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Musicians: Osmo Vänskä’s continued leadership is vital

Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Under Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra has developed a unique, signature sound.

The authors, all members of the Minnesota Orchestra, submitted this commentary on behalf of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

It is a universally acknowledged truth that every orchestra in possession of a time-honored reputation achieved that reputation through an astonishing chemistry between the musicians and one galvanizing conductor. The Cleveland Orchestra had this with George Szell. In Philadelphia it was Leopold Stokowski. It was Leonard Bernstein in New York, Serge Koussevitzky in Boston and Georg Solti in Chicago. We know these orchestras today by what they achieved during these fertile partnerships.

The Minnesota Orchestra can boast having had many renowned music directors over the last century: Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Antal Doráti, to name just a few. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who still makes Minnesota his home when he is not conducting all over the world, embedded great music deeply into the fabric of Minnesota culture. When Sir Neville Marriner became music director, he was the most recorded conductor in the world. Eiji Oue brought an exuberance that made it possible for us to be the first American orchestra ever to play at Hiroshima. Edo de Waart put into place many of the vital pieces that made the Minnesota Orchestra the remarkable instrument that it is today, the instrument that Osmo Vänskä has since been able to tap to full advantage.

That brings us to the present and the marriage between Osmo and the current musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. It has taken decades for all the elements of greatness to come together: a culture of constant striving, an uncompromising work ethic, the right people in the right positions, and a conductor at the helm with the temperament and charisma to make all the elements coalesce.

In short, something clicked with Osmo.

Osmo’s disciplined approach to artistry has focused our ensemble in many ways. At this point in his tenure, we have gotten to know him well. After living and working with each other for nearly a decade, we have achieved a rapport that enables us to anticipate each other, to work quickly and accurately to produce tremendous results that have received rave reviews both here at home and from around the world.

A unique, signature sound

But perhaps most notably, with Osmo, the Minnesota Orchestra has developed a unique, signature sound. This is a rare quality among orchestras anywhere in the world today. With Edo, we excelled at the large, complex Viennese repertoire. With Eiji, we honed our chamber music skills. Both are assets that have stood us in good stead, to be sure. But, a signature sound is a coveted distinction rarely achieved.

The recordings we have made together — the complete symphonies of Beethoven and the as-yet incomplete Sibelius cycle of symphonies for which we received our most recent Grammy nomination — are the most sustained, credible and widely recognized recording projects ever undertaken by the Minnesota Orchestra. And we have recorded extensively since the 1950s. Our unprecedented invitation to do four Carnegie Hall concerts in a given year, as well as the international profile of our appearances at numerous European festivals, have brought recognition to our community that would be impossible without Osmo.

His is the face of our orchestra. Patrons who have been attending concerts for decades recognize that the orchestra, under Osmo, is playing at its highest level ever. 

Obviously if Osmo resigns, all this goes with him. Allowing a winning coach to leave his winning team makes no sense and will not lead to further success. Of course, the Minnesota Orchestra will continue on, but it will be different. Vastly different. Put simply, it will be greatly diminished.

The Cleveland-Szell “sound” is still much revered throughout the world so many years later, helping to sustain that orchestra and culturally inspire its community. That kind of renown only happens after years of building and the foresight to sustain it. We are just now achieving this same renown with Osmo. His premature departure would obviously bring that recognition to an abrupt halt just at the height of its potential.

Would lose ability to rebuild what’s been lost

While the MOA board leadership has stated publicly that they would be OK with Osmo’s resignation, it should be clear that the musicians would not. With his resignation, we would lose the ability to rebuild any of what we have lost over the course of this last tragic year. What qualified musician would choose to come to Minnesota with the knowledge that the musicians are viewed as interchangeable parts? What prospective, world-class conductor would be willing to lead the Minnesota Orchestra now, after seeing it demonstrated that the MOA’s commitment has veered from that of artistic excellence, grounded in works of genius, toward a mishmash of “entertainment” and increased beverage sales?

The orchestra we are fighting for is an orchestra of a quality and stature able to compete for the next great conductor, and the next one after that. For the sake of the community we serve, we need board and management leaders who understand that Osmo’s departure now would shatter the future reputation of the orchestra. We need the MOA to bring us back to the stage, together with Osmo, so that good-faith negotiations with our preeminent mediator can take place.

The musicians believe that Minnesotans want and deserve a great orchestra to be their cultural representative at home and abroad. We believe that it is fundamentally a financial win for Minnesota to maintain an orchestra capable of bringing to our state well-deserved recognition for being the farsighted, cultural mecca it has always been. It is the musicians’ profound dream that all Minnesotans have the opportunity to discover what is magnificent about the sound of the symphony orchestra and why it is essential to the richness of their lives.

