A historic trip to Cuba. A return to Carnegie Hall. A renewal of recording projects with the Swedish label BIS. A triumphant four-country European tour. It has been a remarkable period of rehabilitation for the Minnesota Orchestra. Just think: Less than three years ago, the organization was mired in a ruinous labor dispute and teetering on the brink of extinction.
Much remains uncertain about the future, with orchestras everywhere battling to stop declining attendance figures. In these rapidly evolving circumstances, the relatively short three-year extension to music director Osmo Vänskä’s contract, announced in May 2015, was probably the sensible option for management and conductor.
It does, though, snap sharply into focus the real possibility that Vänskä could be gone by August 2019. And that raises the delicate question: When should the orchestra start considering who might replace him?
There is, experts say, no time like the present.
Ulrich Knörzer, violinist and board member at the world-class Berlin Philharmonic — an orchestra that recently replaced departing artistic director Simon Rattle — insists the search for new leadership should begin “at least three years in advance.”
Why so far out? “Because all sought-after conductors have their schedules packed for years ahead,” Knörzer said.
Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s esteemed classical music critic, said a process of constant monitoring is required to find the right conductor. “Even if the current [music] director is in the early stages of a relationship,” he said, “possible successors should be kept in view, whether by way of guest-conducting visits or field trips to other organizations.”
The Minnesota Orchestra is not in the early stages of its relationship with Vänskä. By 2019 he will have served 16 years as music director, the third longest tenure in the orchestra’s history.
Vänskä will be a difficult act to follow. His Beethoven and Sibelius symphony recordings earned the orchestra a substantial international following, while his dynamism on the podium proved enormously popular with local audiences. And his loyalty to the musicians during the lockout made him a beloved figure among artists and a certain set of concertgoers.
And yet, an observer clearly sees areas where the orchestra needs to develop.
Repertoire and gender issues
One area is repertoire. Vänskä’s strong affinity with Beethoven and Sibelius pleases many concertgoers, but other important composers and musical styles have been shoved to the margins.
Francophiles have been particularly starved of sustenance. Debussy and Ravel are programmed sparingly, modern French masters such as Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez and Henri Dutilleux hardly at all.
Vänskä has been admirably consistent in his commitment to new music via the Future Classics series, but large chunks of 20th-century American music have been neglected. The music of Charles Ives is one casualty. The orchestra seems ideally equipped to play his textured Fourth Symphony, for instance.
Carl Ruggles, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varèse and Morton Feldman are other American composers urgently requiring representation in future programs, while so-called “minimalists” Steve Reich and Philip Glass are conspicuous in their absence from Orchestra Hall. Even that honorary Minnesotan Dominick Argento has fallen out of favor since the departure of Vänskä’s predecessor, Eiji Oue.
An incoming music director could, and should, address these imbalances. The danger that the orchestra could become hidebound by the success of its Beethoven and Sibelius performances is real. More variety and unpredictability will be necessary moving forward — not just for the good of the orchestra, but also for the intellectual nourishment of audiences.
What’s more, the orchestra should begin thinking more proactively about gender issues. In the past five full seasons, just three works by female composers have featured in mainstream subscription concerts. During that same time, women have conducted just two regular season concerts. Some will point to Sarah Hicks, who leads most of the orchestra’s “popular” concerts — season samplers, movie nights, Broadway celebrations. Keep in mind: The regular season concerts are the ones to emphasize full-length symphonies and concertos from the core classical repertoire.
Meanwhile, women conductors are increasingly being hired by other leading orchestras. Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki was recently appointed to head the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Lithuanian Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla was tapped to lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. The Minnesota Orchestra should expose its players more frequently to the distinctive qualities that women bring to the podium. These can include a less macho approach to performance and a more relaxed, inclusive attitude toward musician interactions.
Move to a player-centric model?
Which brings us to a final, tantalizing question: In an era increasingly distrustful of authority figures, is the idea of having a single music director for an orchestra still a good one? Or are there other ways of doing things that should be investigated?
“The days of the godlike, divinely inspired, all-powerful conductor are over,” the New Yorker’s Ross said. “The principal emphasis should be on the musicians themselves” as well as “a distinctive approach to programming.”
The shift to a more player-centric model of operation is certainly easier for smaller ensembles — the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra dispensed with its music director 12 years ago. It’s worth remembering that the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, has never had a music director in its 174-year history.
Is the Minnesota Orchestra ready for that major shift? Does it need it?
Anthony Ross, principal cello of the orchestra and a chairman of its artistic committee, doesn’t think so.
“I think a music director is incredibly important,” he said. “It helps us bring profile to the organization, and to the orchestra when we’re on stage. When Osmo Vänskä joined us, it’s not that we got suddenly better, but we played differently, and he brings something very special to our concerts.”
Enthusiastic as Ross is about the music director model, he is quick to emphasize how difficult it can be to find the right candidate. “It’s not an easy thing to hire a music director,” he said. “It’s a marriage, and every marriage has its trials.”
He added, “Sometimes music directors have shelf lives, like great coaches of sports teams. At some point maybe a music director needs to move on, but I don’t think we’re there yet with Osmo.”
Should the organization play it safe and extend Vänskä’s contract past 2019? Or should it strike out boldly under new leadership?
One thing is certain: Orchestral maneuverings in the 21st century require time and meticulous preparation. Succession planning for the post-Vänskä era should start now.
A recent transplant from Ireland, Terry Blain writes about theater and classical music.