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Osmo Vänskä Makes the Grade

Georgia Rowe on October 20, 2009
On Nov. 6, 2002, a conductor named Osmo Vänskä made his first appearance with the San Francisco Symphony. At that time, few Bay Area music lovers had heard of the Finnish maestro, who had just been named music director-designate of the Minnesota Orchestra. But his San Francisco debut made a big impression. Conducting Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3 and, with the late pianist Alicia de Larrocha, Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto in D major and Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Vänskä drew dynamic performances from the orchestra. The San Francisco Chronicle called his debut “brilliant,” noting that “Vänskä’s explosive account of the Nielsen dispelled any lingering hint of nostalgia.”

The next year, Vänskä took up the reins in Minnesota, succeeding Eiji Oue as the orchestra’s 10th music director. His appointment was met without much fanfare, but in a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Vänskä casually remarked that, “in the next four or five years,” he intended to turn Minnesota into one of the best orchestras in the nation.

Today, much of what he promised has come to pass. Orchestras, of course, don’t receive ratings like sports teams, but it’s fair to say that Minnesota’s profile has risen significantly under its new conductor. So has Vänskä’s: The 56-year-old maestro is now considered one of the most gifted podium artists currently working in the U.S.

This week, Vänskä returns to the San Francisco Symphony to conduct two programs: On Oct. 22-24, he’ll lead Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, John Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Antti Siirala as soloist. On Oct. 28, Vanska conducts Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Coriolan Overture, Aulis Sallinen’s Symphony No. 1, and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto; Vadim Repin is the soloist. The program repeats Oct. 30, minus the Sallinen, as part of the Symphony’s 6.5 series, and Oct. 31, in its entirety, at Flint Center.

Both programs reflect Vänskä’s musical strengths and passions, and in a phone call from Minnesota last week, the conductor — whose first impression at SFS was confirmed with a return engagement in 2007 — said he’s eager to work with the orchestra again.

“We have two very interesting programs, and it’s very good that we have two weeks,” said Vänskä. “It gives us a bit more time for music-making. These programs were a collaboration between me and the orchestra; I listened to what they would like to do, and I had some ideas, and finally this is what we have. I was very impressed that the orchestra wanted to do Aulis Sallinen’s First Symphony. It’s not so well known and not often played, and it’s a great piece of music. That gave me a good signal about the planning of the orchestra.”

How to Demand Excellence

Musicians who have worked with Vänskä alternately describe him as a perfectionist and a taskmaster. He doesn't seem to mind; he says he likes to stay focused. And he seems more interested in talking about his ensemble than promoting his own image. Asked how he’s improved the Minnesota Orchestra, he says it’s simply been a matter of hard work.

“To be able to work with the orchestra and make it better is the result of many, many small things,” he says. “We try to do every single concert a little bit better than the

 previous one. These people are very hard workers, and I am too. And they have accepted my way of working. I have to say, it was a hungry orchestra when I started here — hungry to show what they can do. It is still that way. That’s an ideal situation for the conductor. I know that I have a lot of requests and demands. But they are going to do them. They are going to do all the things I ask, and then it comes out, when we are playing the concerts or recording.”

The results are audible, he adds. “It’s a great ensemble right now,” says Vänskä. “It sounds like one person is playing, breathing and making colors. The orchestra is in very good shape, and when we play something, every musician is playing the same page. We’re really like one musician.”

Vänskä, who makes frequent guest appearances in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, and London, says his approach is the same with every orchestra.

“I don’t give up,” he says. “I don’t count how many times we have to repeat some bar. We just have to play as many times as it takes to make it good, and that’s it.”

A Conductor in the Finnish Mode

Born in 1953, Vänskä started his career as a clarinetist. He was a member of the Turku Philharmonic from 1971 to 1976, and co-principal chair of the Helsinki Philharmonic from 1977 to1982, but switched to conducting under Jorma Panula at Finland’s Sibelius Academy (his classmates included Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste). In 1982, he won the Besançon Young Conductor’s Competition; in 1985, he became principal guest conductor of the Lahti Symphony, and served as its chief conductor from 1988 to 2008. Posts with the Iceland and BBC Scottish Symphonies followed.

Vänskä says his early training in Finland was essential. “Music is really important there, and I think Helsinki is one of the very few good places for conductors. It works on the practical level. People are interested in how to conduct the orchestra, how the job itself should be done. It’s not going into some theoretical and impractical matters as much. When you go to the podium, it’s a very real, very open, situation. You can’t hide behind any kind of philosophical issues. You just lead and they play, and you have to lead so clearly that they know what you mean. To me, that’s the art of conducting.”

Vänskä has recorded extensively — Sibelius with the Lahti Symphony, Nielsen with the BBC Scottish, Bruckner with the Minnesotans. In the last few years, however, he’s devoted himself to recording the complete Beethoven symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra. Each album in the five-CD project has been critically acclaimed; the recording of the Ninth Symphony was nominated for a Grammy, and the Second and Seventh received a Classic FM Gramophone nomination.

Many reviews have described his Beethoven interpretations as “fresh,” which Vänskä finds mildly amusing.

“I’m just reading the score,” he says, “and I try to be as loyal as possible to the composer. I try to keep inside the frame of the score. I’m not so keen about ‘the tradition.’ Of course I know how people are usually conducting, how these pieces are usually played. I played them several times in my 11 years as a member of the orchestra. But when I have been studying these pieces as a conductor, I tried to avoid all kinds of recordings. I just read and read and read, and I tried to do exactly what is there. If they are ‘fresh’ interpretations, it’s not my fault. I’m just playing from the score. It’s Beethoven, it’s always about the composer.”

Last month, Vänskä’s Minnesota Orchestra contract was extended through 2015. Like many arts organizations, his orchestra has been hit by the economic slump, and he was asked to take a 10 percent pay cut this year. The financial situation, he says, “is a global thing. Whether we like it or not, we have to accept it, and work hard to try to fix it.”

But he’s still excited about the possibilities. “I think if the orchestra is like one unit, if people are working well together, then we are stronger to see through those troubles. I hope it’s all about the music ... sharing those experiences when things are going well, and sharing the times when we really have to work very hard. To feel in concert that it was worth the work.”

Creation and Re-creation

Vänskä is also a composer, and I ask him whether he envisions a time when he will stop conducting in order to compose full-time. “I have those thoughts sometimes,” he allows. “But I don’t know if it’s a dream or is it going to be true. Does it need to happen? There are many thoughts in my head about that. I like to enjoy things when I am working, and right now conducting is a great thing for me. But it’s good to have this ‘maybe.’ If it’s going to happen or not, I don’t know, but ‘maybe’ is a nice word.”

Vänskä is a longtime motorcycle collector and rider, but this year in Minnesota, he took up a new hobby: bicycling. He bought a racing bike in June, and has already ridden more than 1,000 miles. He’s passionate about hockey, and attends Minnesota Wild games on a regular basis. “That’s my therapy,” he says. “When I go to a hockey game, it takes all my concentration.”

He’s also returned to playing clarinet; this season, he’ll perform in several programs on the Minnesota Orchestra chamber series. “It still gives me a lot of pleasure,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a job or a hobby. But no one can fire me because of my clarinet playing.”

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