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Minnesota Orchestra’s 2021-22 season honors outgoing Music Director Osmo Vänskä

From the season opener in September with violinist Joshua Bell to the season finale in June 2022, Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” the Minnesota Orchestra will present 82 concerts at Orchestra Hall.

Music Director Osmo Vänskä
It’s longtime Music Director Osmo Vänskä’s final season with the orchestra, the end of a 19-year tenure.
Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash

No season announcement this year feels like a regular season announcement. Each rises like a phoenix from the ashes of a year lost, revised, moved online, rescheduled and/or reinvented. Over and over, things changed overnight. They’re still changing.

We’ve been amazed by the resilience, determination and imagination of artists and arts organizations who are still here and looking ahead. We’re in awe of you all.

For the Minnesota Orchestra, the 2021-22 season is more than the return to performing before live audiences. It’s also longtime Music Director Osmo Vänskä’s final season with the orchestra, the end of a 19-year tenure that included a 15-month lockout, during which he stood with the musicians, and a global pandemic, when he led masked and distanced musicians in virtual concerts viewed around the world.

In August 2022, Vänskä will join founding Music Director Emil Oberhoffer and sixth Music Director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski as the longest-tenured music directors in Minnesota Orchestra history. Each led the orchestra for the same number of seasons.

Orchestra violinist Kenneth Freed said in a statement, “In Osmo’s final season we give thanks for his moral authority, his combination of perfectionism and electricity, and finally for the pride he instilled in us all.” That’s a tall order and the orchestra took it seriously. The new season is very Vänskä.

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With Vänskä’s upcoming departure, the orchestra needs to find a new music director. Part of the search process involves bringing in guest conductors. COVID-related visa and travel restrictions have made this difficult. Russian conductor Dima Slobodeniouk was scheduled to lead this weekend’s concerts but had to cancel. Unless the orchestra has already identified a new music director and isn’t telling, it’s safe to assume that at least some of this season’s guest conductors will be auditioning for the position.

In short, there’s a lot going on. From the season opener in September with violinist Joshua Bell (the featured guest soloist at the first Minnesota Orchestra concert Vänskä ever conducted, three years before he was hired as music director) to the season finale in June 2022, Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” (part of the years-long, Grammy-winning Mahler recording project that Vänskä initiated), the Minnesota Orchestra will present 82 concerts at Orchestra Hall. It will perform at all but two holiday concerts.

No trips or tours are scheduled for 2021-22, no Common Chords residency. The orchestra will play all of its concerts announced so far at Orchestra Hall.

The season will feature 13 guest conductors, seven returning and six making their Minnesota Orchestra debuts. Among them are Karina Canellakis, Nathalie Stutzmann, Juraj Valčuha, Xian Zhang, David Afkham, Gemma New, Kevin John Eduel and Thomas Wilkins. Edo de Waart, who served as Minnesota Orchestra’s music director from 1986-95, will celebrate his 80th birthday here in October 2021 with two performances featuring principal cello Anthony Ross.

Conductor and contralto Nathalie Stutzmann
Photo by Simon Fowler
Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann
More than two dozen guest artists will perform, including Bell, violinist Augustin Hadelich, pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Lisa Batiashvili, pianist Sunwook Kim and Northfield-based pipa player Gao Hong. Along with Ross, three more Minnesota Orchestra musicians will be featured as soloists in classical concerts: assistant concertmaster Rui Du, principal flute Adam Kuenzel and concertmaster Erin Keefe.

What about the music? The season opener will include Beethoven’s Fifth, which Vänskä conducted on the opening night of his first season with the orchestra in 2003 and is part of the complete Beethoven symphonies cycle they recorded starting in 2005. Concerts in October will feature Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” suite, which Vänskä led on his first European tour with the orchestra in 2004 and again in their history-making 2015 tour to Cuba.

Pianist Emanuel Ax
Photo Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Pianist Emanuel Ax
Recalling the Tchaikovsky marathon of January 2018 and the Beethoven marathon of January 2016 – there would have been a Dvorák marathon in January 2021, except COVID – much of January 2022 will be given to a Sibelius festival, during which Vänskä will conduct all seven Sibelius symphonies, which he and the orchestra recorded and for which they won their first Grammy. If you love Sibelius and want to hear him performed by the conductor and orchestra that might know his work better than anyone else on the planet, this is for you. Violist Sam Bergman will host a special program exploring the history behind the multiple versions of Sibelius’ Fifth. Extra nerdy, but again, when will you have the chance?

As we learned during an interview with Vänskä in June, he and the orchestra will continue recording the complete Mahler symphonies, a project they began in 2016 with the Fifth. They’ll record the Eighth and Ninth in 2021-22. The Ninth is on the concert calendar for March 2022, and the Eighth will be the season finale in June, Vänskä’s grand and glorious farewell as music director, with a cast of singers and four choirs. He’ll return as a guest in a future season to lead and record the Third. The completists among us will have our Minnesota Orchestra Mahler symphonies set.

Nearly all of the recordings Vänskä has made with the orchestra – the exceptions are “Sound the Bells” with Dessa, which came out on the Doomtree label, and the Tchaikovsky box set with pianist Stephen Hough, issued on Hyperion in 2010 – have been made with the Swedish label BIS, for which Vänskä has the highest esteem.

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The 2021-22 season will also include Live at Orchestra Hall concerts led by Sarah Hicks (and the return of Cloud Cult), Music & Movies concerts led by Hicks (“Black Panther,” “Toy Story,” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi”) and two daytime Relaxed Family Concerts, conductors and programs TBA. The MusicMakers concert will return in May, part of the orchestra’s 18th annual Composer Institute led by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts but originally conceived by Vänskä, whose advocacy for new music has led to 26 Minnesota Orchestra commissions, 68 world premieres in its Classical series and 85 new works for the Composer Institute.

Principal Conductor of Life at Orchestra Hall Sarah Hicks
Courtesy of Minnesota Orchestra
Sarah Hicks
Since summer 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra has regularly programmed more works by composers of color. Every concert has featured at least one work by a composer from a historically underrepresented group. This will continue into 2021-22, expanding the orchestra’s repertoire and our own knowledge of music and sense of what’s out there waiting to be discovered. Along with Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth, Mahler’s Eighth and Ninth, Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” Shostakovich’s Tenth and works by Haydn, Brahms, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Ravel, we’ll also hear music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Unsuk Chin, Ulysses Kay, Jessie Montgomery, Sammy Moussa, Donghoon Shin and others.

And the livestreams we came to rely on during the pandemic won’t end. The live concert broadcasts on MPR that began in 1971 will continue, of course, but we wondered about the excellent livestreams produced by TPT that have been so important to many Friday nights. We’re told to expect a schedule of livestreams and broadcasts in September.

The 2021-22 calendar is now available on the orchestra’s website. Subscription packages will go on sale to the general public starting July 26. Individual tickets go on sale Aug. 16 and Sept. 7.