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Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra: He was the right man at the right time

Osmo Vänskä
Photo by Todd BuchananOsmo Vänskä

In May, 2001, when Osmo Vänskä got word in Finland that the board of the Minnesota Orchestra was offering him the position of music director, he burst into tears. His debut with the orchestra the prior October — in an all-Finnish program that included the premiere of a Rautavaara harp concerto — had been energizing and thought-provoking, the kind of music-making that had become rare at Orchestra Hall during the free-wheeling but haphazard reign of Eiji Oue.

Vänskä was the right man at the right time. He knew it, the musicians knew it, and so did audiences — not only here but those in New York and in Europe who heard the orchestra under Vänskä during tours and those who bought the orchestra’s honored recordings of Beethoven and Sibelius.

“This is a great orchestra,” the conductor said during his first press conference at Orchestra Hall, and he proceeded over the next decade to make it greater. He shaped it, in the often-quoted words of the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, to sound like “the greatest orchestra in the world.”

But now it’s all over, abruptly. Vänskä resigned Tuesday morning, fulfilling a vow he made last spring that if the contract dispute between musicians and management wasn’t resolved in time to prepare for two dates at Carnegie Hall in November, he would resign. On Monday afternoon talks broke down and orchestra management canceled the Carnegie Hall concerts.

Vänskä’s action is without precedent in the history of American orchestras: a music director leaving midcontract at the hoped-for start of a season. (Vänskä’s current contract runs through 2015.) And yet what was he to do? His situation here had become untenable.

‘I gave my word’

It’s characteristic of Vänskä to do what he said he would to do. Though many hoped that he would extend the Sept. 30 deadline he had set down — in what now seems a vain wish that a new contract would be agreed upon — he stood by it, and now he’s gone. Some might recall that midway through his years here he turned down a last-minute offer to conduct the New York Philharmonic on tour in Europe, Kurt Masur having taken ill. His reason: Sometime earlier he had agreed on one of those dates to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in a concert at a church in Minneapolis, a date that an assistant conductor could reasonably be expected to fill in. “No, I gave my word,”  Vänskä said later.

I asked a fellow Finn, Kai Amberla, about this while in Helsinki in 2008 researching a biography of Vänskä. Amberla, a long-time Vänskä watcher, is the director of Finland Festivals, a lobbying organization for the festival business in Finland. Why would a conductor pass up a high-profile gig with the New York Philharmonic for an inconspicuous date in Minneapolis?

“This is a typically Finnish gesture: ‘I have to do it because I promised,’ ” Amberla said. “This is what we are famous for in this country. That’s why we are so boring.” He laughed. “But Osmo also knows what he’s doing. That mentality won’t be much help if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

It was clear here right from the start that Vänskä knew what he was doing. Probably the bottom line of his success here is his tenacity. He never gives up, neither in rehearsal nor in performance. It became a joke – a rueful joke, sometimes — among the musicians to quote him: “We must work, work, work,” which soon became “verk, verk, verk.” He did for the Lahti Symphony in Finland during his 23 years there what he did here. He built it up to a point of excellence higher than just about anyone, except Vänskä,  had imagined, though with the Minnesota Orchestra he was starting on a much higher level.

‘He’s interested in music, not in a career’

Amberla again: “Osmo doesn’t fake it. He takes things seriously, even doing ABBA. He rehearses all the time. He’s interested in music, not in a career. He saw potential in Lahti, which when he arrived was a pitiful orchestra. And their hall was bad, too. I think it’s that he’s willing to put a lot of time and energy into things that other people wouldn’t do. Esa-Pekka, for instance, would never have gone to Lahti,” he said, referring to Esa-Pekka Salonen, a classmate of Vänskä s at the Sibelius Academy, who soon became the glamorous music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Salonen’s career skyrocketed while Vänskä s was a candle burning faintly but steadily. He was, as some said “stuck in Lahti.”

But when he began making an illuminating series of recordings with that orchestra for the Swedish BIS label, including the complete orchestral works of Sibelius, and those discs started winning international awards, he was on his way. People began to think that this upstart little orchestra from Lahti (with a population about the size of Duluth) had superceded the mighty Helsinki Philharmonic, where Vänskä had once served as co-principal clarinet. And the beautiful Sibelius Hall in Lahti, which without Vänskä’s urging would never have been built, is an enduring monument to his achievement.

MN Orchestra Oct. 1 rallyMinnPost photo by Susan AlbrightMinnesota Orchestra musicians and supporters rallying outside Orchestra Hall on Tuesday expressed their affection for Vänskä.

