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Conductor Klaus Mäkelä (Robert Torres photo)

Imagine being in a packed Symphony Hall, listening to three beloved masterpieces played by a terrific orchestra, a brilliant, very young competition winner, and a conductor (also very young), who has been sought after by a huge number of prestigious orchestras. The hottest of hot tickets.  This  Sunday night arrived courtesy of the Celebrity Series of Boston, seemingly in its  best year ever. Fresh from giving an all-Stravinsky program at Carnegie Hall the night before, the Orchestre de Paris made an excellent impression. It was hard to discern who in the audience came to check out the conductor and who was curious about the soloist who had made such a splash just a few weeks ago with the BSO. And, yes, Yunchan Lim was the youngest-ever winner of the Van Cliburn Competition.

From the atmospheric opening of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, with its enticing flute solo arriving out of nowhere, to the last notes of Stravinsky’s Firebird, this was orchestral playing at its finest and most compelling. In the repertoire we heard, no one could gainsay this band. Why? Surely much of the credit for an evening that was thrilling from beginning to end belongs to the Finnish conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, the music director of Orchestre de Paris since 2021, as well as Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic since 2020 and Artistic Partner and Chief Conductor-Designate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Several media outlets heralded his vertiginous rise to superstardom, and his now-famous six-month love affair with pianist Yuja Wang placed him firmly in the public’s consciousness, so I felt extra-skeptical as I watched this nattily dressed, elegantly coiffed young man move almost as balletically as the music he led. I have always disliked how people rave about how much they enjoyed watching a conductor, but Mäkelä, showed as much gracefulness as any conductor I have ever witnessed. What an uncanny connection between his lissome gestures and the gorgeous sonorities which poured forth in response.

Yunchan Lim

Debussy’s Prelude a l’aprés-midi d’un faune came as a revelation―even after I had thought I never cared to hear this short piece again—especially because of my memories of the extraordinary flute artistry of Doriot Anthony Dwyer, yet the inevitable Gallic atmospheres absolutely seduced and stayed with me. The two harps could have projected more, but otherwise it sounded sublime. 

The amazing Yunchan Lim seems to bowl over everyone who hears him, yet he is thoughtful and modest. In an interview with the NY Times, he quipped, “It’s a bit hard to define myself as an artist. I’m like the universe before the Big Bang. I’m still in the learning stage. I’d like to be a musician with infinite possibilities.” Modesty aside, his volcanic, sensational, dazzling colors and dynamics in Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto mesmerized us. Once again, we witnessed a warhorse transformed into an expression of awe.

The crowd exploded. How funny to see people way up on the second balcony, then the first balcony, finally the packed downstairs– all erupt; most of them were cheering wildly while taking photos on their iPhones. Lim gave a lovely encore, which seemed, oddly perfect, Chopin’s heart-on-sleeve Étude Op. 10, No. 3. For this, the whole evening would have been worth it. But more glories of orchestral playing—and conducting―lay in store.

After intermission Firebird lofted higher and higher—one stupendous episode after another. These players mastered all the special techniques which Stravinsky indicated, in the service of relentless rhythmic fervor which just annihilated all doubts. We could reasonably imagine ourselves transported to the premier at the Palais Garnier in 1910. Proust, Bernhardt, Coctaeu, Gide, and Ravel would have felt at home in the company of these ambassadors of French culture.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. As if our attendance at the previous night’s BSO concert was not sufficient pleasure for a weekend’s musical offering, we were fortunate enough to be able to attend this amazing concert the day after. It was our first experience hearing this very special orchestra and its young conductor, playing a familiar, but enticing program. The incredible sonority of this ensemble was exploited to full advantage by Mr. Makela, and the details of the Debussy piece were brought out by a somewhat leisurely tempo- why rush such beautiful music! We also were thrilled by the Rachmaninoff performance. We had dead center seats in the orchestra section, about 10 rows from the front. Despite this proximate location to the musicians, it was our impression that as powerful as this young artist was when the music called for it, the orchestral climaxes seem to overwhelm his playing, forcing him to produce some less than mellifluous sounds from the American Steinway grand piano, particularly its bass notes. Such balance issues are admittedly difficult for a visiting orchestra to master in an unfamiliar hall, but this is a minor quibble at best. Clearly, this is a young artist with a very bright future ahead of him. Both conductor and pianist were not shy about using rubato for increasing the emotional intensity of their performance, including the Chopin encore. The final Stravinsky selection was simply beyond reproach, played with passion, but with consummate attention to the rich tapestry of orchestral details inherent in this landmark score. We agree with the reviewer that this was a very special and most memorable concert, and feel very grateful that we could be there to experience it.

    Comment by Jonathan Kleefield — March 21, 2024 at 9:04 am

  2. This was an outstanding concert. The orchestra came to North American to give only four performances, in Ann Arbor, NYC, Boston, and Montreal, and we were lucky to have been among the cities included. I’d not previously thought of the group as one of the world’s best, but judging by Sunday’s concert, they have reached that level. They gave every indication that they love playing together, and when the concert ended and conductor Mäkelä motioned for the orchestra to rise, they refused and instead turned toward and applauded him. From looking at the Times website for a review there, I understand that his sudden rise to fame has sparked some negative reactions, possibly why the paper did not review the concert (the Globe didn’t either). Sold-out Symphony Hall would disagree, judging by the crowd’s reaction, which mirrored my own. Thank you, Ms. Miron.

    Comment by Rob — March 22, 2024 at 10:10 am

  3. I was fortunate to hear Mr. Makälä and l’Orchestre at their home in Paris last Spring in a sizzling performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, a piece very close to my heart. The young man (27 at the time) was clearly enthusiastic about leading his forces into battle and the Paris audience leapt to their feet in appreciation – not a usual European response.

    So I came semi-prepared and loved what I heard from the podium, but enjoyed my introduction to M. Kim as well. It was rare and refreshing to hear a warhorse touched rather than slammed. So often ALL the gestures, both loud and soft, are overdone, exaggerated, Romantic as we think (or expect?) them to be. This was emphatically not the case. Each of the lyrical themes were restrained, tender, almost improvisatory / explorative as they emerged. They were therefore truly FRESH, and fell new on the jaded ear. I do agree that the balances were off in favor of the orchestra in places, and the ensemble was not perhaps 100% tight, but that was in keeping with the improvisatory approach noted above.

    The Chopin Op. 10, #3, was a warhorse with a different hide. Again it was restrained, almost delicate, but he immediately drew the packed hall into his own drawing room. My own benchmark for the 24 Etudes is Maurizio Pollini, though. I came of age with his DG recording and haven’t found anyone yet to match his focus, power and tenderness in those particular depth charges. YC was magical but to my ear left a fair amount on the table.

    I think KM is a EUROPEAN conductor. Those sensibilities are, for better or worse, not necessarily appreciated fully over here (cough Jaap van Zweden cough). But he has an intimate and persuasive connection with his players. Like Abbado he really LISTENS to them, and they in turn adore him for it. Apparently his first appearance at the Concertgebouw after the announcement of his upcoming association was a lovefest both on stage and in the hall. He’s the real deal, and we have a lot to look forward to.

    And yes, the Celebrity Series this year is uh-mazing. Thank you, Mr. Smith!

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — March 23, 2024 at 4:45 pm

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