Osmo Vänskä tries to downplay the significance of his orchestra’s return to New York’s fabled Carnegie Hall next Thursday.
“Every time the Minnesota Orchestra is on stage, that is the most important concert,” the music director said.
Yet the stakes will be high when Vänskä and his musicians face a packed house of some of the sharpest ears in classical music, anxious to assess the orchestra’s rebound from a bitter 16-month lockout.
“We’re expecting the critics and audiences to be watching to see if we still have our edge,” said cellist Marcia Peck, who was on the musicians’ bargaining committee.
After a six-year absence, this visit to the scene of a past triumph will be bittersweet. Buoyed by superlative reviews for their 2010 performance at Carnegie, Vänskä and the orchestra were poised to strike while the iron was hot, with four dates there in 2013-14.
It was to have been their moment. But the engagement fell victim to the contract dispute between management and musicians. The cancellation caused Vänskä to quit, and bloggers drafted obituaries for the orchestra.
“The first time back since those terrible things happened gives a special color to this visit,” Vänskä acknowledged.
The one-night stand, featuring two Sibelius symphonies and the Finnish composer’s violin concerto with soloist Hilary Hahn, is scaled back considerably from the four nights of Sibelius that Vänskä originally envisioned. “We lost a huge package of music,” he lamented.
But the appearance represents something beyond music, suggested New York Times writer Michael Cooper, who traveled to Cuba with the orchestra a year ago.
Cooper feels the orchestra, through its recent turmoil, has stimulated a larger part of the classical world’s consciousness. Its lockout has been a continuing theme on Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning TV series “Mozart in the Jungle,” for one.
“Even before the disaster, Vänskä and Sibelius were a draw,” Cooper said. “Now, they’re not just playing Sibelius, but they are playing Sibelius after going through hell and back. That ups the ante.”
Is there buzz?
It was the orchestra’s last performance at Carnegie, in March 2010, that piqued the musical cognoscenti’s interest in Vänskä’s band.
New Yorker critic Alex Ross wrote that — to his ear, on that night, performing Sibelius’ “Kullervo” — it sounded like “the greatest orchestra in the world.” Though he had carefully couched his praise, the comment fed the heat for what would have been a celebrated return in 2013.
Ross said he will be out of town for Thursday’s concert. While it is practically sold out, his New Yorker colleague Russell Platt wonders how much buzz the concert has created among New York audiences who are regularly bombarded with the top classical ensembles in the world.
“There isn’t any special anticipation that I can sense,” said Platt, a former Minneapolis critic and composer. “But I think the audience will be eager to hear an orchestra that is healthy in both sound and spirit — and when we listen, a lot of those painful memories, about how the orchestra almost went under, will come flooding back.”
One more milestone
The Carnegie date represents another milestone in the orchestra’s rebirth.
New president Kevin Smith, who led the orchestra to Cuba last spring, has forged with Vänskä an aesthetic and business model styled on the European practice of greater musician involvement.
“The players are taking care of their own future,” said Vänskä, who returned after the dispute was settled in 2014.
The collaboration has raised spirits, even though the earned-income difficulties that plague so many American orchestras persist. Smith and board leaders have focused on fundraising to make up for revenue shortfalls, as opposed to the steep cost-cutting sought by former administrators — who succeeded to a degree in a contract that trimmed musicians’ salaries by 15 percent.
Smith also secured deals that keep musicians and Vänskä under contract for several more seasons, which allows the organization to address artistic goals.
“I wanted to start something new — we needed to start something new,” Vänskä said about his return to the orchestra. “Kevin is not only listening, he is hearing.”
Vänskä emphasizes that he treats Carnegie like any venue: “It doesn’t matter which hall we are in.”
But the orchestra’s principal bass, Kristen Bruya, who was hired after the lockout, said, “Any time you play Carnegie, it’s a thrill. The stakes are high for anyone who plays there.”
The New Yorker’s Platt said his only quibble with the concert is that he would like to hear something different from the Minnesota Orchestra.
“I know that the orchestra is excellent in Beethoven and Sibelius, but I hope on a future visit they might show us a broader range.”
The good news is that he hopes for future visits. So does the orchestra.