NEW YORK — It’s no secret that Osmo Vänskä has won the hearts and minds of Twin Cities music lovers during the six years he has presided as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. The key symbol is probably the 20-foot photo of the conductor that adorns the front of Orchestra Hall. Vänskä’s expression seems to say, “Trust me. I think you’re gonna like this music,” and night after night that trust is offered. This is a conductor who gets bigger applause just walking onstage than most others do when leaving it.
Last weekend, Vänskä conquered another city, New York. To be sure, the photos of the 56-year-old Finnish conductor inside and around Lincoln Center announcing his appearances with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra weren’t 20 feet high, but they were substantial, and they made it clear that Vänskä is a known — and much appreciated — quantity in the City That Never Sleeps. Critics in New York have been giving Vänskä rave reviews since 1996, when he led the Iceland Symphony, of which he was then chief conductor, at Carnegie Hall. In other words, it wasn’t all that surprising that the adjective used by the New York Times earlier in the week to describe Vänskä was “stellar.”
Vänskä, in fact, is no stranger to Mostly Mozart, which was founded in 1966 as Midsummer Serenades and took its current name four years later. Mostly Mozart, a four-week event given every August at Avery Fisher Hall, first engaged Vänskä in 2005, and he has returned for at least a week every summer since then. The musicians speak highly of him, and Hanako Yamaguchi, director of musical programming at Lincoln Center, said the festival considers the conductor an “old friend.”
Lincoln Center celebrating 50th anniversary
Even so, there was something special in Vänskä’s visit this summer. For one thing, Lincoln Center, which describes itself as the world’s leading performing arts center, is celebrating this year the 50th anniversary of its groundbreaking and since 2006 has been undergoing extensive renovation — which accounts for all the scaffolding on the buildings this summer. As a point of history, nearly 7,000 chairs were rented for the audience at the facility’s groundbreaking on May 14, 1959, over which then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided. By 1966, the three main buildings that dominate the often-photographed plaza at 65th and Broadway had opened: Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher) in 1962, the New York State Theater in 1964 and the Metropolitan Opera in 1966. A total of 12 resident organizations, including Mostly Mozart, now gather under the banner of Lincoln Center, a facility so big that it has its own gas station, housed in the Lincoln Center Garage and available for use only by the facility’s official vehicles.
Just the fact of the golden anniversary may have added some cachet to Vänskä’s concerts this year, all of which were sold out. Several people stood on the plaza before the opening concert looking forlorn and holding up hand-written signs saying, usually, “Need One Ticket.” Vänskä’s all-Beethoven program surely provoked interest, too. It wasn’t that these were unusual works: the “Coriolan” Overture, the Symphony No. 8 and the Piano Concerto No. 4 with the young Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin as soloist. It was that Vänskä’s recent recording with the Minnesota Orchestra of the symphony, part of a complete set of Beethoven symphonies on the BIS label, was widely praised, and this may have prompted some to want to hear him do these works live, even though with another orchestra. Moreover, though Vänskä’s collaboration with Sudbin on the Concerto No. 4, recorded in Minneapolis in January of this year, the first entry in a five-year project involving all the piano concertos, hasn’t been released yet, Sudbin has earned considerable interest already for his playing in the U.S. and Europe.
One wondered, in fact, whether Vänskä’s interpretations of these works with one orchestra become the model for later readings with a different ensemble. Does he try to duplicate the recorded performances or was he — this week — allowing for differences?
“I think that the basic ideas are the same, like how the phrasing goes,” he said, seated in the green room at Avery Fisher, having just conducted both morning and afternoon rehearsals — and, as a result, still sweating. His dress was super-casual: khaki shorts, sandals and a plain cotton shirt, a strong contrast to the formal attire of the three figures in the photograph on the wall behind him — Jacqueline Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein and John D. Rockefeller III, taken on the opening night of Avery Fisher Hall. “But it can also change because of the size of the orchestra; this one is smaller. And this hall is difficult compared to the one in Minneapolis. It’s not so good. It’s too dry and there’s no blend — though, I don’t know, it might be better for the audience than for us. And also, I’m not the same person. I’m different, too. But, overall, I would say the water comes from the same well.”
Laughter amid the concentration
“I think we like each other,” he said when asked about the orchestra. And, indeed, one thing an observer of the afternoon rehearsal noted was how much laughter there was amid everyone’s rapt concentration on the details of the score.
“We feel we can really work with Osmo,” said Randall Ellis, the principal oboe and an orchestra member for 21 years. “Like, this morning, for instance. I asked him for a little help on one spot, more of a cue. When we got back to that spot, and he gave me just what I needed, he looked at me, as if asking for my approval. Conductors don’t usually do that.”
Ellis summed up his first impression of Vänskä in one word: “brash,” adding “Osmo also has the ability to insult in a genteel way. He’ll say something like, ‘It’s not soft enough yet,’ and if another conductor said that we might feel insulted, but we don’t when he says it.”
He recalled Vänskä’s first program for Mostly Mozart in 2005. The big opus was Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, subtitled “Great.”
