Osmo Vänskä has raised the Minnesota Orchestra's profile as one of the best bands in the world.
Apparently, it's not cold and dark enough here. Osmo Vänskä is on holiday this week, just down the road from chez Santa Claus in Finland's distant north.
Perhaps there -- skiing with his children, sweating in saunas -- Vänskä will celebrate his remarkable year. With the Minnesota Orchestra, he astonished critics at Carnegie Hall, electrified audiences on a tour to the BBC Proms in London, the Edinburgh International Festival and Amsterdam's famous Concertgebouw, and released two critically praised CDs. Another was released weeks ago and is destined for more acclaim.
His interpretation of Brahms' Second Symphony, which opened Vänskä's eighth season in Minnesota, was hailed as "stupendous," and at that same concert he conducted the world premiere of a cello concerto by countryman Einojuhani Rautavaara. In all, 2010 had enough highlights that the Star Tribune chose Vänskä as its artist of the year -- an honor long overdue.
However Vänskä toasts his year in the private chill of Lapland's eternal gloaming, he cloaks his public joy in Finnish reserve.
"The main thing is, we are on the right track," he said of his orchestra. "So every time I hear good reviews or comments, I say, 'OK, the method is correct, you are doing right.' We just try to keep these concerts going even stronger."
Oh, come on, maestro. Let your hair down.
"There might be time to celebrate two minutes," he allowed. "But then it is done."
What a fireball.
Since arriving in Minnesota in 2003, Vänskä has re-established the orchestra's aspirations to be one of the nation's best. His Beethoven Symphony recording project raised some eyebrows (We need another Beethoven cycle why?), but the CDs revealed nuance and interpretation enough that the Beethoven Ninth disc earned a 2008 Grammy nomination. The orchestra added to those estimable recordings this year with the Bruckner Symphony No. 4 ("Clarity, precision, impact," said Jean-Yves Duperron in Classical Music Sentinel) and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos with Stephen Hough.
Vänskä's Minnesota musicians have become favorites at the BBC Proms, last August attaining two weekend slots including the plum Beethoven Ninth performance. They also toured the great European music capitals in 2009, winning good reviews in Berlin. At home, he has raised the precision of a good orchestra and infused it with a tensile emotional acuity.
In 2010, the Minnesota Orchestra received praise beyond any publicist's dreams. On March 1, Vänskä brought the Minnesota Orchestra and a Finnish male chorus to a Carnegie Hall festival featuring the world's best bands. Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker, sized up the Minnesota performance of Sibelius' "Kullervo" and declaimed that "for the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world."
Nine months later, Ross had not cooled off, choosing the "Kullervo" as his best live performance of the year. "Even the memory of it brings tears to my eyes," Ross wrote in his year-end review. "What secret of musical emotion does Vänskä possess?"
Joseph Horowitz, one-time New York Times critic and now a cultural historian whose blog, the Unanswered Question, is on artsjournal.com, was in the Carnegie audience and praised the orchestra in a phone conversation:
"Minnesota has an instantly distinctive sound," Horowitz said. "They don't sound like anybody else, and whatever Vänskä's sonic intentions are, they are translated by the musicians."
"I think his best quality is he's willing to be a leader and say that 'I want it this way,'" said principal clarinetist Burt Hara last spring when asked to assess Vänskä. "He also has the chemistry that he's in front of an orchestra that's willing to allow him to lead."
Conductors have a finite shelf life. Vänskä is under contract through 2015, and has often said he enjoys Minnesota, balmy winters and all.
An avid motorcyclist, he bought a bicycle two years ago and now enjoys the aerobic kick in the nation's No. 1 city for biking. He also cross-country skis and runs. One critic during the August tour even commented on the leaner, buffer Vänskä. Good physical condition, he said, helps the head and the heart -- not just technically but emotionally.
Vänskä's physical regime reflects his philosophical approach to life, music and specifically the orchestra.
"The biggest enemy for an artist is to start to be too satisfied," he said. "If you are not hungry, you are not working hard enough. We have to play better, the rehearsals need to be better, and so I try to find something about the music, something about how to rehearse, to have new ideas about composers."
Coming: Sibelius and legacy
Minnesota has avoided the serious financial peril that dogs other orchestras. Expenses have been cut to the bone, illustrated most obviously by a 9 percent cut in home dates last season. Private donors, though, have kept touring afloat, and the recording schedule remains ambitious.
In 2011 will come the beginning of a definitive project -- a complete Sibelius symphony cycle. Vänskä's recordings of Sibelius with Finland's Lahti Symphony Orchestra helped put him on the map 20 years ago. Technology will guarantee superior sound, but Vänskä admits that the Lahti cycle was very good and that he has to be careful not to repeat himself.
"I have to go into the scores and into the ideas from the composer," he said. "I am not the same guy who recorded those pieces, but the worst thing is to do something just to be different."
If he completes his current contract, Vänskä would tie Dimitri Mitropoulous as the third longest-tenured conductor in Minnesota history. Only Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the laureate who still takes the podium once a year, and Emil Oberhoffer served longer.
Those are legendary names, but Vänskä laughs when asked if he ever pauses to consider his place in the organization's pantheon.
"No, I just try to do my job every day," he said. "I am not a statue. It's a hugely dangerous situation to start thinking that way."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299