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‘The most important thing is work’: What Osmo Vänskä leaves behind after 19 years of leading the Minnesota Orchestra 

When he was first introduced as music director, Vänskä said he wanted to make the Minnesota Orchestra the best in the U.S. In his nearly two decades at the helm, he may have surpassed that goal. 

Osmo Vänskä
Osmo Vänskä: “When I came here, this was a good orchestra that wanted to be better. They did everything I asked them to do, and this ensemble right now, it’s really great. You know, when I work with other orchestras as a guest conductor, I always miss this one. This one is better than any other orchestra I conduct.”
Photo by Scott Streble

Reflecting on his remarkable 19 years at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra — a reign that will come to an end this month — and on his growing renown as a conductor, Osmo Vänskä remains a reluctant star in a star profession.

“I never expected to have a huge international career,” he said. “I just wanted to conduct and do the best I could. Fame is not a point for me. The most important thing is work.”

Those who know him say that Vänskä’s modesty isn’t a pose. He’s a Finn, after all, and Finns don’t boast. “We take things seriously in Finland,” he says, “whether in politics or music.” (A country smaller than the state of Montana, Finland has 31 professional orchestras and 45 music festivals.) Even so, Vänskä is quite capable of making fun of his heritage. “I’m not angry,” says a T-shirt he favors. “This is just my Finnish face.”

An in-shape 69-year-old with three grandchildren, Vänskä rides a motorcycle (a Yamaha V-Star), liking the feeling of freedom it gives him. “I am much wilder than my image,” says this devout Lutheran. Offering some evidence for that statement, in 2007 he put on white pants adorned with huge ’70s-style polka dots and conducted the orchestra in a program of songs by the Swedish rock quartet ABBA.

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In 2003, at the press conference announcing that he would become the orchestra‘s 10th music director, replacing Eiji Oue, Vänskä said his goal was to make the Minnesota Orchestra the best in the U.S. Though the rating of orchestras is vague and contentious, it’s not far-fetched to say that he succeeded.

Gauteng Choristers, the Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Orchestra chatting during intermission at a concert in Soweto's Regina Mundi Church in 2018.
MinnPost photo by Scott Chamberlain
Gauteng Choristers, the Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Orchestra chatting during intermission at a concert in Soweto's Regina Mundi Church in 2018.
Certainly, the notion that prevailed for decades that there was a Top Five — the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and Cleveland — is long out of date, largely due to higher standards of training and performance. But where 40 years ago the Minnesota Orchestra might have been ranked with the orchestras of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the Top 10, 11 or 12, the picture began to change during the Vänskä years.

The latest of the accolades arrived last October, when the Minnesota Orchestra was named the 2021 Orchestra of the Year by Gramophone, the venerable English music magazine. The fact that the Orchestra of the Year prize is the only one of the Gramophone Awards decided by public vote gives it special weight. Voters choose from a pool of 10 prominent orchestras selected by the magazine‘s editors. Among the 10 this past year were the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. Vänskä himself had been named Conductor of the Year in 2005 by Musical America.

The widely praised tours during Vänskä’s tenure, five of them to Europe followed by historic trips to Cuba and South Africa — the first-ever visit to that country by a professional U.S. orchestra — raised the orchestra’s profile, as did the numerous recordings on the Swedish BIS label, among them complete sets of symphonies by Beethoven, Sibelius and (soon to be completed) Mahler. The result of those recordings has been three Grammy nominations and one win — in 2014 for Best Orchestral Performance for the Sibelius Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4.

Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra in Cuba in 2015.
Photo by Travis Anderson
Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra in Cuba in 2015.
Then there was the million-dollar quote in The New Yorker. In the March 22, 2010 issue, music critic Alex Ross wrote of a monthlong series of orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall: “For the duration of the evening of March 1, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.” 

Hearing that quote again, Vänskä said, “That is important feedback to get, not only for me but for the players, who never or very seldom can hear their own orchestra. When I came here, this was a good orchestra that wanted to be better. They did everything I asked them to do, and this ensemble right now, it’s really great. You know, when I work with other orchestras as a guest conductor, I always miss this one. This one is better than any other orchestra I conduct.”

‘An almost hopeless situation’

Vänskä was seated on a couch in his office at Orchestra Hall on a warm Wednesday afternoon in early May during what was an unusually busy week. In two days, he would conduct new and recent works by seven young composers as the culmination of the orchestra’s 18th annual Composer Institute. Managed by the composer Kevin Puts and the orchestra’s operations director Mele Willis, the unique program gives young composers from North America and beyond a week of seminars on the nuts and bolts of the job, along with high-level, carefully rehearsed performances of their works. Vänskä, who has championed the program, meets with each of the composers, as does Puts, going over their scores and giving them advice on music-making and career-building.

