you don’t have to do that, Mäkelä says.

– What’s the best thing about conducting an orchestra?

– What I think is the most interesting about conducting is that it’s a dialogue between me and the orchestra. And most of it is non-verbal communication and that’s a wonderful feeling for a conductor when you feel that you are being understood.

But it is not as easy as it seems when Mäkelä himself does it.

– What the chief conductor has to do is to always keep improving the orchestra. We are very lucky here in Oslo because the orchestra in on a very high level. But then the music never stops. There is always things to work on. It’s unending and that’s the most wonderful thing.

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

Seven years

Mäkelä’s contract was initially for three years, but even before entering the position it was extended to a total of seven.

– When I now have the seven years in my head to start with, it allows me, of course, to think of a more long-term strategy, he says.

– So how do you intend to use these years?

– The most important thing is to create a relationship with the audience. And even in this case when we have only 200 people it’s still an audience and that’s the most important thing for us. So I would wish that there would be this relation with the audience so that whatever music I present they will think that it’s worth hearing, he says.

It is a well-known fact that the orchestras have a desire to reach a more diverse audience. His predecessor Vasily Petrenko had his ideas. But what is Mäkelä’s strategy?

– Of course, it’s my responsibility to try to have people from different backgrounds and different age groups and so on come to the concerts. I try to construct every one of my programs which I conduct to have a very strong narrative.

– Why?

– I believe that if we try to tell a story that would be very much more interesting to people than just a bunch of concerts, he says and repeat:

– I think also a new hall would help. Just look at what happened in Helsinki with the new concert hall there!

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

The new within the old

– Not everyone has a strong relationship with classical music. How are they to be introduced?

– I think that it’s important we present different kinds of concerts. We have film music which is for many their one way to get to know symphonic music. But then we play music from roughly 400 years ago, so there is variety. For young people maybe the most interesting is not the very classical repertoire but rather the repertoire from the 20th century, Mäkelä says.

– Yeah, more expressive music?

– The music is usually based on a very strong narrative or very strong sounds with a lot of things happening at the same time. For example, I would say when a teenager hears Strostakowich he or she will think like – «Oh! This guy really understands me! »

– It’s not that we should present only old works, but I think the variety is important, says the 24 old gentleman.

The institutions for classical music have tried to reach new audience groups for a number of years. With varying degrees of success.

– I think the barriers for all of the genres are falling. Think of pieces which are being written now, let’s say for an orchestra. The variety is huge! We recently performed a piece by American composer Caroline Shaw, Mäkelä says.

– Can we call it classical?

– You could say it’s classical music because it’s written for strings but it the doesn’t sound very classical. Mette Henriette is also a very good example of how it’s not about the genre but what you offer, Mäkelä says.

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

The sounds we have never heard before

In other words, Mäkelä wants variation in the program.

– What I try to do is present different kinds of sounds. There are sounds that we have heard many times, but the more interesting are the sounds we have never heard before. I think that’s what people in every genre are now trying to get, also in the electronic music. They want to create sounds which nobody has heard before.

– Is this something we can expect to hear you conduct?

– I hope we can also present that. Of course, we have to play the classics, but we also have to play the stuff which is being created now. I think the mixture is a powerful thing.

When I try to ask him about pop music, he hesitates.

– I appreciate all kind of art which has been done with love and just with a lot of work. I’m not naming any songs, but I like to listen to different kinds of music, all the new. When I’m home, I have these huge studio monitors where I can hear every single detail of every single piece. It’s sort of a hobby of mine and it’s a lot fun!

Most people may easily think that there is something museum-like about classical orchestras, but on the back of the Oslo Philharmonic’s program (where Mäkelä is the poster boy) a quote by the conductor is strategically placed:

“Orchestras have always played new music. Why should we stop now?”

– When Mozart was composing, all of the music at that time was only new music. They didn’t play old music. So every piece they played was basically a world premiere at that time, he says.

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

A natural habitat

Conducting a symphony orchestra takes its toll. Where does Mäkelä’s self-confidence come from? He says that at the age of 12 he started conducting at the Sibelius Academy, with the legendary Finnish conductor Jorma Panula as his teacher.

– Being in front of the orchestra became this totally natural place to be, like a natural habitat. So during my education when we went in front of the orchestra, it was exactly the same feeling as if you are sitting in a restaurant or sitting on a bus or something, he says.

– You’re not nervous?

– I mean, the thing is I’ve been doing it for more than half of my life, so I don’t even remember how it was before.

– But how do you get the orchestra on your side?

– If you want to be a leader you just have to prove it through your work, he says confidently.

Why should we go to a classical concert in 2020? The conductor believes in the universal power of music.

– The great thing about music is that it’s a spontaneous thing in which it moves you directly and immediately. You can come to a concert of Sibelius 6th and know nothing about classical music and Sibelius but …

He lights up.

– You can still be deeply touched by it. So in music, the quality and the work is what matters and not who you are in terms of age, gender or anything. I think that’s kind of purifying, he says.

When the conductor is the Philharmonic’s youngest chief conductor ever, many stick to age. But what thoughts does he have about age himself?

– I want to say that age is not equal to experience because every person is individual. Age is a parameter which measures how many years you have been on the planet, but not what you have been doing in those years.

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

Enthusiastic aesthetician

– Where do you get inspiration from?

– I love going to art museums. I must say some of my most moving art experiences are actually quite strange. For example, when I saw my favourite painting by Picasso, this blue one, “La Vie”, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I thought that it must be the work of the older experienced Picasso. But he was actually in his 20’s when he painted it, he says.

The Picasso painting was made in 1903 and is regarded as one of the highlights from Picasso’s blue period.

– Still, it has all of the layers of the human psychology. So after seeing the painting which inspires you, you look at the music differently.

– What about Norwegian art? Do you have a relationship to Edvard Munch?

– I have been to the Munch Museum! And I look forward to maybe having that being a theme for the program in the future. For example create a beautiful season with the re-occurring themes of Munch. And, of course, the time in which he lived was so fruitful for both visual art and music. There were so many things happening at the same time. The same amazing, almost wild expression, he says.

Photo: Dev Dhunsi.

Only the best is good enough

– What about multimedia concerts? Can a work be supplemented by adding something visual, or is it just noise?

– I think It’s always a possibility and, I mean, it depends a lot, because many works of music and art are so full of substance, that if you were to add something you would almost feel that you ate too much. But for some pieces when you add something in a way that completes it. So, I think it’s something which I’m also looking forward to experimenting with in the future, he says.

Although Klaus Mäkelä is full of praise for most things, he is presise on the fact that he does not conduct anything. But as the the chief conductor of one of Scandinavia’s foremost orchestras, something else would be weird, wouldn’t it?

– I conduct only music which I love. That’s very important. I don’t go to something just because someone asks me, he says, and concludes:

– No. I need to believe in it. I need to feel like this has to be the best piece, at this moment.

What you just read was first published in Norwegian cultural magazine Subjekt. This is the first time the Interview is being published in English. All photos are taken by Dev Dhunsi.

Want more? Check out the Orchestrated series:

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Published by Edvard Granum Dillner

Edvard Granum Dillner (b. 1997) is a writer, musician, and multi-artist. Dillner contributes to art and music publications KUNST, Paragone, beehype, Ballade, and GAFFA.

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