The Minnesota Orchestra’s annual board meeting Wednesday afternoon offered a flurry of positive news — increased attendance, successful tours and a balanced budget – mixed with one unsettling announcement: Osmo Vänskä, the orchestra’s revered music director, will step down at the completion of his contract in August 2022.
“There is no drama, no bad feelings,” the 65-year-old Vänskä said in a speech to board members and friends at Orchestra Hall Wednesday as a way of explaining why he was announcing his departure nearly four years in advance.
“This orchestra is closer to my heart and my life than ever, and they play so well,” he said. Good conductors, however, tend to be busy – they’re in demand – so it may take a few years to engage the services of a top-notch conductor as music director, which usually means first lining up that person as a guest conductor. A search committee has been formed to begin the search for a new music director, the orchestra announced.
“We’ve had a fantastic year,” enthused Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the departing board chairman who presided over the meeting and introduced her successor, Margaret Bracken, a classically trained pianist who is the granddaughter of William MacPhail, a Minneapolis Symphony violinist who founded the MacPhail School of Music.
Wednesday’s meeting – rather more festive than such meetings have been in the past – featured a lively performance by musicians and dancers of the Heart And Soul Drum Academy in St. Paul. In August when the musicians of the orchestra returned from their tour of South Africa, being the first U.S. orchestra to visit that country, players of the Academy greeted them at the airport with a performance of African drum music.
Indeed, Wednesday’s report was largely upbeat. Just about all the numbers looked good. Earned revenue ($12 million), contributions ($22.4 million), attendance (91 percent of capacity), and investments ($134 million), all rose during the past fiscal year. Most important, the budget ($36.7 million), yielding a $65,000 surplus, was balanced for the fourth consecutive year.
In an interview before the meeting Vänskä said he might eventually take on an “emeritus” or “laureate” title with the orchestra, as he has with the Lahti Symphony in his native Finland. He hopes for an ongoing collaboration with the orchestra here that is something other than as music director. When he finishes he will have been music director for 19 years, the same as the late Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.
He made it clear that he isn’t looking for another music director position elsewhere.
“I have no plans right now,” he said. “No one knows what the future will bring. I’m just happy being here right now.” And as was the case with Skrowaczewski when he stepped down as music director in 1979, Vänskä will maintain his home in Minneapolis, which he shares with his wife, Erin Keefe, the orchestra’s concertmaster.
Speaking for the musicians, flutist Wendy Willams delivered a warm-hearted tribute to Vänskä. “You dared us to dig deep,” she said. “You inspired us to play with passion.”