Vänskä moved to Minneapolis in 2003, the year he started as music director. He and his then-wife Pirkko bought a condominium near the Guthrie Theater, had a sauna installed almost immediately — no small matter for a Finn — and quickly became a part of the city; he twice performed the ceremonial puck drop at Minnesota Wild games and played clarinet at the Dakota jazz club. (Vänskä began his professional musical life as a clarinetist with orchestras in Finland but hadn’t played, at least not publicly, for several years.) 

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During his first year here, he proved to be a man of his word by turning down an invitation to replace Kurt Masur on a London Philharmonic tour due to a prior engagement with the Bloomington (Minnesota) Symphony, a decision that might make an artist manager weep.

In 2008, after a 23-year association, Vänskä officially left the Lahti Symphony but retained the title of conductor laureate. He and his wife were divorced in 2009, and in 2015 he married Erin Keefe, the Minnesota Orchestra’s concertmaster. He has three children from his first marriage. His sons, Olli and Perttu, are musicians and his daughter, Tytti, is an actress. All of them live in Finland.

Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe and music director Osmo Vänskä
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe and music director Osmo Vänskä
One of the reasons for Vänskä’s success in Minnesota has been that right from the start he gave the orchestra what it wanted: discipline and hard work. His predecessor, Eiji Oue, hadn’t demanded much of the musicians. Vänskä not only put the orchestra to work, he also initiated the kind of efforts that music directors don’t normally attempt that early in their tenures: an extensive tour to Europe and the start of a big recording project, a complete set of the Beethoven symphonies for the Swedish label BIS, the company that had released Vänskä’s widely acclaimed recordings with his Finnish orchestra, the Lahti Symphony, the recordings that, it could be said, made Vänskä a star.

Touring, Vänskä said, “had a huge impact on the quality of the orchestra. And the same with recordings. Recordings are the best school for players.”

In the fall of 2012, after nearly a decade of challenging but rewarding concerts, recordings and tours by the Minnesota Orchestra, the music stopped. Unable to agree on a new contract with the musicians, the orchestra’s board canceled a block of concerts and shut the doors of Orchestra Hall, effectively locking out the musicians and initiating a stalemate that would last 16 months at a cost of millions of dollars in lost revenue and lasting enmity between the musicians and management. The unprecedented situation became news worldwide.

On April 30, 2013, with no solution in sight, Vänskä took action, even though the traditional stance of music directors in labor disputes is to remain neutral or, better yet, leave town. “I thought, ‘I have to do something. I can’t just sit here,’” he said. “I had never witnessed anything like this.”

A somber Vänskä shown conducting the Minnesota Orchestra in October 2013.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
A somber Vänskä shown conducting the Minnesota Orchestra in October 2013.
He wrote a letter to the board that also went to the musicians, pointing out that the orchestra was scheduled to play four concerts at Carnegie Hall in November of that year along with three Proms concerts in London. If the dispute wasn’t settled by the end of September, there wouldn’t be time for them to rehearse those programs and if so, he would resign. “My point,” he said, “was that, ‘Hey, come on, you cannot let this happen. You need to make an agreement.’”

No agreement was reached by Sept. 30, so the next day Vänskä resigned, which he later described as one of the saddest days of his life. “It was devastating,” he said. 

On Friday of that week, he led the orchestra in the first of three concerts at Ted Mann Concert Hall. The program, financed by the musicians, was billed as “Osmo’s Farewell.” All three concerts were sold out. For legal reasons, the orchestra had to be presented as the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, since, technically, the board owned the “Minnesota Orchestra” name. 

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The Friday concert was an evening of strong emotions and heartfelt but subdued gestures. The orchestra brought precision and excitement to a program of Beethoven and Stravinsky. Vänskä returned to the stage after intermission, and as the applause died out, someone in the back of the hall shouted, “We love you, Osmo!” which brought on another ovation. At the end, Vänskä introduced an encore, “Valse Triste” by Sibelius. The music, he said, is about a girl who is dancing in a dream. “She realizes, as it goes faster and faster, that she wants it to stop. But it’s not a dream. She is dancing with death.”