To be sure, some musicians have found his tenacity excessive. According to reports, that was the case at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Glasgow, where Vänskä served as chief conductor from 1997 to 2002. There was grousing from time to time, and yet he was honored with a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for his outstanding contribution to classical music in 2001, and he has continued to enjoy special popularity with audiences in England. In 2005, Musical America named him Conductor of the Year.

The situation at Orchestra Hall was different. The musicians here — most of them — were “hungry” to be asked to play at a higher level, according to then-concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis. “I think the thing that began to go sour with Eiji is that he couldn’t go past a certain point,” she said in an interview, “and then the rehearsals were just play-throughs – play-throughs to memorize the piece. … Musicians who work together and work on details in chamber music and in their solo work, they know when they’re not working past 2 inches below the surface. It’s not a good feeling.”

Intention clear from the first rehearsal

In contrast, “Everything we’ve done with Osmo has been with the intention from the very beginning that this is a world-class orchestra and I believe in it, and I’m going to use my time here with the intention of setting the bar as high as I can. That was clear from the first rehearsal. Osmo has techniques of rehearsing I’ve never known anyone to use with an orchestra: repeating three of four bars over and over again, like a round-robin, like we’re at home practicing.” (Fleezanis is now a professor of music at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.)

According to many of the musicians, Fleezanis included, what solidified the often precarious relationship between orchestra and conductor, what gave Vänskä confidence in these players, was the first European tour — which took place in early 2004, a gutsy move in a conductor’s first season. But it paid off. Most of the reviews were raves.

Said Fleezanis, “We needed that confidence, given the fact that we had just had a total jellyfish year. We didn’t have a music director. It was a year of guest conductors, and before that we had the last years with Eiji, where it was turning into very thin broth.”

The frequent concertgoer at Orchestra Hall heard intriguing performances during the Vänskä years, starting with that debut concert in 2000 that included a revelatory account of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell. Familiar though this work was for many in the audience, it took on new colors, especially in the slow movement, which proceeded with a kind of sublime relaxation. And then there was the cogent reading of the same composer’s Symphony No. 6. Much has been written about Vänskä s Sibelius – “deep waters,” as Vänskä described the seven symphonies.

“There is a Godly presence in this music,” said Vänskä a devout Lutheran. Certainly he offered — and continues to offer — a new take on this seminal composer, a less Romantic view than is heard in recordings of the ‘60s and ‘70s by Bernstein, Karajan and Colin Davis who tend to slow the works down and stretch their tempos and soften their dissonances. With Vänskä the music hits the listener with a jolt. It’s unflinchingly Modernist in character – more detailed, with more contrast and yet with steadier tempos. And though presumably this approach took some getting used to, the musicians seemed to thrive on this close adherence to the score that Vänskä insisted on.

‘It’s like the music is in his soul’

“I love playing Sibelius with him,” said flutist Wendy Williams after several years of working with Vänskä.  “It’s like the music is in his soul. It’s so authentic and clean and spare. There’s no sentimentality.”

In time, Vänskä programmed the symphonies of Carl Nielsen and living Finns such as Kalevi Aho and more of Einojuhani Rautavaara, who said to me at his home in Finland, “Osmo is the one who always does exactly what the composer wants. He only does what’s in the score.”

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In later years, Vänskä became more relaxed at the podium. He admitted to being a control freak, but he said there were precious moments onstage when he simply let the music flow — though he continued to be obsessive about pianissimi (playing softly) and getting a mellow, rounded sound from the brass. And certainly a major achievement each year, unparalleled around the country, was his careful and generous work with young composers during the Composer’s Institute run by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis. (Kernis’s resignation Tuesday in the wake of Vanska’s departure may put an end to that valuable program.)

Over the years, Vänskä became a visible member of the community. He could be seen shopping at Lunds and riding his motorcycle around town.  (He once drove back from Thunder Bay, Wis., half of the trip in the rain. “That was tough,” he said. “The road got deeper and deeper.”) He and his wife, Pirkko, bought a condo by the Guthrie Theater. (Their marriage of 30 years ended in divorce in 2009.) And he took up the clarinet once again, playing his first public performance in 23 years at a Sommerfest concert in 2005.

‘A very dark day’

His departure here is an irreparable loss. “I’m devastated,” said violist Sam Bergman at a musicians’ rally outside Orchestra Hall Tuesday. “It’s a very dark day,” said Williams. “My tears have been flowing.”

