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

It was clear from the start that Osmo Vänskä knew what he was doing. Probably the bottom line of his success here was his tenacity.

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.