At the symphony's finale, full of brass and grandeur, music director Osmo Vänskä's baton was still outstretched, the string players' bows still suspended in the air, when the hollering started.

The crowd at Orchestra Hall on Friday night sprang to its feet, clapping and cheering.

Composer Jean Sibelius isn't a fan favorite in every concert hall. But here in Minnesota, Sibelius is synonymous with Vänskä, the beloved music director who, after 19 years with the orchestra, will step down this summer.

Vänskä's way with his fellow Finn is a big part of what put him on the map, what led him to Minnesota, what entrenched him in the hearts of audiences here. So in this final season, for the first time, the orchestra is playing all seven of the composer's symphonies during a three-week Sibelius Festival that acts as a celebration and the start of a goodbye.

"The audience in Minnesota knows how much this is really Osmo's music — and because of that, the Minnesota Orchestra's music," said Erin Keefe, the orchestra's concertmaster and Vänskä's wife. "Because it's Osmo's last season, there's no better repertoire for us to play."

With any composer, Vänskä said, "I'm trying to breathe and live through those emotions, what the music is giving to me. ... With Sibelius, it's always the deepest possible way."

In an hourlong interview in his bright office at Orchestra Hall, Vänskä, 68, described his history with the Finnish hero.

Each time Vänskä opens his decades-old, well marked, hardbound Sibelius scores, which he has toted to podiums across the world, "all the old discoveries are there," he said. "But then you see something, like extra. It's the same package there, but then, hmmm, there's this connection too, yah.

"The vision gets a little larger every time you do it."

He's a 'fundamentalist'

Other conductors stretched Sibelius out, slowed him down.

It's an urge Sibelius himself understood, Vänskä said. "He said that sometimes, when a good orchestra is in front of me, it sounds so good that there's a temptation to make everything slower and slower."

He paused, smiled: "He said with the understanding that it's a mistake."

A "music fundamentalist," as one musician called him, Vänskä sticks to the score, conducting Symphony No. 1 at a clip that can feel a little wild, eliciting complaints from string players.

He sees it as his duty to take in the composer's notations, to feel them in his body, to convey them to the musicians. He is comfortable, too, with Sibelius' tensions, never anticipating the release.

"With music you sometimes need to go through the tension," he said. "The point is not to try to get rid of it as soon as possible. The deeper you can go with that feeling, then something which comes out is also bigger."

Thus, Vänskä's insistence on the darkest dark, the quietest quiet.

A New York Times critic described it, in a 2016 review, as "a burning patience."

And if Sibelius doesn't give relief, Vänskä doesn't add it. Symphony No. 4, which Sibelius wrote with a tumor in his throat, convinced his death was near, ends without the uplift another composer might have offered.

"The ending is like ... I'm going to go away but life continues," Vänskä said, making a straight line in the air with his palm.

"Life continues but without me."

Sibelius opened a door for him

When Sibelius died in 1957, Vänskä's mother cried.

The conductor was just 4, but he remembers the room they were in when she told him. Theirs was a classical music household; his parents switched off the radio when jazz or popular music came on.

When Vänskä was 18, he nabbed his first job as a professional musician, playing clarinet with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, Finland's oldest orchestra.

His first concert, broadcast to the whole country, included Sibelius' Symphony No. 1 — which begins with a lone clarinet. The local critic noted the new principal clarinet and wrote that "it looks like they made the right decision," Vänskä said.

As he rose through the conducting ranks, Sibelius' works offered him a chance to perform internationally.

"The orchestras outside of Finland, when they want to do any Sibelius symphonies, they invite a Finnish conductor," he said. "To give some sort of authenticity, whatever that means. ...

"It has been a door opened for many of us."

Vänskä gained international attention while leading the once-obscure orchestra in Lahti, a city of 100,000 in southern Finland. The BIS record label was looking to capture every note Sibelius had ever written — "a big, big project," as the conductor put it — and enlisted Lahti.

The orchestra's landmark, 68-disc Sibelius collection was widely, internationally admired for its honesty.

When rumors emerged in 2001 that the Minnesota Orchestra was set to pick Vänskä as its next music director, articles praised his work with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and his guest-conducting in Chicago and Cleveland. But they focused on Sibelius.

In Minnesota, at first, the conductor didn't want to program Sibelius, "didn't want to be pigeonholed," said Douglas Wright, the orchestra's principal trombone since 1995. "He wanted to be a little more well-rounded in what people knew from him."

But after digging into Beethoven and other composers, the orchestra began sprinkling in Sibelius. As music director, he's led more than 300 performances of the Finn's works.

"He is his most comfortable, his most confident, his most at home when he's doing Sibelius," Wright said. "You can just sense that he knows this man — he knows where he comes from, he knows his story."

When BIS approached Vänskä about recording the full cycle of Sibelius symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, "I said, 'Why?'" he recounted. They reminded him: It had been 15 years since Lahti's recordings.

"So the question was: Am I the same person who did those first recordings?"

They logged the dark Symphony No. 4 amid turmoil, just before a 15-month labor lockout that precipitated Vänskä's resignation. Musicians' frustration with the board and senior management "fueled it in some way," Wright said. "We all were feeling some angst, and that music is very angsty.

"We just got to pour our emotions into that music."

In 2014, weeks after the lockout's end, the orchestra got word that the album with the First and Fourth symphonies had won the Grammy Award for best orchestral performance.

'Softer! Softer!'

On a Wednesday morning before the festival's first concert, Vänskä hopped onto the podium, unhooking his wristwatch and setting it on the music stand before him.

"The Finnish way to say right now is, 'Happy rest of the year,'" Vänskä said. He offered just a brief pause for the musicians' laughter before getting to the music.

"So, Sibelius 2."

He arched his baton, and the strings began their ascent.

As they rehearsed, Vänskä stopped infrequently, mostly to urge the musicians to get quiet, quieter, even quieter still.

To note a sudden change of volume, he dipped his knees. To hush the strings, he closed his left hand into a fist, then squeezed his eyes shut, too.

"Softer!" he instructed the timpani, drawing a hand to his mask. "Softer!"

Every once in a while, he'd tap his baton on the stand, noting a tempo or a dynamic. But the orchestra has performed this symphony often, so their scores bore the markings of past rehearsals, past recordings.

At one point, the violins swelled, returning to a warm, stately melody as the flutes swirled.

Vänskä closed his eyes again.

But this time, he didn't squint. For several moments, he wasn't trying to coax a particular sound. His face serene, his body gently swaying, he looked like like a person listening to a piece of music he'd loved for a long time.

Sibelius Festival

This weekend: Symphonies No. 1 and 6, plus the original version of his Violin Concerto with soloist Elina Vähälä, 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

Jan. 13-14: Symphonies No. 3 and 4, plus Vähälä playing the revised Violin Concerto.

Jan. 15-16: Symphony No. 5, with commentary by Vänskä and orchestra violist Sam Bergman.

Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

Tickets: $30-$130, 612-371-5656 or