Osmo Vänskä’s continued leadership is vital to the well-being of the orchestra, the cultural standing of our state, and the music we love. 

This commentary was written on behalf of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra by Minnesota Orchestra players Erin Keefe, Adam Kuenzel, Marcia Peck and Tony Ross.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 09/18/2013 - 05:36 pm.

    Distinctive sound

    The distinctive sound achieved under Vanska is notable, and it has led to remarkable performances and recordings by the Minnesota Orchestra. Much well-earned praise has been given to the recordings of Sibelius and Beethoven, but the recording of Bruckner’s 4th symphony is also remarkable. For the Bruckner symphonies, the Karajan recordings are generally considered the “gold standard”. I have the Karajan recordings, but I always find myself going back to the recording of the 4th with Vanska and Minnesota. The phrasing and emotional expressiveness of the Vanska recording is simply unparalleled. It is simply disingenuous and dishonest to claim that the musicians and the music director are interchangeable and that no one will notice a difference if less-experienced (cheaper) individuals take their place. There is a difference, and the difference is enormous.

    It is dishonest to say that this dispute is about money. The board and management never tried to avert this disaster with a special fundraising drive or by adopting practices that have been very successful at peer orchestras such as Cleveland (which, incidentally, pays its musicians more than Minnesota has ever paid). Where there is the will, there is the way. Unfortunately, the board and management have a different vision for this orchestra, and this difference of vision is truly the heart of the issue.

  2. Submitted by Tom Foley on 09/18/2013 - 06:44 pm.

    A building for an orchestra

    I bonded with classical music when my parents came home from a Minneapolis Symphony concert in the late forties. It had been conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulis. They were very excited as they sent us off to bed. The next morning at breakfast, my father demonstrated to us how Mitropoulis gave the downbeat for the Prokofiev third piano concerto. He stood on a chair, and with a wooden spoon raised high in the air, gave the downbeat. Then, with an ecstatic look on his face, he jumped down from the chair and began pounding on the breakfast table as if it were a piano.

    At that moment–I was perhaps four or five years old, and had never even heard the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra–I bonded to classical music and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

    I never got to hear Mitropoulis conduct the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. I just wasn’t quite old enough to attend such an adult event.

    Through the decades I’ve always known that our symphony’s glory years were in the past–in the forties: That in the postwar era, it didn’t quite measure up to its potential, never exceeded the sum of its parts, never had that Mitropoulos thing. Oh, we had great conductors and fabulous musicians through all those years, and they always came with great promise. But it never quite worked out.

    Things became muddled. With the name change from the “Minneapolis Symphony” to the “Minnesota Orchestra” in 1968, the orchestra seemed to shadow its own glorious past. And when it moved into Orchestra Hall in 1974, it was like a brand new orchestra without a history, without legend and lore. Only a few of us knew that the Minnesota was one of the grand old orchestras of the North American continant, and that there was a time when it had been listed with the great.

    Osmo Vanska came. At first I listened as I had listened to others. But after a few years I began to hear a glow, and the rising excitement in the audience was unmistakable. And then–it came on so quickly, just three or four years ago: the Minnesota–the great midwestern also ran–was on a trajectory to being, and being recognized, as one of the five or six greatest orchestras in the world; an orchestra on a par with London, Vienna, Boston and New York. It seemed just around the corner. Just next year. Right about…now…

    …and now this–this ruinous, barbarous and brutal lockout: city fathers telling us we should lower our vision; the MOA and the new patricians of our city–having inherited a very fine concert hall, and a great orchestra about to ascend to even greater heights–opting not for a legendary symphony orchestra of 110 years, but for “a state of the art entertainment center.”

    It’s shameful.

    • Submitted by Jon Butler on 09/19/2013 - 01:06 pm.

      A building for an orchestra

      The situation with the Minnesota Orchestra seems verging on artistic tragedy. But can I just disagree with one judgment made by Mr. Foley, namely that the “in the postwar era, it [the orchestra] didn’t quite measure up to its potential?”

      That’s not my memory of the years with Antal Dorati. He was a magnetic conductor who had the Minneapolis Symphony playing beautifully and imaginatively, and also making spectacularly successful LPs with Mercury that put the Mpls Sym AND the Mercury label on the map.

      Vanska is everything everyone, including Mr. Foley, says he is, and more. But in the 1950s Dorati created an instrument of real distinction – and did it with the dreadful acoustics of Northrop Auditorium as a major impediment! – an achievement that is an indelible part of a history that stands at the precipice of extinction.