Ellis: “It was Osmo’s first time doing that piece. He said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we will do all the repeats,’ I think, not realizing it’s such a huge piece. Even the string players in Schubert’s day revolted against the length of it. After our dress rehearsal — we had just played this endless exposition repeat — I said, ‘Osmo, there’s still time to change your mind about the repeats.’ He said, ‘You’re right. Let’s take ’em out.’ Then I turned around to everybody and said, ‘You all owe me a beer.’ The fact that I was able to do that with a conductor who was here for the first time tells you something about the spirit that he conveys and his feeling for collegiality. In fact, during one of his first days here, someone called him “Maestro,’ and he said, ‘My name’s still Osmo, not Maestro.'”
‘So effective and so inspiring’
Repeats or no repeats, just the fact that Vänskä had programmed the Schubert impressed Yamaguchi, who had first worked with Osmo in 1999, when she engaged him and the Lahti Symphony of Finland for a concert in November of that year in Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series. “That’s such a big work,” she said, “and here was an orchestra he had never worked with before. That showed he had great confidence in his abilities. He was so effective and so inspiring immediately that we had no doubt that this collaboration was going to work.”
For his third visit to Lincoln Center in 2007, Vänskä did something unusual again. He programmed one of the Mozart wind serenades and put himself in the orchestra, playing the first-clarinet part. He was, of course, no stranger to the licorice stick. As a young adult in Finland he played clarinet in major orchestras in Turku and Helsinki and had begun playing again during his first years in Minneapolis. Said Yamaguchi, “Obviously there are violinists who come here and conduct, like Pinchas Zukerman. But I think this is the first time that a conductor actually joined in. It also suggests to the musicians that Osmo is an equal. And he makes himself more vulnerable doing this, because he might make mistakes like everyone else.”
The result: no mistakes, and Vänskä did it again, programming another Mozart serenade the following year. “Partly, I did it because the performances in Minneapolis went well,” Vänskä said. “I wouldn’t say it’s something I must do, but I think it’s nice for the audience to have this experience, where the conductor is playing.
Responding to the obvious question, Vänskä said he probably wouldn’t raise the ante at Lincoln Center some upcoming summer and play a concerto. “I can play ensemble pieces and wind serenades,” he said. “But for concertos we already have all these other guys who do that.” (Vänskä will, however, play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the Metropolitan Symphony Nov. 22 at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.)
Bristling energy, brisk tempos
The concert the following night, the first of two that Vänskä led last weekend, offered the qualities that Minnesotans have come to expect from this conductor: bristling energy, brisk tempos, expanded dynamic range and careful attention to the score’s inner voices. Everyone was giving their best — though, to be sure, the performance, technically speaking, wasn’t in the league of what might be heard just about any night at Orchestra Hall. But let’s be fair: The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, at about 40 players, is really a chamber orchestra, which means every passage it plays is more exposed — more vulnerable to slight variances of pitch — than is the case with a big ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra, which happens also to play in a hall with great acoustics. After 40-plus years of moaning and groaning — and expensive attempts at fixing the problem — music at Avery Fisher still lacks presence and body. (Even Sudbin’s piano sounded monochromatic.)
A third factor is that this orchestra, whose members play together only the four weeks of the festival, doesn’t have a taskmaster like Vänskä working with it week after week, years after year, obsessively correcting its mistakes and polishing its surfaces — though by all accounts, Louis Langree, the festival’s music director since 2002, has made major improvements in the quality — and reliability — of the playing. Sudbin, who looks like a young version of Adrian Brody in “The Pianist,” was a little off, too, on this occasion. His playing was less free in phrasing, less articulate than it had been in the three performances he gave of this concerto last October at Orchestra Hall. Who knows? It might have improved the following night.
Writing in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini described the performances as “bracing” and noted that Vänskä was “a big hit with the festival crowd.” Tommasini added that though he is not always captivated by Vänskä’s interpretations, the “high quality” of the Finnish conductor’s work is beyond dispute. Going on: “Since taking charge of the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003, Vänskä has re-energized it, raised the level of the playing and won critical acclaim for his work, notably the Beethoven symphony cycle he recorded with his inspired Minnesota players for the BIS label.”
A summer of high praise
So far, it had been a summer of high praise for Vänskä. Before coming to New York, he had made his debut at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, where, according to Mary Ann Feldman, program annotator for the festival, “It was instant adoration” between conductor and audience. (Perhaps explaining his untiring vigor at the podium, Vänskä noted that he biked at least 40 miles a day during his brief visit to Wyoming and that, one afternoon a couple of days later in Minneapolis, he rode his new bike all the way to Stillwater and back: 70.4 miles in 4 hours and 20 minutes, he noted with satisfaction.)
Yet to come this month before starting rehearsals for his seventh season with the Minnesota Orchestra were two important engagements: a concert with the BBC Symphony on Sunday at the London Proms and, four days later, an appearance, his first in nearly two decades, with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Most likely, Vänskä will squeeze in another visit to Mostly Mozart next summer. For one thing, he has come to like New York City. He loves Broadway musicals, for instance, and the only reason he didn’t see one on this visit is that he had only one night free and he felt obliged to stay in his hotel room that night and study the score of the Szymanowski “Stabat Mater,” which he will conduct at the Proms.
“You know,” he said before heading back to his hotel, “during my first times in this city I felt good only when I had my airline ticket in my pocket, a reminder I had a way out. But right now I have a better time here.”
Michael Anthony writes about classical music.