Almost immediately after Tuesday’s agreement settling a rancorous 15-month labor lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra, speculation shifted to whether Osmo Vänskä might return as music director.
Vänskä, who is universally credited with bringing the orchestra to new artistic heights, resigned in October when musicians and the board failed to agree on a new labor contract.
Vänskä was flying from Finland to Israel on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment, but a tantalizing item appeared in the Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper. In response to Facebook pleas for his return to Minnesota, the conductor reportedly posted: “I’m going to try! But they have to ask me!”
Orchestra management gave no hint of its intentions. “The Board has been entirely focused on coming to a contract settlement with musicians and, with the ink hardly dry on that contract, we will now move to addressing the issue of artistic leadership,” board chair Jon Campbell said in a statement Wednesday.
Vänskä was under contract through the 2014-15 season.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen with Osmo,” said clarinetist Tim Zavadil, who led the musicians’ negotiating team. “I have heard absolutely nothing about his return.”
Vänskä’s affinity for the orchestra has been evident throughout the labor dispute. He jumped at a chance to conduct the musicians last February in a concert that celebrated the orchestra’s Grammy nomination for its Sibelius recording. After announcing his resignation, he quickly agreed to farewell concerts at Ted Mann — events that clearly were emotional for him, musicians and audience members. And he had agreed to lead the musicians in a concert to reopen Northrop Auditorium in May.
It may appear to be a no-brainer that the board should rehire Vänskä as soon as possible. He has many close friends on the board of directors and among musicians.
However, Vänskä never commented publicly on the statements of Campbell and board negotiator Richard Davis last September that “Osmo might have to go” before a settlement could be reached. Those comments surprised several sources outside the board, and some of those same people wonder if Vänskä is willing to come back and work for leaders who may not share his priorities.
The orchestra’s board leadership is changing. Campbell and Davis (the immediate past chair) previously agreed to step down once the contract was settled. On Wednesday, they said they intend to leave the board after new leaders are selected.
London-based blogger Norman Lebrecht suggested that musicians had accepted pay cuts of 15 percent in the first year with the understanding that President Michael Henson would be sent packing. Board member Doug Kelley on Wednesday denied there was any such commitment.
“We all knew that personnel decisions are not part of the negotiation process,” Kelley said.
Vänskä has kept up a busy schedule as a guest conductor. He’s with the Israel Philharmonic this weekend. He has been in Europe and returns there for performances in Lyon, France, before heading to the San Francisco Symphony at the end of January.
Whether or not Vänskä returns, concerts will begin at Orchestra Hall in February. From there, the orchestra must begin to follow an artistic direction and steer a course that includes adventurous programming, shaping its sound, tours and recordings.
A statement by Vänskä during the lockout made it clear that he bitterly regretted the prospect of canceling a Sibelius recording session that was planned for this spring. Critics and audiences around the world agreed, however, that Vänskä performed extremely well as music director during his 10 years in Minnesota.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299