Osmo Vänskä is just 60 – young for a conductor. (Leopold Stokowski signed a record contract with RCA Victor at 95.) He will prosper. What will happen to what’s left of the orchestra is anybody’s guess.

Vänskä,  as we said, greeted news of his appointment here 12 years ago with tears – of joy. Today, the tears are not of joy. To quote the late great San Francisco columnist Herb Caen in quite a different context, “A great city weeps.”

Michael Anthony, a former longtime music critic for the Star Tribune and the author of “Osmo Vänskä, Orchestra Builder,” writes about classical music and other arts topics for MinnPost.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 10/02/2013 - 11:47 am.

    A wonderful article

    Thanks so much.

    And thanks so much to Osmo Vanska for a wonderful ten years. May you have many more and an orchestra commensurate with your talent and dedication.

  2. Submitted by Emily E Hogstad on 10/02/2013 - 12:18 pm.

    Allow me to play devil’s advocate

    It is obvious to careful observers that the board leadership was not going to renew Osmo Vanska’s contract once it expired at the end of the 2014-15 season. Michael Henson let this slip when he talked of how he hoped Osmo would stay “and fulfill his contract”…not stay, period. Jon Campbell and Richard Davis were both appallingly disrespectful toward Osmo in the press. You’d never catch the CEO of the San Francisco Symphony saying such things about Tilson Thomas, or the CEO of the NY Phil talking that way about Gilbert. So bad blood clearly exists between the four men. The board was cavalier about his departure; board leadership didn’t attend the neutral Grammy celebration concert in February. Osmo attended musicians’ concerts and chose for his encore at the February concert “Finlandia” (there is not a more loaded pointed choice in the repertoire). Osmo did not attend the Symphony Ball, and it seems likely he was not invited. One or two of these points on their own would not be persuasive. All of them taken together are.

    So let’s play a game of what-if. On September 30, management agreed to the musicians’ counterproposal. The board leadership knows it is not going to renew Osmo’s contract in 2015. It starts searching for a new music director. Any potential conductor will have heard the horror stories of Henson, Campbell, and Davis’s tenure, and especially their lack of concern about artistic standards, their penchant for micromanaging, and the disrespect shown to the former music director. Conductors realize that this will be a very awkward environment to work in: that the board’s vision and the musicians’ vision are diametrically opposed. Therefore, the pool of applicants will be restricted, and the best will be scared away. In short, as long as Henson, Campbell, and Davis, or people philosophically aligned with them, were in charge, we were going to lose Osmo (and by extension, a world-class conductor) whether in 2013 or 2015. It’s tragic it happened in this way, obviously. But without a change in board leadership, it was inevitable. People need to realize this, and react accordingly.

    Osmo wasn’t a casualty of the lockout. He was a casualty of the board leadership that didn’t want him and who wanted someone cheaper and more pliable. Minnesota can do better: and has, in fact, for 110 years.

    • Submitted by Elizabeth Erickson on 10/02/2013 - 09:23 pm.

      Osmo resigns

      I could not agree with you more, Emily Hogstad. 18 months ago, way before the lockout started, an orchestra insider, who was not one of the musicians, told me that management wanted to get rid of Osmo. I could hardly believe my ears and quietly thought that this person must be exaggerating. As the lockout continued and I witnessed months upon months of outrageous, disrespectful behavior by the MOA and saw how they were setting Osmo up to take the fall, I realized this person knew exactly what she was talking about. This was the plan; at least for Henson, Davis, and Campbell all along. I can’t speak for the rest of the board, but the three of you can stop pretending now that you are grief stricken about this. You most definitely wanted this to happen. Your behavior is pathetic.

    • Submitted by Elizabeth Erickson on 10/03/2013 - 08:43 pm.

      allow me to play devil’s advocate

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Emily Hogstad. 18 months ago an orchestra insider who was not a musician told me that the management wanted to get rid of Osmo. I couldn’t believe my ears and quietly thought to myself that she must be exaggerating. It is with unspeakable sadness that I acknowledge that she knew exactly what she was talking about. Having watched this train wreck in the making for a year, I would have to say that Osmo’s departure was a set up a long time in the making. Thank you Osmo for everything. To the board and management, there are no words –shame on you for betraying everyone involved; the musicians; Osmo; the patrons and donors; the legislature; and the Minnesota taxpayers. .

  3. Submitted by Kathleen Laurila on 10/02/2013 - 12:33 pm.

    Excellent article

    This has been ten wonderful years of excellent concert music…let us enjoy the memory of the rare event of having such a group of musicians among us. So sad that it is over, but the muscians will scatter to new posts, and Osmo will continue to amaze the music world.