He asked the audience to hold its applause. Like the girl, the orchestra, too, he was saying, was dancing with death. “The orchestra,” he said, “is in an almost hopeless situation right now, and that situation doesn’t need applause.”

At the end, as the music faded, Vänskä and the musicians left the stage in silence, and the subdued crowd slowly left the hall. In the lobby, many people were in tears.

On the evening of March 28, 2014, some five months later, the mood at Orchestra Hall was festive. The musicians had signed a contract at the end of January, and Vänskä was making his official return to the podium he had last visited in July 2012, this time as a guest conductor. Finnish flags, including a full-size one draped over a balcony rail, were everywhere. Just before the music started, someone shouted, “Osmo, come home!” which prompted another full minute of applause.

Vänskä officially came home a month later, when he signed a contract that reinstated him as music director. To be sure, he had rattled a few cages before that happened. Certain board members were furious when he publicly aligned himself with the players during the lockout and later when he demanded that orchestra President Michael Henson be dismissed. (“For any healing to happen in the orchestra, Henson must go,” he told Minnesota Public Radio.)

Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson testified before a legislative panel in January 2013, during the year-plus lockout of musicians.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson testified before a legislative panel in January 2013, during the year-plus lockout of musicians.
But by the end of the summer, Henson was gone, and the orchestra had shifted into recovery mode. “The lockout brought us together, the orchestra and me, but also the orchestra and the audience,” Vänskä said. “There was huge support for the orchestra from the audience and the community.”

The making of a maestro

Vänskä, born in Saaminki in eastern Finland and raised in Kotka, where his parents managed a neighborhood store in the back of their house, became principal guest conductor in Lahti in 1985 and chief conductor three years later. 

He had given up a major career as a clarinetist — co-principal clarinet in the Helsinki Philharmonic is the biggest job in Finland for a classical clarinet player — after he caught the conducting bug, for which there seems to be no cure. A relative recalls seeing a 12-year-old Osmo standing in front of the family phonograph conducting an imaginary orchestra with knitting needles in his hands.

Vänskä spent two years, 1977 to 1979, studying conducting at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. His teacher, the formidable Jorma Panula, was at that time the most renowned teacher of conducting in Europe. Vänskä’s classmates, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, would also go on to become world-famous conductors. Even so, Vänskä has always expressed some ambivalence about Panula’s teaching. He names the Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund as his greatest inspiration along with Carlo Maria Giulini.

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Vänskä’s goal with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra — a provincial orchestra of just 40 players housed in a drab town known chiefly for winter sports — was to improve performance but also to build trust and a team spirit with no hierarchies and no sense of more-important or less-important players. To that end, he instituted Garage Days: retreats where he and the orchestra could air grievances and problems. It was like taking your car in for service. They would finish with their dreams. One player’s dream was that the orchestra would make a CD that was reviewed throughout the world. Everyone laughed because the Lahti Symphony had never made a CD. Another dream: that the orchestra would have its own concert hall.

Some dreams come true. Sibelius Hall, for which Vänskä campaigned tirelessly, opened in 2000, a beautiful, acoustically sensitive facility quickly ranked one of Europe’s finest concert halls. By then, the Lahti Symphony was already renowned internationally for its recordings on the BIS label, especially its performances of works by Sibelius, Finland’s major musical voice. In 1991, Gramophone named the Lahti-Vänskä recording of the composer’s Violin Concerto in its original version with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist as the Record of the Year. With the permission of the Sibelius estate, Vänskä and Lahti began to record all of Sibelius’ orchestral music under the banner of the Sibelius Edition, an effort that gradually began to upset the balance of power in Finland’s musical world. Here was an obscure ensemble from the provinces starting to rival — in interest and accomplishment — the mighty Helsinki Philharmonic in the nation’s capital.

It has been said often: What Vänskä accomplished in Lahti was a miracle. Even so, he said there were times in his early years in Lahti when he felt bitter. His classmates at the Sibelius Academy were already making their mark leading important orchestras in North America — Saraste in Toronto, Salonen in Los Angeles — whereas outside Finland Vänskä was unknown. It was only later that he realized the fast track wasn’t for him. “My personality needs slow steps,” he told the Daily Telegram in 2004. “I learned in Lahti not only how to conduct but how to build a team, how to rehearse. That experience was quite strong.”

Sibelius became Vänskä’s calling card as a guest conductor. For his debut with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2000, he conducted two works by the Finnish master, the Symphony No. 6 and, in an unforgettable reading by Joshua Bell, the Violin Concerto — along with the premiere performance of a harp concerto by Einojuhani Rautavaara, at that time Finland’s most revered living composer. 

