Conductor in chief

Osmo Vänskä aims to restore one of the world’s premier orchestras to its previous heights

Osmo Vanska, director of the Minnesota Orchestra, poses for a portrait outside of Northrop Hall on Thursday. May 1 marked the first day of his two-year contract to return as music director for the Minnesota Orchestra after a 16-month musician lockout.

Image by Lisa Persson

Osmo Vanska, director of the Minnesota Orchestra, poses for a portrait outside of Northrop Hall on Thursday. May 1 marked the first day of his two-year contract to return as music director for the Minnesota Orchestra after a 16-month musician lockout.

by Grant Tillery

Nothing stops Osmo Vänskä. Not a cold — which he had on a gray Thursday at Northrop Auditorium — or the Minnesota Orchestra’s 16-month lockout.

Vänskä is a force of nature, a controversial figure with a Midas touch. Before the lockout, he led the Minnesota Orchestra to a Grammy award with their recording of Sibelius’ Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4.

After following through on a promise to leave the orchestra if the lockout dispute wasn’t resolved, he’s back and picking up right where he left off.  A&E sat down with Vänskä and talked about the orchestra’s healing process, his path to music and what it’s like to be back.


How does it feel to be back?

I’m very glad, because it started to take [a] longer and longer time, and the players were back, but the orchestra needs a music director. It’s one of those things [that’s] difficult to work without.

What did the community take away from the last 18 months? What do you think we learned about supporting the arts and the need for classical music?

Classical music is an essential thing for human beings, and I believe that if there’s any life 350 years from now, then people are still willing to listen to Mozart, to Beethoven. Those kinds of things are never going to go away. The problem right now is that if the Twin Cities needs a great orchestra, then people have to [be] buying tickets and giving support.

This is a big lesson about leadership. It’s important to have good leaders, because bad leaders have the same amount of power as good leaders, unfortunately. The whole organization should find a way to try to build up together. The players are a fundamental part of the organization, which is called the Orchestral Association, [so] it’s great if they can take a bigger part of the plan, if they can be more involved, and every corner of the organization should be working together to collaborate, and that hasn’t been the case.

What steps will the orchestra need to take to heal?

It’s a very simple measure. First of all, the orchestra has to play together at rehearsals and concerts. I like to say it’s like a big house — the orchestra is a big house. It has many rooms. After 18 months, the house needed to be cleaned. I hope that people who would like to continue here, they are going to be proud of the orchestra and they know that everybody who is working inside of the orchestra will be working for music. That’s our product, and if they don’t like the orchestra, it’s better to go.

When did you begin working for music? When did your passion for conducting start, and did it stem from playing an instrument?

I was 9 years old when I got a violin — my dad wanted me to learn to play an instrument. A year later, I bought a clarinet and I knew immediately I liked it more than the violin. I was very young and I thought that [it] was a great instrument and it would be a great opportunity if I could be a member of a professional orchestra.

It was very soon after that — maybe I was 12 years old — when my parents brought a stereo system home and LP recordings. There was one LP of Brahms that Bernstein conducted with the New York Philharmonic. It was one of the first recordings from the new Avery Fisher Hall. I’m sure I listened to that LP hundreds of times, and I had my pencil and was conducting. I remember that I thought, “It might be great to play the clarinet, but I might be even greater if I can conduct the orchestra.” I’ve had those two dreams, and I think I’m the lucky one — both dreams have come true.

You’ve set the standard today for modern orchestra conductors. How do you keep the excellence going, and what drives you?

Music: nothing else. If the orchestra could be like one instrument — 80 members, 90 members, 110 members — if [they] could be like one player, if every one of the orchestra members are breathing together and thinking the same way about music and phrases, it’s such a great feeling. If we don’t, it sounds bad.

Is that something you spend time thinking and theorizing about, or [is it] spurred by something you instinctually know will work?

I want it, I wish [it]. I believe that’s the signal of one’s talent — we don’t want to do things we are not good [at]. If somebody’s a terrible runner, he doesn’t want to be a professional [athlete]. That drives us — talent is showing us some signals and pushing us to do something.

There are going to be setbacks with high standards, but you’ve defied them along the way. What’s your approach to setbacks?

I don’t have any other method — whatever we are playing, we have to do a little bit better. One thing might be that every different composer needs a different kind of sound; you don’t play Debussy the same way you play Mozart, or you don’t play Mozart the same way you play Sibelius. The composer has [a] different kind of musical language, and you try to create what is needed today for [their] piece of music. We have to be good in many musical areas before we are a world-class orchestra.

How do you approach rehearsals? How often does the orchestra rehearse, and for how long?

If we are playing something we are not familiar with, we need to run through [it] first before fixing anything. If we play Beethoven’s Fifth, for example, then we can just do some details. A rehearsal session is 2 ½ hours.

Do you have a daily routine that keeps you prepared at all times?

I don’t know if it’s a daily routine, but I have to always be aware of what I’m conducting during the next two [to] three months. When I’m traveling, conducting some other program, I have to bring the scores with me. So I’m reading the scores, listening [to] different versions so I’m ready when I go to the first rehearsal.

Are there some pieces you learn quicker, or composers you have a natural response to?

I have a lot of standard repertoire. If I have conducted [a symphony] 10 times, when it comes two years later, I have to study but the process is much faster.

What are your favorite pieces to perform?

I am known as the Sibelius conductor. I think someone might say that I am a Beethoven conductor, too, and maybe Tchaikovsky. My repertoire is quite large; if the orchestra asks me to do something, I usually say yes.

Why do you feel so connected to Sibelius?

He was a Finnish composer, and I am from Finland — that’s the obvious. There are some pieces of Sibelius’ that I’ve heard many times before I was 15 years old.

Where will classical music go in the future, and how can the Minnesota Orchestra keep it alive? How can it be more accessible to younger audiences?

There must be some new ways to introduce music — to play in different places, not always in the concert hall — to go where the people are. We need to play new music; it’s great to hear Beethoven, but it’s great to hear [James] MacMillan and John Adams. We have to adjust. We have to find today’s way to play music. We have to make ourselves as visible as possible. If we are very well-known internationally, it’s easier to sell it.