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Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä: ‘It’s going to be emotional’

Vänskä will be at Orchestra Hall tonight, baton in hand, when the Minnesota Orchestra performs its first indoor concert to a live audience since March 7, 2020, 461 days ago.

Osmo Vänskä leading the Minnesota Orchestra in concerts from the “This Is Minnesota Orchestra” series of livestreams that begin Oct. 2 .
Osmo Vänskä leading the Minnesota Orchestra in concerts from the “This Is Minnesota Orchestra” series of livestreams that begin Oct. 2.
Photo by Courtney Perry

On March 13, 2020, when COVID-19 was closing in and the Minnesota Orchestra played a now-historic concert to an empty Orchestra Hall, Music Director Osmo Vänskä was not on the podium. He was on his way home from Europe.

Some people, maybe a lot of people, misremember that event, which was broadcast live on Classical MPR, because Vänskä is so closely associated with the orchestra he has led for almost 20 years. When we asked him how it felt to lead the orchestra that night, he gently corrected us.

Vänskä will definitely be at Orchestra Hall tonight, baton in hand, when the Minnesota Orchestra performs its first indoor concert to a live audience since March 7, 2020, 461 days ago.

The concert is sold out, but you can watch and listen for free. In October, the orchestra launched “This Is Minnesota Orchestra,” a series of Friday-night concerts streamed live from Orchestra Hall, produced by TPT and broadcast live over Classical MPR. Vänskä has led several of these, starting and ending each by bowing to an imagined audience. The 16 concerts presented to date have drawn nearly 400,000 views, but there’s no one in the seats.

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For health and safety reasons, the audience tonight has been capped at 20%, or about 400 people in a room that holds 2,087. To Vänskä, “that is a very good crowd.”

We spoke recently with the maestro about the year leading up to tonight and how his life had been changed by the pandemic.

Modern music directors are jet-setters. Vänskä is music director of the Minnesota Orchestra (2021-22 will be his final season) and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. He is honorary conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate of Finland’s Lahti Symphony Orchestra. He is in demand as a guest conductor at orchestras around the world.

When COVID hit, Seoul and Iceland were already on his calendar for 2019-20 and 2020-21, along with many dates at Orchestra Hall. He was also booked to conduct the New World Symphony in Miami, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon, the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Plus the Minnesota Orchestra had planned a summer tour to South Korea and Vietnam, with stops in Seoul, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hue. All canceled.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: What is on your mind as you think about walking onto the Orchestra Hall stage before a live audience for the first time in such a long time?

Osmo Vänskä: It’s going to be emotional. I’m very sure about that. We all have been waiting for the moment for a very long time. It’s going to be a big, big, big step.

MP: There will be crying.

OV: Yes, and I am sure that it will go both ways. When you cannot see each other, you understand how valuable it is to play the concert for the audience and for the audience to come to listen to the artists. All those things during almost two years are going to be on the table.

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MP: Take us back to March 2020, when everything shut down. How did your life change?

OV: It changed very much. My last concerts I did with the Israel Philharmonic. I was there two weeks. In the second week, the soloist [Martin Grubinger] couldn’t do it because he was coming from Switzerland, and that was one of those countries whose people couldn’t come. On Wednesday [March 11], the concert started at 20 minutes after eight instead of eight o’clock because the CEO of the orchestra [told the audience] “Thank you for coming, but now you have to go away.” And they were sent away, and we played the concert only for the cameras.

[By the week of March 8, global pandemic shutdowns had begun. Israel’s Health Ministry was prohibiting entry into Israel of foreigners from certain countries. Vänskä replaced Grubinger as soloist, performing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.]

The next morning, I flew out of Israel. I thought I would still have the next week with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. In a taxi from the hotel to the airport, I had a [telephone] conversation with Erin, who just had heard that the U.S. was going to close its borders on Friday evening. [Erin Keefe is the Minnesota Orchestra’s concertmaster. She and Vänskä were married in April 2015.] So instead of going to Helsinki and then to Iceland, I flew to Amsterdam and New York, where Erin was playing chamber music.

Her concert was canceled. We took a rental car to drive back to Minneapolis. We didn’t want to go to the planes. We found a Costco, which was still full of stuff, and filled our rental car with everything.