Vänskä would go on to re-record Sibelius’s seven symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra. The producer on all Vänskä’s recordings since 1992 has been a Welshman, Rob Suff, who has visited Minneapolis many times in recent years. Vänskä calls Suff the best producer in the world. “The orchestra loves working with him,” Vänskä said. “And also, because he hears so well and he understands what I want, it’s a big challenge for the orchestra every time we record something.”

Much of Vänskä’s success in this repertoire, besides the high quality of the discs themselves, comes from the fact that his Sibelius doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. Highly charged and dramatic, the performances exhibit Vänskä’s twin obsessions: close attention to the details of the score and a demand for a wide dynamic range with very soft pianissimos, never an easy thing for an orchestra to achieve. He views Sibelius, who died in 1957, as a modernist rather than a romantic, which means no interpretive excesses and no sentimentality.

“It’s hard for Americans to realize the importance Sibelius has to the Finns,” Vänskä said. “There is a godly presence in his music. My mother cried when he died. Sibelius’ music has a kind of hope and, in a way, victory. I’m always crying when I listen to the end of the Fifth Symphony. There’s a strange point, about a minute and a half before the end, when I just can’t help it.”

For him, the music, especially the symphonies and the tone poems, remains fresh. “This music always gives me something new,” he said. “It’s an adventure. It’s never like, ‘OK, let’s do it again.’ I jump into it and it always takes me somewhere.”

Vänskä’s career began to expand in the late 1990s, partly because of the success of the Lahti recordings and also because in 1998 he signed with Harrison Parrot, a well-connected management firm housed in London. From 1993 to 1996, he served as music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, where he now holds the title of honorary conductor, and in 1996 he was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 2002. He is credited in just a few short years with bringing the group back from near extinction while giving himself a large and loyal following in Britain — and almost unanimous critical acclaim. Andrew Clements of the Guardian called Vänskä “the best Beethoven conductor of our time.”

Hugh Macdonald, who was director of the BBC Scottish Orchestra during Vänskä’s time there, described the conductor’s impact on that orchestra in words that might equally apply to his years with the Minnesota Orchestra: “What Osmo did was to give the orchestra its self-belief. He gave the musicians the confidence to believe that they could be as good as any orchestra anywhere. He worked them very hard, but this is an orchestra that has much more respect for conductors who demand a lot than those who give them an easy time.”

Vänskä became music director of the Seoul Philharmonic in 2020, a position he will relinquish at the end of 2022. Many of his concerts in Seoul were canceled due to COVID, as were nearly a dozen guest-conducting engagements in the U.S. and Europe plus a summer tour by the Minnesota Orchestra to South Korea and Vietnam. On May 5, Vänskä was named Minnesota Orchestra’s conductor laureate, taking on the mantle that former music director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski held for so many years.

Osmo Vänska leading the Minnesota Orchestra in concerts from the “This Is Minnesota Orchestra” series of livestreams.
Photo by Courtney Perry
Osmo Vänskä leading the Minnesota Orchestra in concerts from the “This Is Minnesota Orchestra” series of livestreams in 2021.

The final shows

After more than 750 performances on the Orchestra Hall podium, Vänskä will lead his final concerts as music director in six concerts in June spanning two weeks and two different programs. Starting Tuesday and going through Saturday, he will lead the orchestra in Mendelssohn’s seldom-played Double Concerto with concertmaster Erin Keefe and Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen as soloists as well as the premiere of a symphony by Finnish violinist and composer Jaakko Kuusisto. A longtime friend and colleague who was concertmaster of the Lahti Symphony during many of Vänskä’s years there, Kuusisto died of a brain tumor at age 48 in February. The symphony was edited into its final form by his brother, Pekka Kuusisto.

For the final set of concerts, June 10-12, the conductor will lead the orchestra, four choruses and eight soloists in Mahler’s gargantuan Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand.” The performances will be recorded live, and Vänskä and the orchestra will hold three additional recording sessions for a forthcoming album on the BIS label as part of the orchestra’s ongoing project to record all 10 symphonies. Vänskä will return in November to conduct and record Mahler’s Third Symphony to complete the series.

 Vänskä will continue to make his home in Minneapolis. The search for his successor continues.

“You know, Vänskä said, “for a conductor, 19 years in one place is unusual. I had no idea they were going to tolerate me for such a long time. The fact that we have been able to make music better and better together, that’s something I’m very proud of.”