Over nearly two decades, Osmo Vänskä has taken the Minnesota Orchestra to the world's most fabled concert halls, with stops in Cuba, South Africa and even the Grammy Awards along the way.
"Now it's time for someone else," he said as he prepares to step down following three sold-old concerts June 10-12.
The 69-year-old conductor from Saaminki, Finland, leaves a legacy of renowned recordings, critically acclaimed performances, groundbreaking tours and — not least of all — a reshaped and re-energized organization following the 16-month lockout of musicians that threatened the orchestra's very existence.
"It's really one of the greatest orchestras," Vänskä said with evident satisfaction as we made ourselves comfortable on the Finnish furniture in his office at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall. He reflected on his 19-year tenure here in a conversation that has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Take me back to your first visit: Did you feel a spark of connection with the orchestra?
A: It was a long time ago. In 2000, I conducted the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and David Hyslop — the [Minnesota Orchestra's] CEO at the time — asked if I could come and listen to a concert.
Eiji Oue was conducting and I thought, "This is a very good orchestra." And the hall — the sound was so good. Then when it was time for me to conduct here as a guest conductor, I thought: "These people can play."
Since Day 1, I wanted to work with the orchestra, and they responded so well. My idea is quite simple: If we can do the next concert a little bit better than the last concert, then there is a progress. The players may have tired sometimes and were thinking, "Why again so hardworking?" But that's what they've done. And the orchestra is playing very well right now.
A: I'd been working with BIS Records in Lahti for years. [Vänskä was chief conductor of Finland's Lahti Symphony.] We'd made, I don't know, 40 or 50 CDs. So when BIS heard about my new orchestra here, they said immediately they were willing to come and continue this collaboration. That has been a great, great, great situation for the orchestra. To get one of the absolute best classical music companies. And Rob Suff, who is simply the best producer in the world.
I've often thought the hardest thing to play — and the best thing for the orchestra — is Vienna classical music. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. But I don't want to waste time. You need to do the recordings as soon as possible, because the recording process is also making the orchestra better. And not wait for years to tour. If we go to London, we can't play very badly. If we make a recording, we cannot play very badly. They all are feeding each other.
Q: In hearing your first Beethoven recordings — and the concerts — I thought you were doing things I'd never heard before.
A: There had been years of this kind of romantic, big-orchestra way to do Beethoven. Then we had those ensembles that played with authentic instruments, like how maybe they played it when the pieces were written. So I thought: Do I want to go where all the big names have gone? Or is there something that is missing right now? Instead of the "bigger is better," can we do something like the crispness of [England's] Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, except with a big orchestra?
I wasn't interested in this romantic style. I needed to find something where things started bouncing more [he snapped his fingers] and the rhythm is much more important than this big sound.
A: Yes, it's all connected. I don't know if I've spoken with you about my [idea of] three legs. The first leg is home concerts for home audiences. Each should be better than the last one. And then it's ideal to do recordings — good recordings with a good company — so we can spread the word that this is a great orchestra. The third part is: If our recordings are good enough, then the festivals are interested in us. And if we are doing good concerts at those festivals, our home audience is hearing that feedback, and more people are willing to come listen to us. It starts to feed each other.
Q: I know those concerts were important enough to you that — well, I want to talk a bit about the 2012-14 lockout of Minnesota Orchestra musicians. You told the board you would resign if the 2013 Carnegie Hall concerts were canceled.
A: And the Proms. Huge institutions in the music life. At that moment, it was a question of life or death for the orchestra. My purpose with that letter was to say, "Come on! Think about if we are losing Carnegie Hall. Think about if we are losing the Proms. You can't do that." But it was obvious that the people who were negotiating on behalf of the [orchestra's] board, it didn't mean anything for them.
Q: You did resign, and immediately conducted three concerts with the musicians. How did that change your relationship with them?
A: I think I have always been close with the players, but that was some sort of great turning point. First of all, I wanted to do music with them. And I wanted to give my support for the players, because they were handled very unfairly. The cuts that the board wanted were too high.
Q: And how about the audience? There was a palpable sense of grief in the hall. And I thought: Wow, this audience really feels a connection with Osmo Vänskä. Did that take you by surprise?
A: [He pauses.] I don't want to say surprised. Because it's so simple: If somebody is taking care of me, it brings us closer together in a better place. If I want to take care of the orchestra, it's the same thing. It means that we care for each other, and we want to help the situation and go through it together.