MP: You went to Costco?

OV: Yeah, because in New York, they already had started to make stores empty. There were items you couldn’t buy there, and we heard the same about Minneapolis. So we drove 18 hours with our car full of stuff. That was our start for the pandemic.

We bought a lot of food because we didn’t want to go out. We started to think what to do now, because our schedule always had been so, so full, and then it was like … nothing.

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MP: In January 2020, you began a new position as music director of the Seoul Philharmonic. How did that go?

OV: Well, that depends. You can see it from many points. My first concerts were in February. Mahler’s Second Symphony. Very good concerts. And then there was more and more news about Wuhan in China and what was happening.

This was the starting point for my new job with the Seoul Philharmonic, but it was also the starting point for the pandemic. In the beginning, no one knew what to do, how to handle the situation, what is allowed, what can we do. Every orchestra in the world had to change plans. So let’s say that I was lucky and the orchestra was lucky to have the chance to make the opening concerts of a new music director.

Osmo Vänska with the Seoul Philharmonic in February 2020.
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä with the Seoul Philharmonic in February 2020.
I flew back there in May. I was two weeks in quarantine. It is a real quarantine in Korea. You cannot go out from your apartment. You get delivery food. You have an app on your phone, and if the phone is two hours on a table without moving, they call you and you have to identify that you are still there.

Since May 2020 and a few months ago, when I had my last concert there, I have been 10 weeks in quarantine in Korea. I have had many concerts, some with the audience, some without the audience. There was a moment when in the morning we had permission to have the audience there, but it was lifted away during the day, and we played the concert only for the cameras.

My tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra is coming to an end. I was lucky to have a new orchestra before it ended. Their season is the calendar year, from January to December. This is the second year of a three-year contract. So yes, there was a lot of drama, but I am happy that I decided to go there.

We had to be super careful with airplanes and airports. Erin and I learned to use masks very early. We tested a lot of Korean masks and bought hundreds to bring with us here and give to family members and friends. There was a time when it was difficult to get good enough masks in the U.S. So that helped us to stay safe.

I don’t understand why we needed to hurry to lift away the mask mandate. I’m not ready for that. There are still hundreds of cases per day. A mask is not a problem for me.

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MP: Was there a silver lining to the past 15 months?

OV: I had finally more time to be at home instead of going always to the airport and flying somewhere or coming back and going into work. That was the most important thing. My stress level is much lower. Time to enjoy your home is a big step psychologically. I have had time to play my clarinet much more than years before. I also had an idea that it might be nice to compose music.

I had written an idea some years ago on my computer, the two first notes of the violin concerto by Kurt Weill. I have played that with Erin several times and I have been always curious about his unique orchestra with the violin soloist. It’s woodwinds, some brass players and percussion, and two double basses.

Erin Keefe and Osmo Vänska at their home in Minneapolis, where they played and recorded a series of performances for the Orchestra’s “Minnesota Orchestra at Home” video series.
Erin Keefe and Osmo Vänskä at their home in Minneapolis, where they played and recorded a series of performances for the Orchestra’s “Minnesota Orchestra at Home” video series.
I wrote down the two first notes and the same orchestra concept. It was like an inspiration for me. In October, during one of the quarantines in Seoul, I started to work on that. It was done in January. That is one result in my life because of the pandemic.

I have enjoyed the time to concentrate on something else, not only on running and running and running behind a schedule.

[The season finale of “This Is Minnesota Orchestra” on June 25 will include the world premiere of Vänskä’s new Overture.]

MP: What else did you do with the time you suddenly had?

OV: A lot of exercising, yoga, reading. We tried to do yoga every day. Playing music. Walking and now some bicycle riding. Going out and enjoying nature while skiing. I love to go cross-country skiing. Last winter, I have done it maybe 10 times more than during the last five years together.

We have seen many, many TV dramas and movies, and some operas. Erin is a great chef and we like to do things together, so I tried to be her assistant. She has taken great care of our health.

She traveled with me to Seoul. It was easy for us, because of the quarantines there, to continue the same thing at home. We just didn’t see people.

