Through Klaus Mäkelä’s eyes

Klaus Mäkelä is in Amsterdam more and more these days. In an interview for Preludium, taken during a stroll through the city, the orchestra's future chief conductor talks about visual art, photography and the concerts he’s conducting here in January and February. Meanwhile, Mäkelä has his camera in his hand.
Klaus Mäkelä (image: Marco Borggreve)
Klaus Mäkelä (image: Marco Borggreve)

A kind of diary

This month, Klaus Mäkelä will conduct two concerts with the Concertgebouw Orchestra that are a lot like art exhibitions. Since the Finnish conductor is mad about the visual arts, this is not a coincidence. Does art inspire him? How do you translate something visual into sound? We talk about this while we stroll through the city. But first the conductor has to run up to his hotel room and grab his camera. Because Mäkelä loves to take photos, and the light today is perfect. We are looking at Amsterdam through the eyes of our future chief conductor.

Taking photos just makes me incredibly happy.

‘Have a look, it’s a Leica M11. What’s great about it is that it’s a new, digital camera, but with old technology, in the sense that you have to set everything yourself.’ So you have to really know what you’re doing. ‘Or you just have to be lucky.’ The conductor takes a quick shot from inside the Rijksmuseum tunnel. ‘It’s actually kind of like a diary. I’m always on the road, and so my camera’s good company. I have a lot of admiration for real photographers, and I’m far from being a great one myself, but taking pictures just makes me feel incredibly happy. It’s a way to preserve your memories. I’ve been doing it for quite some time now, but I’ve had a better camera for the last few years and I can do it a little more seriously. My favourite subject is people, when I’m on tour, say …’

We’re ambling down Spiegelstraat, where all the wares displayed in the antique shops window are competing for our attention. They’re pretty, but Klaus Mäkelä is drawn more to vintage twentieth-century design; he shows me a photo of his grandfather in the iconic ball chair by Finnish designer Eero Aarnio.

A carefully curated exhibition works just like a well-thought-out concert programme.

The conversation returns to travel. ‘Another thing I like to do when I’m on tour is go to museums. Did you go to the Vermeer exhibition in the Rijksmuseum? I thought it was really touching. But the crazy thing is that the press blew it up into this grand thing, “the exhibition of your life!”– it’s so antithetical to the character of the paintings, which are so intimate and subtle. Vermeer has nothing to do with grandeur.’

25 Picassos

More than once, Mäkelä has made the comparison between a concert programme and an art exhibition. Is there any recent exhibition that he found inspiring? ‘Just recently I was at the Lucerne Festival with the Oslo Phiharmonic Orchestra, and I visited the Rosengart Museum. They have a really interesting way of curating things. First you walk past about 25 Picassos. Then you go downstairs, and you see maybe sixty paintings by Paul Klee. But on the top floor you suddenly find yourself in an unusual selection of pictures that puts Picasso in perspective – with a Miró and a Modigliani, a Cézanne and a Monet... Very interesting! That’s inspiring, because a carefully curated exhibition works just like a well-thought-out concert programme. Of course the big difference is that in a concert you can’t choose the order you take in things …’
Plus you have to sit there until it’s over. ‘Precisely! And that’s why we have an even greater responsibility as programmers. For example, in Lucerne I saw a really striking Picasso on the ground floor, which in a certain way determined my entire visit to the museum. Where do you position a work that important in a concert programme? At the beginning, at the end? You have to really think about that.’

Klaus Makela - Marco Borggreve
Photo: Marco Borggreve


On Thursday 11 and Friday 12 January Klaus Mäkelä will take this comparison literally. He’ll conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a programme that opens with a commissioned work inspired by Dutch art, M.C. Escher’s Imagination by Hawar Tawfiq, and culminates in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. ‘I really love the concept of that piece, with the Promenades in between the pictures, and the transitions between all those different scenes. And it fits so well with Nights in the Gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla, a gorgeous piece, and one I haven’t conducted before. It’s like three postcards of impressionist paintings of gardens. Javier Perianes is the perfect pianist for it; the music is in his DNA. I visited the gardens of the Alhambra in Granada with him.’
We’re now walking past FOAM, the photography museum on Keizersgracht. ‘Shall we go in?’ We think about it. ‘Next time!’

Big clashes

Besides sharing a theme, shouldn’t the pieces on a programme be similar musically? ‘Once, when I was young and starting to put together concerts, an older colleague told me that in principle you can combine anything with anything else, as long as the timings are right. That’s a little provocative of course, but there’s something to it. In any case, you don’t have to only put pieces together if they go together; you can create some big clashes. In fact we’re doing that in February with Thomas Larcher. His Second Symphony, which I think is the masterpiece of this century, by itself already contains the whole gamut from the most brutal, terrifying sounds to moments that sound like heaven. If we put that in the middle, with Mozart’s wonderful Clarinet Concerto on one side and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony – which always reminds me of apocalyptic visions, like Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel’s – on the other … then we’ve united heaven and hell from an Austrian perspective.’

Read more…

This was part of Martijn Voorvelt’s interview with Klaus Mäkelä for Preludium. Read the rest of it here (note: in Dutch) and join them as they wander past the Oudemanhuispoort and through Staalstraat. You can also see the photos of Amsterdam taken by the Finnish conductor.