We have to remember that there were different kinds of people on the board. In the very end, when the music lovers were put in charge of the negotiations, the contract was done in a few weeks. The CEO at that time [Michael Henson] had lost his faith for classical music. He set a plan that we had to cut all the salaries in a very radical way. And he believed that all the American orchestras were going to do the same in a few years.
In the end, two board members came to see me and ask if I would come back. And I said: "Yes, but you have to send some people away from the administration and from the board." And they did it.
I also said, "I don't want to come back to the old system." The board was in one corner, the administration in another corner, and the players in one corner, and the three don't like each other. I said, "We need to start to work together." If we're doing it together, we have everybody's brain and heart there, maybe. That has been the model, very much, since the lockout. I think we needed some sort of big disaster before people were ready to change.
Program planning is the closest example for me. I wanted to set a new artistic committee. It has mostly the players, one board member, the CEO, and I am there. But the players are the majority. I know that there are many, many other committees and groups that are working the same way, so that they are working together.
Q: Would you talk about the orchestra's landmark tours? It became the first major American orchestra to visit Cuba since the 1950s and the first to visit South Africa.
A: When [Cuban President] Raul Castro and [then-President Barack] Obama made new rules, it was obvious in the music business that an orchestra should try to go there. And we were quick. Those good board members wanted to react and make this possible.
In Cuba, we found our model in touring — not to just go to one place, then fly the next morning, but to stay and try to connect with the music schools, young students, youth orchestras. I remember we had one side-by-side rehearsal with the Cuban National Youth Orchestra. Their conductor did his arrangement of a song that had a lot of the traditional Cuban rhythms. The kids were teaching the Minnesota Orchestra players how to make those sounds, and how to make the rhythm so it is really swinging. It was so much fun, such a great experience. I was playing bass drum toward the end of the program.
When we went to South Africa, we wanted to do it the same way.
Q: How did that tour come about?
A: That started with my very good friend Ilkka Uurtimo, who is a cellist in the Lahti Orchestra. He had been coaching the South African National Youth Orchestra, and they were having a 50th anniversary celebration but didn't have a conductor for it. He asked if I was interested. I so enjoyed working with them. And I loved the country, too. Seeing those kids playing there, I thought: This might be an ideal place to come with the Minnesota Orchestra. Because this is not a place where every orchestra is going.
Q: You followed the Beethoven cycle by recording the Sibelius symphonies.
A: BIS asked me, "What do you think about doing a second cycle of Sibelius?" Because we'd done the cycle in Lahti. I said, "C'mon, we just did it." And they said, "Hey, Osmo, you may not have noticed, but it's 18 years ago when we did the very first recording. You're still the same person, but your artistic ideas might be moving."
Q: Then you moved on to Mahler for the third symphonic cycle of your tenure, which will bring you back to Minneapolis next November for a final round of concerts and recording. So why Mahler?
A: Mahler has been in my mind for a long time: Maybe one day, maybe one day. The Mahler symphonies are big, big complicated pieces. It was important for me to do this with my own orchestra.
Q: So what's next? You still have the position in South Korea, as music director of the Seoul Philharmonic.
A: That only goes through the end of this calendar year, and then it's done. I told them that I didn't want to extend my contract.
Q: Is that your last official position?
A: You never know. I believe strongly — as do many other conductors — that they are never or very seldom retiring. There might be a chance that some orchestra is asking us to be a music director, but guest conducting fills my calendar totally right now. A lot. Maybe too much.
Q: Yet you seem as energetic as ever on the podium.
A: I love music. I think that is the only thing I can do. And if I have the chance to make music with a great orchestra like the Minnesota Orchestra — it's really one of the greatest orchestras. When I'm guest conducting, I always miss them, because they are really, really good. And if I can do good music with a good orchestra, nothing is better. I am always in love doing music.
Q: Is there one thing you can say is your proudest achievement?
A: I'm very proud of the quality of the orchestra. Wherever I go, it's very seldom or maybe never when I can get better playing than I can get from the Minnesota Orchestra. This is one of the top orchestras. And I hope that it will continue getting better and better.
But this orchestra is not like a boat going where the winds are blowing. They know where they are going. That collaboration model is taking care of this orchestra right now if there is a gap to get the new music director. Everyone is taking care of the orchestra. The players, the board, the administration and the audience.
I have done my part of this. Now it's time for someone else to continue.