    By the way, “…bottom line of his success here is his tenacity”…that is refered to as “sisu” in his native land, and to the thousands of Finnish-Americans here in Minnesota.

  4. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 10/02/2013 - 01:31 pm.

    A great money saving idea for the Board

    “In July, CEO Michael Henson said that a $960,000 state grant represented 7 percent of the MOA’s 012-13 budget, which means the budget came in somewhere around $13.7 million. So the MOA spent nearly $14 million and yet presented no orchestral concerts in 2012-2013” (SOSMN)

    Now with Maestro Vanska’s departure, expenses will be reduced a bit. Might I suggest since there will be precious little for the administrative staff to do again this year, the board lay off (or lock out) most of the administrative staff. Of course the maintenance staff for orchestra hall will have to be retained, though a skeleton crew might suffice, and minimal heating and other utilities will be necessary. With out any doubt the board could save at least $12,000,000 this year. Come on Banksters, can’t you recognize a real opportunity when you see one?

    OK, so you messed up and threw out the baby with the bath water. Her’s your chance to make amends.

  5. Submitted by Sagrid Edman on 10/02/2013 - 02:10 pm.

    Osmo Vanska’s resignation

    I think there is an old song that goes something like this – ‘You will never know what you had until it is gone’. I am not sure the Board of the MN Orch. will feel this way, but they might find the backlash a bit unnerving. Board officer Davis’s comment that ‘We may have to lose Vanska’ said it all. Any board officer that would use that kind of language in public is tone deaf, dismissive, and just plain rude. Board responsibilities are to work for the best of the organizations they supposedly lead, not break them up with insults, no matter what the financial situation is.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/02/2013 - 02:31 pm.

    Now the board can …

    pen a spirit of Halloween outlet and to and really apply great opportunity and art.

  7. Submitted by John Bracken on 10/02/2013 - 05:07 pm.

    Good bye to the 1%

    According to NPR Osmo had a base salary of $1 million. All this and the Orchestra is propped up by its status as a charitable organization. Increasingly charities are scams to fleece taxpayers.

  8. Submitted by Jon Butler on 10/02/2013 - 06:40 pm.

    Only Death and no Transfiguration

    The quality of Michael Anthony’s article only deepens the realization of what has been lost.

    Fate handed the Minnesota Orchestra an opportunity that is so rare it scarcely even comes to ensembles already at the top of the heap. Perhaps it paralleled the New York Philharmonic’s acquisition of Leonard Bernstein at a critical point in its history. No matter the right analogy, it hardly ever happens. Even better, Vanska and the musicians actually came through in ways that also seldom happen, no matter the promises and public relations hype that accompanies the appointment of every new conductor of every orchestra. And even better than that, it happened with an orchestra whose reputation, wrongly or rightly, wasn’t that of, say, the orchestras in Boston, Chicago, or Philadelphia, something that rightly made Minnesotans far from regular concert attenders take notice and yes, express pride.

    Now it’s gone. 110 years of music-making by the Minneapolis Symphony, which became the Minnesota Orchestra, have been destroyed.

    Down the road, an orchestra with the same name probably will play in Orchestra Hall, but it’s likely to be one with markedly different players and, obviously, with a different conductor. But even that will likely not occur for a minimum of a year and perhaps two more. If the remnants of the current orchestra and the current management do sign a contract, whatever they sign will be shadowed for a full generation by the disastrous events of this past week and past year.

    It’s hard to believe this happened in Minnesota, because we like to believe we’re “above average,” and maybe more. It’s possible that those involved will come to realize just how badly they failed and to understand the magnitude of the destruction they have wreaked on one of the oldest, proudest musical organizations in the state.

    But even there, and as has happened this week, we will much more likely hear more blaming and more accusations that it was the other side’s fault, that we offered this and we offered that . . . the very reason that we’re now at this doleful, unredeemable point.

  9. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 10/02/2013 - 07:36 pm.

    What about Henson?

    Losing Vanska is a shame, but I’m surprised he is held in such reverent regard. It’s a fine orchestra and he was a fine conductor, but people act as if he turned dross into gold. Personally I’m not so enamored of “clean and spare” modernism. We will find another conductor and she may be even better.