      • Submitted by Tom Foley on 09/19/2013 - 09:51 pm.

        the 1812 and and Antal Dorati

        Yes, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was playing beautifully under Dorati. And they made great recordings that still stand as among the bestt. In fact–and I know some will sneeze in derision–I consider the recording of the Tschaikovsky 1812 Overture as just about the greatest recording of any classical piece of music recorded by any symphony orchestra anywhere, ever. Just listen to those canons, and the brass. Outstanding. And the recording was made just far enough into the LP era to have some really good sound.

        I remember when they made that recording. The whole town was involved. I think it was Cedric Adams who did an interview with the guy who got to set off the canons. It was such a different era.

        And the 1812. Oh, I know what some will say, “the 1812 is a second rate composition by a second rate composer,” and on and on, but still, anyway you cut it, that recording will knock your socks off.

        The Minneapolis Symphony/Minnesota Orchestra has always been one of the truly great orchestras of the nation.

  3. Submitted by Tim Olsen on 09/19/2013 - 08:33 am.

    Accountability!

    How can the first priority of the MOA board not be to nourish and sustain the orchestra itself? The lack of accountability on the board is amazing. Reminds me of Tea Partiers who only enter public office to dismantle, not administer.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/19/2013 - 10:48 am.

    Something the bean counters will never understand

    The Board, the Minnesota Orchestra Association management, and some of their supporters appear to think that one musician or conductor is easily replaceable with another. Some of the online comments on the Star-Tribune website have suggested firing all the current musicians and hiring “eager young conservatory graduates” who would be “just as good.”

    Never mind that only the most desperate (i.e. the musicians who couldn’t find a job anywhere else) would apply for positions with an orchestra whose management had just fired all the experienced players and didn’t care whether the renowned conductor stayed or not.

    I suppose that if you’re hiring management trainees at a bank, one college graduate with a degree in finance is as good as another and one experienced manager is as good as another, but what the Big Money Types have probably never experienced is the magical chemistry and synergy that can occur between a conductor and an ensemble.

    Furthermore, by undervaluing the current musicians, the Big Money Types show that they don’t realize that while a new conservatory graduate may be technically brilliant, he or she lacks the deep knowledge of the orchestral repertoire and the emotional maturity that makes for a great orchestral player.

    These things do make a difference. When I was a graduate student at Yale, I ushered for concerts by many of the world’s greatest ensembles and by the local New Haven Symphony. Repeated exposure to these concerts taught me the difference between a passable orchestra and a great one. I subscribed to the Oregon Symphony while I lived in Portland, and I enjoyed their concerts, especially the ones in which the late conductor James DePreist talked with the guest artists and gave his insights into the program pieces.

    Moving back to Minneapolis, however, I was blown away by the Minnesota Orchestra. It was clear that the members of the Orchestra were a cohesive team in every sense of the word and that they loved and respected Osmo Vänskä and responded brilliantly to his conducting.

    Since the managers and Board members of the Minnesota Orchestra Association seem not to understand why this is important, let me use a sports analogy. (It’s sad that some people understand ONLY sports analogies.) Suppose a team has made it to the finals for the Superbowl or the World Series. Is this the point at which you lock out the players and make public pronouncements to the effect that it doesn’t matter whether you lose players or the head coach?

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/20/2013 - 02:09 pm.

    Beans and their counters

    However we might object to the counters, we still need the beans. If orchestra members feel Mr. Vanska is vital to the future of the orchestra, how much are they willing to give up to keep him?

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/21/2013 - 12:02 am.

    The bean counters are miffed at being told “no”

    They thought they could just tell the musicians, “You will take those huge pay cuts and you will smile and say ‘thank you, master.'” That’s what they’re accustomed to at their respective banks, where every request, from “Get me a cup of coffee” to “Have a report on the state of the Minnesota economy on my desk first thing Monday morning” is met with immediate compliance.

    From what I heard talking to the musicians, the Board just made its demands, including 200 changes to the work rules that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with control. The one that galls the musicians (and their fans) the most is the one that takes hiring and firing power away from the Music Director and gives it to management. This is unheard of in professional orchestras, where the Music Director is considered the person who is best qualified to judge which players will work best with their colleagues and with him. That is simply a power grab, and if it were accepted, I could easily see management getting back at the musicians who wrote this article by firing them.

    In an alternative scenario, they could have come to the musicians and said, “We have a financial problem here. Here’s the proof on paper. How can we solve this problem together?”

    I bet that if management and the Board had taken that approach and never put forth the micromanaging work rule changes, the musicians might have accepted pay cuts and we would have had a season.

    It’s all about respect versus imperiousness.

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