Where is the next Osmo Vänskä?
The question went buzzing through Orchestra Hall in December when the Minnesota Orchestra music director announced that he would depart his position in 2022, after 19 years on the podium.
“There’s a little bit of chatter that starts backstage,” said principal trombone Douglas Wright. “You just start imagining the possibilities.”
Not that the players have forgotten the successes of the Vänskä era. There were groundbreaking tours to Cuba and South Africa. There were triumphant Carnegie Hall appearances and 2014 Grammy Award for one of the orchestra’s numerous recordings with Vänskä. “The orchestra is playing better than it ever has in my experience here,” said Wright, who joined the orchestra 24 years ago and worked on the search committee that brought Vänskä to Minneapolis in 2003. “Whoever comes in here and drives this incredible Maserati will hopefully push us to the next level.”
One possible driver is Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena — already touted as a potential Vänskä replacement — who takes the podium next weekend for a program featuring Haydn, Bernstein and Mozart. Another candidate is English conductor Edward Gardner, returning to Minneapolis next month to lead the choral blockbuster that is Verdi’s Requiem. The recently announced 2019-20 season is studded with possibilities, with several more prospects appearing as guest conductors.
A panel of Minnesota Orchestra board members, administrators and musicians is charged with selecting the next music director. How might concertgoers assess the chances of each individual candidate when he or she appears at Orchestra Hall? Flute and piccolo player Roma Duncan offered one clue.
Dramatic lunges, striking poses and emotional facial expressions might whip up enthusiasm among audiences, she said. But that doesn’t always impress orchestra musicians. “As an audience member, you can kind of look around the orchestra and get an idea of how we’re feeling by reading our body language. That perhaps tells you more about how we feel toward the conductor than how well you personally felt the concert went.”
What are the players looking for, exactly? How will they know when the next Minnesota Orchestra music director is standing before them?
Yes, it’s important he or she have the technical ability to make everyone play together crisply. But the players also need to be stretched, the orchestra pushed toward setting and achieving new goals. Wright said, “It’s easy to get bored real fast with somebody who comes in and says, ‘You know, you guys sound great.’ And it’s like, ‘OK, now what?’ They have to have a real opinion about a piece of music, and a depth of understanding beyond what we as players do.”
As an example, Wright cited Vänskä’s very first appearances in Minnesota. “He made the orchestra better right away,” Wright said of the Finnish conductor, originally an outlier to the music director job. “He had a musical drive and intensity that really captured the orchestra’s imagination.”
What’s more, Wright said, Vänskä was quick to admit his mistakes. “Before that, I’d never heard a conductor apologize for anything.”
Over the past three of four years, there’s been an even bigger shift when it comes to music directors. For more a century, classical music was dominated by the image of the unapologetic, autocratic maestro ruling his players from the bully pulpit of the podium. Arturo Toscanini, George Szell, Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti — these conductors presided over their American orchestras with an iron rod, with famously combustible temperaments that unexpectedly erupted in rehearsals.
But the age of unquestioning maestro worship is fading. When Yannick Nézet-Séguin became music director of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera last year, the Canadian conductor said he would consciously break with “this culture of ‘You can’t say anything to the maestro.’ ” Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinyt-Tyla adopts a similarly collaborative approach at England’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. “All the questions, and all the answers, are in the music itself,” she has said.
Duncan summarized the democratization of orchestral workplaces: “There’s been a lot more acknowledgment and understanding that you can be a fantastic artist and a great leader without being a despot or really unpleasant.”
Navigating the unknown
What’s the finishing touch for a great 21st-century music director?
For Wright, it’s a delicate balance between people skills and elite musical talent: “to be demanding in a very respectful way,” is how he put it.
For Duncan, it’s important to leave space for the contributions of individual players. “The magic is the person who can find the balance, who can express their overall idea to us without telling us how to play every single note.”
Of course, the next music director must be versatile enough to navigate and even lead in a changing industry. “The biggest difference that I would see between now and 2003 … is that orchestras have really diversified what they do,” Duncan said. “We go out into the community in different ways. We’re actively seeking diversity in more ways and more places. That calls for a new music director to be even more flexible.”
Then there’s that “intangible spark” as Duncan called it — the X-factor that enables a conductor to inspire musicians as well as donors, audiences and funders.
It will be a few more years before Minnesota fans know who has it. Until then, music director candidates will bring plenty of bumps, curveballs and surprises to the Orchestra Hall faithful. For regular concertgoers, it’s certain to be exciting.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.