    More important to me is the leniency with which the board and CEO Michael Henson have been treated in the media. Look at this piece of puffery from the orchestra’s web site:

    “Since becoming the Minnesota Orchestra’s President and CEO in September 2007, Michael Henson has spearheaded the complex process of planning and fundraising for the $50 million redevelopment of Orchestra Hall, a project for which design schematics were unveiled in April 2010 and groundbreaking will occur in June 2012.

    Amidst a volatile economy, Henson has led the organization in a strategic planning process to create a Vision for a Sound Future—a newly-approved business plan that leads the organization to sustainability by 2013 while supporting great artistry and community outreach.”

    Where was the steely financial vision that any business requires? In October 2008, most of us knew we were in a barrel of trouble. It got worse and worse and worse, but apparently this merry band of incompetents didn’t get it at all. It’s true we needed more women’s bathrooms and some of the upgrades and amenities are really cool, but none of it matters a whit without an orchestra!

    I guess the deep-pocketed music lovers whom Henson cajoled into coming up with $50 million aren’t so enthusiastic about making a payroll for the hired help. How many of us here have actually participated in strategic planning, perhaps led such an effort? You start with product and customers – there can be no vision if you don’t have the product. Now these folks can congratulate themselves with having spent $50 million on an upgrade to what was a more than adequate concert hall – but they’ve locked the doors on the orchestra! Maybe they can rent it out for rock concerts.

    One more thing, that “signing bonus” so generously coughed up by 15 or so foundations. The total shared by these 15 comfortably endowed foundations was,I believe, $1.6 million. Seriously? Some guy just gave $1 million on his own to the journalism department at Moorhead State.

  10. Submitted by EP Barnes on 10/02/2013 - 09:32 pm.

    crocodile tears

    Sorry, but I’m having trouble with all of these obituary-like outpourings by politicians and major, local media about what a wonderful music director that the MN Orchestra callously and deliberately tossed to the side of the road as part of their grand, new vision for the future. Where were all of you when your accolades might have helped put enough pressure on top MOA “management” to stop this nonsense and prevent this from happening?

  11. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 10/02/2013 - 09:54 pm.

    Excellent analysis

    Thanks, Michael. It’s good to read analysis from the area’s most-experienced music critic.
    I’d like to see some of the great philanthropic patrons of the orchestra (if they have any money left to give after paying for Orchestra Hall’s fancy lobby/bar) create an endowment large enough to enable the musicians to begin anew and build an audience sufficient to sustain their orchestra.
    MOA probably owns the name “Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra,” but why not reconstitute as the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra and use the Ordway as home? SPCO is to have its own hall, so there could be room for both. Or maybe the redone Northrop would be acoustically satisfactory.
    That, of course, would leave the fancy, enhanced Orchestra Hall without an orchestra, but that’s what the MOA board deserves. An empty performance hall could lead MOA’s board to file for bankruptcy, after which the new orchestra could pick up the hall — and perhaps the old Minneapolis Symphony name — for (pardon me) a song.

  12. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 10/03/2013 - 11:12 am.

    Arne Carlson’s Insight

    Take a look at Carlson’s blog post:

    He was interviewed on MPR this morning (probably archived by now) and knocked my socks off. His point about the kind of aid given to arts versus that given to sports is brilliant. I’m ashamed that I haven’t seen this bigger picture. Of course, I still blame mismanagement and wonder why Henson and the board haven’t used their fundraising energy at the Capitol.

  13. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 10/06/2013 - 10:01 am.

    We wept last night as Osmo led the Minnesota Orchestra of the stage at Ted Mann Concert Hall. We wept for what could have been and what should have been. We must now face the reality of the situation. As long as the “Axis of Evil” (Henson, Davis and Campbell)l stays on directing the Minnesota Orchestra’s Board we can expect more of the same, save a miraculous awakening. We must move forward. The Orchestra must become a cooperative and continue to perform independently. It will take some time, but ultimately after great sacrifice by the orchestra’s members, the owners of the hall and the performers will merge into a new Minnesota Orchestral Association, where the stake holders will have a common purpose, the perpetuation of classical music in our community. A combination of increased community financial support and perhaps some state support, imaginative programing, promotion and outreach, not to mention competent handling of the endowment will restore and preserve a 110 year old institution so vital to the well being of our community.

  14. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 10/06/2013 - 10:25 am.

    MN Orchestra

    Now they have a beautiful new Orchestra Hall and no Orchestra ..If the Board thinks they can put together a mediocre Orchestra with a world class conductor and still get back their seasons ticket holders.their delusional…Don’t call me..
    I will miss the coffee concerts, but I still have the Guthrie and other venues.

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