The San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman addresses a question that’s coming up more frequently in classical music today: Are exceptionally gifted young musicians being put under too bright a spotlight too soon?
The currently most prominent face of this phenomenon is Klaus Mäkelä, the Finnish conductor who leads the Oslo Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris, and this year was tapped to become chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. He will turn 27 next month.
Mäkelä’s steep and speedy ascent is not unique. He’s not even the youngest Finnish conductor making waves: The 22-year-old Tarmo Peltokoski, currently music director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, is due to take charge of France’s Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse in 2024.
In addition to Mäkelä, Kosman cites the examples of María Dueñas, a Spanish violinist who made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony three years ago when she was 16 (Dueñas performs with the Richmond Symphony in February), and Alma Deutscher, a 17-year-old British composer and conductor who recently led an Opera San José production of “Cinderella,” a revision of a work that she composed at the age of 10.
An “almost lurid fascination” with very young performers “can prompt us to mistake facility for profundity or technique for insight,” Kosman writes. “[E]veryone involved – the artists and their audiences alike – is better served by patience and commitment. Let young musicians develop and thrive at their own pace and through their own process.”
Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, weighed in on Mäkelä after the conductor’s debut with the New York Philharmonic earlier this month, and the release of a cycle of Sibelius symphonies that he recorded in Oslo.
“Mäkelä looks the part of the dashing European maestro, particularly if you are seeking a Generation Z reboot of Herbert von Karajan,” Ross writes; but his philharmonic performance was uneven, and the Sibelius discs betray “his immaturity on nearly every page. . . . I suspect that in later years Mäkelä will be embarrassed by this premature debut.”
Reporting on and reviewing classical artists in a mid-sized US city, I’ve had plenty of exposure to prodigy soloists, newly minted chamber ensembles and conductors at the beginning of their careers. A lot them showed great promise; some made good on it. Decades later, I’m sure, many of them would wince at rehearing some of their performances in Richmond.
The smarter, or more wisely advised, knew better than to take on music whose interpretive and technical challenges they wouldn’t be equipped to meet without years of seasoning in rehearsals and performances.
Even young musicians with more advanced technique and deeper musicality than would be expected at their age haven’t had time to realize which composers or musical styles they’re best attuned to.
Young artists, Kosman observes, “have countless skills and strengths that oldsters often lack – energy, ambition, the knack for learning new things.
“But acquiring knowledge, let alone wisdom, is a process that requires logging a certain number of trips around the sun. And having that knowledge or wisdom is an essential part of being an artist.”