MP: What was most challenging for you over the past year?

OV: It was challenging especially in the beginning, when the only activity possible for us was videos from home. I didn’t meet the Minnesota Orchestra players other than on the computer for many meetings. It was a big thing when we first had a rehearsal in Orchestra Hall in September. I was in tears. That is something I have really missed.

And, of course, the audience. We always practice for a concert, and then we want to play for a group of people. In the beginning, we would practice, but for what? There’s not going to be a performance!

The bigger challenge was no way to see your family members. No children, no grandchildren, no anyone. You are isolated. You have your phone, you have your computer, but no way to see them in person.

MP: The Minnesota Orchestra started performing regularly in October, but without live audiences. Did you ever get used to performing to that empty house?

OV: Well, if that’s the only way to reach your audience, then it’s much better than nothing. I don’t want to say that I would like to have that forever, but if there is nothing else, then we are grateful that we have the cameras and the microphones. And we know that there are people we don’t see, but they are enjoying it. If you cannot eat regular food, you still are happy to get something to stay alive.

MP: How do you keep yourself motivated? Some people couldn’t get out of their pajamas.

OV: It’s great to have pajamas on during the whole day. If you have a Zoom meeting, you just put something else on top. I have no problem with pajama days.

My motivation to enjoy life hasn’t gone away. I don’t need to be worried about that.

MP: We were in the midst of a pandemic and a shutdown, and then George Floyd was killed.

OV: It was a terrible, terrible thing. We were in Seoul when it happened. First, you hear from people that it has happened here, and you cannot believe them. Then you open [the news] and see Minneapolis. Oh, it was unbelievable.

It was a turning point for us. The Minnesota Orchestra wanted to make clear that we don’t agree with any kind of racism. We made a statement. Our program planning changed. Since the summer, every concert has a piece by an overlooked composer.

We have a very active diversity committee. We try to find a way to do things so everybody is more equal. That goes through the whole organization. We have to do our part for the change which hopefully will go through the whole country.

MP: The shutdown interrupted your Mahler recordings with the orchestra. What is their status?

OV: That is one of the things I have asked from the board. The board has made the decision that we are going to record all three [remaining] symphonies with BIS. Number 3, number 8 and number 9.

We cannot do all three in the next year. It will take at least two years. When my tenure comes to an end, I hope that my guest conducting here doesn’t come to an end.

MP: You have led the orchestra through two of its greatest crises, the lockout and now the global pandemic. During the lockout, you made it clear whose side you were on. You fell in love with and married a member of the orchestra. You’re very connected here. What is it like to be nearing the end of your tenure?

OV: Well, I have had a longer time than in many cases. [Most music directors] stay three, maybe five years. I’m happy that I have had a chance to work with this orchestra for a long time.

It was a great orchestra when I started. In my opinion, and I’m maybe not valid to say, it’s even better now. We have been able to do recordings in a very important collaboration with BIS. Rob Suff, who has produced all of our BIS recordings, is the best producer in the world. We have been lucky to tour South Africa, Cuba, and more than once the Proms [in London]. I think if somebody is listening to everything we have done, it is a very good list.

But when it comes to the end, it comes to the end. My only wish is that the orchestra could find a music director who can make it even better.

One thing which is really important to me is that after the lockout, we were able to change our way to do administration and program planning. The Minnesota Model is people coming together and trying to do things together, listening to each other and not staying in their corners and having bad feelings about the other.

[Note: What came to be called the “Minnesota Model” was a major shift in the orchestra’s organizational culture following a bitter lockout and labor dispute that began in 2012 and ended in 2014.]

More and more, I believe that the orchestra is much better if the players are taking care of their own future. Music directors come and go. Board members come and go. But players stay and often hold their career in the same orchestra. We have many couples in the orchestra.

If musicians are allowed to take care of the future of the orchestra, then the spirit of the orchestra is better, and the orchestra is playing better, and the people are more committed to it. I like this idea of an institution which is collaborating and taking care.

The question is always “What is good for the Minnesota Orchestra today, tomorrow and next season?” If this question is Number 1 for everybody – for the players, for the administration, for the board – this orchestra is going to do great things in the future, too.