The Minnesota Orchestra announced in December that music director Osmo Vänskä will step down at the end of the 2021-22 season.

The announcement set in motion a train of speculation. Who will be his successor?

Perhaps some clues can be found in the orchestra’s 2019-20 season, announced Friday. No fewer than six conductors will make their Minnesota Orchestra debut, including two names that stand out as possible Vänskä replacements.

Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado has made successful appearances with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras, the San Francisco Symphony and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Heras-Casado has a growing list of achievements in the recording studio, as well. Although the repertoire for Orchestra Hall concerts has yet to be decided, his performance is well worth tracking (April 9-11, 2020).

The same can be said of Australian conductor Simone Young, who spent a decade as music director of Germany’s Hamburg Philharmonic and also has extensive experience in opera. Young’s numerous recordings show a particular affinity for Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner. But her Minnesota Orchestra dates will showcase her affinity for French repertoire in works by Ravel and Debussy (Jan. 17-18, 2020).

Among the seven conductors returning to Orchestra Hall next season, Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena is another obvious contender for the music director position. Mena had great success as chief conductor of England’s BBC Philharmonic, carving out a particular reputation for excellence in Spanish and Latin American music. In Minnesota, he’ll lead Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with soloist Kirill Gerstein and Shostakovich’s massive “Leningrad” Symphony (March 13-15, 2020).

Fascinatingly, precocious young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä makes a speedy return to Orchestra Hall following his debut just a year ago. At age 23, Mäkelä is probably too young to be a front-runner for the music director job. But he lays groundwork for the future with a program featuring Brahms’ Double Concerto and Bruckner’s apocalyptic Ninth Symphony (May 1-2, 2020).

Vänskä himself will lead a total of 10 programs. Refreshingly, he continues to strike out in unexpected musical directions, with works like Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations (Sept. 19-21), Vaughan Williams’ “Don Nobis Pacem” (Nov. 14-16) and Enescu’s Symphony No. 1 (June 4-5, 2020). Vänskä also continues the orchestra’s acclaimed cycle of Mahler symphonies with the BIS record label. With a huge orchestra, two choirs (Minnesota Chorale and Minnesota Boychoir) and a contralto soloist, it’s sure to be an unmissable spectacle (June 10-13, 2020).

Two other members of the Minnesota Orchestra’s permanent conducting roster will have a busy season. In her role as principal conductor of the “Live at Orchestra Hall” series, Sarah Hicks leads eight programs. That includes screenings with live orchestral accompaniment of “The Empire Strikes Back” (Oct. 3-6) and Disney’s “Up” (Nov. 29-Dec. 1). Hicks also leads a performance with indie rockers Cloud Cult (March 20-21, 2020). Associate Conductor Akiko Fujimoto makes her subscription concert debut with Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie concertante, performed by charismatic organist Cameron Carpenter on Northrop auditorium’s recently restored organ (March 27-28, 2020).

Another welcome feature of the 2019-20 schedule is a strong commitment to contemporary classical music, with works by more than 20 21st-century composers. That includes the U.S. premieres of Australian composer Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto (Nov. 14-16) and “Water Atlas” by Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund (June 4-5, 2020). The new season also features an encouraging amount of music by contemporary women: Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (March 5-6, 2020), Anna Clyne (Feb. 21-22, 2020), Zosha Di Castri (Feb. 13-15, 2020), Hannah Kendall (Dec. 31-Jan. 1, 2020) and Kaija Saariaho (June 4-5 2020).

The list of instrumental soloists has less of a gender balance, with just three of the season’s 14 soloists being women. Highlights include veteran pianist André Watts playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto (Sept. 19-21), Tine Thing Helseth in Tomasi’s Trumpet Concerto (Feb. 21-22, 2020) and Martin Grubinger performing a percussion concerto by Kalevi Aho (April 2-4, 2020). Minnesota Orchestra principal cello Anthony Ross also steps into the solo spotlight for “Tales of Hemingway,” a concerto by American composer Michael Daugherty based on Ernest Hemingway’s writings (May 28-29, 2020).

With the new season comes a new series called “Music and Mindfulness.” Based on the success of the “Yoga Class at Orchestra Hall” series, three new 45-minute sessions will feature live music with guided meditation led by a University of Minnesota faculty member. Also on the calendar is a full-length concert titled “Music and the Mind,” hosted by violist Sam Bergman (Feb. 7, 2020).

The mindfulness series shows that the orchestra continues to innovate when it comes to broadening its reach. And for avid podium watchers, the 2019-20 season kicks off a three-year search for a new music director. Anticipation will run high as the various contenders display their skills to the Orchestra Hall faithful.


Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at