Although Osmo Vänskä was a rising star in Europe when the Minnesota Orchestra engaged him in 2003, many orchestra patrons had never heard of him. In the 10 years since, Vänskä has made indelible impressions on many Minnesotans, including musicians, concertgoers and Star Tribune writers who joined the orchestra on European tours. As a farewell gesture, he conducted three concerts this weekend by the orchestra’s locked-out musicians. Here are some recollections.
‘SUCH A PRIVILEGE’
Few conductors have ever have worked as hard on the podium as Osmo Vänskä. In 2010, he brought the Minnesota Orchestra to the BBC Proms in London and played the prestigious Saturday night Beethoven program. Vänskä and the ensemble soared through the Ninth Symphony, and 6,000 listeners roared their approval. Afterward, Vänskä wore one of those grins that come from an exhausted sense of accomplishment as he spoke to supporters and musicians at a post-concert party. “It is such a privilege to be a conductor when you are standing in front of the Minnesota Orchestra,” he said.
My sweetest moment with Vänskä, though, was a ride through the Minnesota countryside in February 2008. The orchestra was on a state tour and would play in Marshall, a community suffering from the recent deaths of four children in a bus accident. As a gesture, the orchestra had added Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” for the Marshall audience. As we rode in his car through the dark night, Vänskä talked about his belief in music as a healing balm. “It will be very sad at Marshall; there will be many tears. But music can speak. Music goes deeper than any words. It really takes care of the spirit.” Even now, this memory brings tears to my eyes.
— Staff writer Graydon Royce
Everyone talks about how exacting he is, but when we first started working together there was this amazing confluence. He was so demanding, and we were so hungry for that. We had energy and passion, but lacked discipline. Once he ran us through a section three or four times, then stopped and looked at the strings. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I do not accept that we cannot play both beautifully and in rhythm, just because it’s hard.” He expected both, and would not give up till he got it. That has stuck with me.
— Sam Bergman, Minnesota Orchestra violist
You really had to be right with his stick, his beat. He constantly harped on the horns for being behind. “I am not saying this because I’m angry,” he’d say. “But it is behind.” I’ll bet I heard that 30,000 times over the last 10 years. We sit so far back that if we play what we hear, you are behind, so you have to anticipate. One time we were playing a Copland piece with a trombone solo. I was literally the only one playing, and he cut me off and said, “Doug, you are behind.” Behind who? Everyone just burst out laughing.
— Doug Wright, Minnesota Orchestra principal trombone
When Vänskä first came to Minnesota, he said an orchestra concert could be “a holy thing” with potential to “cleanse the soul.” In early 2004, as I was covering his first European tour with the Minnesota Orchestra for the Star Tribune, I saw his spiritual approach to music in action, in Birmingham. Just before the concert was to begin, with the musicians all in position, Vänskä stood alone backstage in his tux. He brought his feet together, then folded his hands in front of him and bowed his head, remaining stock still in intense concentration for what seemed like two minutes. Suddenly he snapped his head up, threw his shoulders back and strode briskly onstage to thunderous applause. Watching it felt a bit like intruding on a very private moment. But what a moment it was.
When not at the podium, Vänskä is a private, reserved person, the antithesis of a schmoozer and not one to speak more words than necessary to make a point. So catching him in a public display of unchecked joy is both rare and sweet. One such instance came when, on that first tour, he arrived at the majestic new Sibelius Hall back home in Lahti, Finland. His daughter, Tytti, had brought his West Highland terrier, Lilja, to see him. Vänskä’s eyes lit up and he grinned widely as he picked the dog up over his head and brought its furry face in for several kisses. Reluctantly he put her down, then dashed onstage for rehearsal, where once again he was all business.
— Staff writer Kristin Tillotson
THE BIKER CLARINETIST
Osmo and friends played part of the Aho Clarinet Concerto for guests in our living room after rolling up the rug and moving the dining-room table. Aho up close was pretty amazing. Once, we spotted Osmo on the elevator in his full motorcycle gear. He had ridden out to the Finnish sauna factory in Cokato to “chat with the guys.” I wondered if the drivers along Hwy. 12 knew the Maestro was riding beside them.
— Margee Bracken, Minnesota Orchestra Board member and Vänskä’s neighbor
A MAN OF HIS WORD
It’s characteristic of Vänskä to do what he said he would do. Some might recall that midway through his years here he turned down a last-minute offer to conduct the New York Philharmonic on tour in Europe, Kurt Masur having taken ill. His reason: Sometime earlier he had agreed on one of those dates to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in a concert at a church in Minneapolis, a date that an assistant conductor could reasonably be expected to fill in. “No, I gave my word,” Vänskä said later. A fellow Finn, Kai Amberla, told me, “This is a typically Finnish gesture: ‘I have to do it because I promised.’ That’s why we are so boring.”
— Excerpted from a MinnPost article by Michael Anthony, longtime Minneapolis classical-music critic and author of a Vänskä biography
A GOOD AMBASSADOR
This is a sad thing for all of us in Minnesota, not just those of us in the classical music world. Osmo was so good for Minnesota. He carried the brand of the Minnesota Orchestra all over the world and was such a good ambassador. This is a great loss for the entire institution.
— Dick Cisek, former CEO and president of the Minnesota Orchestra
FROM THE AUDIENCE
My husband and I moved here in 2011 from a small town in Maine specifically because of the Twin Cities’ wonderful classical music, in particular what we had read of the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo in the New York press. But we only got to see five or six conducted by Osmo before the lockout began. The rapport he had with the orchestra was so evident. I’m a musician; I play horn with the St. Paul Civic Symphony, so I pick up on that. There was such a sense of real unity that’s unusual. It takes a long time to build that. We’re heartbroken that he’s gone.
— Barbara Burt, Minneapolis
It feels sort of like a death that Osmo is leaving. At his concerts, I loved sitting up close to one side so I could watch his gestures and facial expressions. They ran such a gamut and were always so reflective of the music. When it became delicate, he would put his baton down, become very still and direct with just his hands. One time I remember he asked the audience from the stage,“Please mute your coughs. An unmuted cough is the same as a French horn playing mezzo forte.”
— Nils Halker, biologist at the Science Museum of Minnesota