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Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä thrills both in person and on recording

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The 28-year-old Finnish conductor Klaus Makela has been making news lately both for getting rave reviews but also for being the latest example of a controversial trend in classical music, a conductor who's the music director of more than just one major orchestra. After seeing Makela conduct and listening to his recordings, our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has some thoughts on the issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE DE PARIS PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "K12 (1947 VERSION) - IA. THE SHROVETIDE FAIR - THE CROWDS - THE CONJURING-TRICK")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: A few months ago, I heard a memorable concert with the young Finnish conductor Klaus Makela leading the Orchestre de Paris, an elegant French ensemble that's only one of the international orchestras he's currently in charge of. He's also chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and has been appointed to take over two of the world's most venerable orchestras, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Some critics have been lamenting the diminishing number of conductors who are identified with a single orchestra, a director who has the time to explore in depth a distinctive repertoire or develop an identifiable sound. One recent exception to the current rule is Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan conductor who's already a legend at the age of 43. He's led the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 15 years but has recently surprised everyone by announcing he's leaving LA for the New York Philharmonic. Two years ago, Dudamel was also appointed director of the Paris Opera. But he just shocked the music world a second time by suddenly resigning from that position, indicating his worry about spreading himself too thin.

Makela has already promised to give up running two of his four orchestras, though even two full-time commitments at any age are an enormous responsibility. And besides the age factor, these same critics have felt that after their first positive impressions, they're already disappointed with some of his recent work. But I've been thrilled by what I've heard, both in person and on recordings. His ravishing version of Debussy's "Prelude To Afternoon Of A Faun," for example, shocking for its sexual content when it was first choreographed and danced by Vaslav Nijinsky in 1912, is so seductive, the opening flute solo seems to be breathing into your ear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE DE PARIS PERFORMANCE OF DEBUSSY'S "PRELUDE TO AFTERNOON OF A FAUN")

SCHWARTZ: Makela also conducts a much less familiar Debussy piece, "Jeux (Games)," a mysterious, tonally adventurous score to which Nijinsky - more than a century before the movie "Challengers" - choreographed an erotically charged tennis threesome. Follow that bouncing ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE DE PARIS PERFORMANCE OF DEBUSSY'S "JEUX, POEME DANSE, CD 133")

SCHWARTZ: I've been equally impressed by Makela's Stravinsky. Both on his recording and in the live concert I attended of the Russian fairy-tale ballet "The Firebird," Makela chose not to play the composer's later, condensed concert version but the complete original ballet score with its more extensive transitional passages between scenes. This greater length and indirection actually builds suspense and makes the hushed and seemingly endless repetitions of the lullaby near the end all the more moving. Makela's magical performance brought tears to my eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE DE PARIS PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "L'OISEAU DE FEU (1911 VERSION): XVII. BERCEUSE (L'OISEAU DE FEU)")

SCHWARTZ: The opening of Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring," with its haunting bassoon solo, isn't just a technical accomplishment. It seems a sound picture of the awakening of nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE DE PARIS PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS, PT. 1 'L'ADORATION DE LA TERRE': I. INTRODUCTION")

SCHWARTZ: Will Makela's brilliant Stravinsky and Debussy become less remarkable when more orchestras demand his full attention? Or will his innate musical insight and refinement and his ability to tell a story through the music continue no matter how many orchestras he's leading?

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz's latest book is "Who's On First: New And Selected Poems." He reviewed recent recordings of works by Debussy and Stravinsky conducted by Klaus Makela on the Decca label. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, comic Ian Karmel, former co-head writer for "The Late Late Show With James Corden," joins us to talk about growing fat. At his highest, he was 420 pounds. He's written a new memoir called "The T-Shirt Swim Club." I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE DE PARIS PERFORMANCE OF DEBUSSY'S "LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS, PT. 2")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our cohost is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRE DE PARIS PERFORMANCE OF DEBUSSY'S "LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS, PT. 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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