CGF Newsletter 18: Conductors under attack
Finland teaches us an important lesson about the Abundance Mindset
Name That Tune
This week’s Name That Tune was submitted by Listener JT. Here’s your hint (and it’s a big one, if you know it): this composer was the only composition student Beethoven ever took on. No Googling!
As always, your goal is to provide as much accurate analysis as possible. First try to get the nationality, year, and genre, then make educated guesses about the composer and — if possible— the piece. If you know the piece immediately, send us an email at email@example.com instead of commenting so the rest of us can have fun guessing.
Last Week’s Results
CGF Newsletter 17
Ravel, Fanfare for the ballet L'éventail de Jeanne
Some very great guesses this week ranging from Grainger & Shostakovich (Listener Eric) to Shchedrin, Gubaidulina, and Schnittke (moi, natch.) None of which was right, but all of which were interesting.
Think you can stump your fellow Listeners? Go ahead and try!
Head to our Google Form to upload a 30-second clip of an unidentified piece of classical music for us to try to identify.
What did Klaus Mäkelä do to hurt you?
There’s been a real piling-on of the 26-year-old Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä recently, most notably by Alex Ross in the New Yorker:
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.
Ouch! Ross then goes on to compare Mäkelä to Xian Zhang, the music director of the New Jersey Philharmonic, who gets a glowing review and is celebrated as the future of the art form. From my experience of her work, I would say this is... a stretch. He then takes a wild swing by comparing her commitment to the NJS to Szell’s tenure at Cleveland. I thought the New Yorker had fact checkers??
Then Joshua Kosman got in on the action in the SF Chronicle:
The latest musical phenom to raise this concern is Klaus Mäkelä, the 26-year-old Finnish conductor who holds no fewer than three major leadership posts — in Oslo, Paris and Amsterdam. Over the course of the past couple of years, he has become an orchestral golden boy, showered with praise and touted as a candidate for orchestral vacancies as they arise — not bad in a field where practitioners are considered rookies until at least their mid-30s.
Yet when Mäkelä made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony in April, he left the impression of a gifted artist who was still very much in the early stages of his development.
Well ahead of any of these takes though, was my boy Dave Hurwitz, who really excoriated the Mäkelä Sibelius cycle:
My own take is that we need more Mäkeläs in the world. It’s easy to see how he’s gotten where he has: he was born into a musical family in a small, upper-income European country whose ministry of culture is well-endowed and has identified classical music as a national calling card. It’s no accident that so many prominent classical musicians (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vänskä, Kaija Saariaho) have come from Finland.
To be sure, some other countries have gotten in on the act, but whatever Mäkelä’s flaws as an artist, he’s obviously talented, and talented people should get opportunities to develop their craft and deepen their art. In the world of conducting, that means giving performances and making recordings with great orchestras. You had to listen to an underwhelming Sibeilus 5? I weep bitter tears for you. But the takeaway should be that we need more people getting more opportunities and a healthier ecosystem all around. If we had that, Mäkelä would probably be correctly positioned in the middle of the pack, and we could pay more attention to what the other young conductors of his generation are up to.
Georgs Pelēcis, New Year’s Music
I recommended this on the podcast a couple years ago, but it’s just so good (and so apropos) that I can’t help re-recommend it. I had never heard of this piece until Timo Andres uploaded it, and I’ve listened to it so many times since. Not only is the music full of charm and delight, but Timo’s fit is super aesthetic and the vibes are immaculate.
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The probable elephant in the room re: Mäkelä is his identity as a (very) white male. Alex Ross wasn't choosing at random when he chose to compare directly to Xian Zhang (neither white nor male).
My two cents: Mäkelä seems to be in fine position (signed with Decca, routinely "showered with praise" as "an orchestral golden boy"). One could probably therefore cherry-pick some really good reviews of even this Sibelius cycle. Do I think Alex Ross et al. needed to go so hard on him? No - it unfortunately seems to be the typical cycle of commentary for certain people to hear that someone is being touted, and automatically listen more critically. Why couldn't he tout Xian Zhang without putting down another conductor?
Also, it must be said that Ross's comparison of Zhang to Szell was under very specific auspices: he considers Zhang's career to be a happier alternative for the future of conductors than Mäkelä's, preferring music directors to put down roots with an orchestra, rather than be "itinerant maestros who draw big salaries in multiple cities." Fair enough!
Couldn’t agree more re. Mäkelä. The fact that critics dislike his Sibelius cycle is one thing (for my part he brings out lots of interesting and thoughtful details, even if the whole picture more often than not fails to congeal). What bothers me, however, is the tone of the Mäkelä criticism than its substance. Ross makes glib reference to his looks and resorts to hyperbolic exasperation (“The idea that someone in his mid-twenties could have mastered these complex and elusive scores…” is not a million miles removed from “Who does this punk kid think he is?”). Kosman is a little better, using Mäkelä’s professional achievements as a way of discussing the classical music industry’s quasi-exploitative cult of youth. Even so, his critique exhibits an underlying gatekeeping instinct that is sadly ubiquitous among both professional and amateur critics, nearly all of whom are middle-aged plus.
Yes, a 26-year-old has limited life experience on which to draw, but how much does that really matter for musical interpretation? If you were to hear two recordings of, say, Mahler 2, one by a twenty-something upstart prodigy and another by an aged eminence grise, what fraction of your annual income would you be willing to bet on your ability to tell which is which? My answer: not much at all.