Before becoming music director, Osmo Vänskä conducted the Minnesota Orchestra just once. But it proved to be a magnetic first date.
"The orchestra fell for him pretty hard," said Douglas Wright, principal trombone.
"There was a buzz that whole week," said violist Sam Bergman. He remembers telling his mom, who happened to be in town for those concerts: "I have no actual reason to say this except my own feelings, but I think you may have just seen the next music director."
In those early rehearsals, Bergman said the Finnish maestro, who was then 47, "was immediately sweating the details," polishing a single phrase for five minutes.
The players leaned forward, sat up in their chairs.
Some 21 years later, the orchestra's musicians are still struck by Vänskä's care, still awed by his energy.
"He's very particular and he's very persistent," said Fei Xie, principal bassoon.
"He does not settle," Bergman said. "He knows what he wants, and he's going to insist on it."
That persistence drove much of Vänskä's success with the orchestra, which became known for its precision in the concert hall and on its recordings, from Beethoven to Sibelius. The conductor's demand for detail, though, always drove a bigger picture: the building of tension, the arching of emotion.
And, in the end, Vänskä trusted his musicians. When Wright recorded the soaring solo in Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, Vänskä urged him to be "even freer, even more open."
As the orchestra repeatedly played the passage, "he was very free with me ... how ever I wanted to take it."
Sure, the recordings earned critics' praise and Grammy nods. But one simple reason he loved to record, several musicians said, was because it made the orchestra better.
And Vänskä wanted this orchestra to be the best.
"He's a very competitive guy," said Wright, who served on the search committee that scouted Vänskä. Early in his tenure, the conductor called his musicians to the rehearsal room and gave a "State of the Union kind of address," Wright said, telling them: "I want to make this the greatest orchestra in the world."
In 2010, success: "For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world," the New Yorker's Alex Ross declared after a Carnegie Hall performance.
Playing in Baltimore, Xie had heard about the orchestra's dynamic range — from the subtlest pianissimo to the grandest fortissimo. During his auditions, leaders asked him: "Do this again, even softer." "Do this again, even louder."
But he wasn't prepared for what that range felt like, sitting within the orchestra. "It was mind-blowing."
If Vänskä is a taskmaster, he's a witty one, able to cut tension or intensity by poking fun at a longtime musician or himself. He toys with the stereotype that Finns are dour, occasionally sporting a T-shirt that reads, "I'm Not Angry, This Is Just My Finnish Face."
Bergman recalled when Vänskä, a "strong proponent of living composers," introduced James MacMillan's "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie," which depicts a woman being burned alive for being a witch. Most conductors would have opened with a spiel about the importance of new music, Bergman said. Instead, Vänskä told the audience a story about playing this piece in Europe, where a guy kept booing, over and over.
"When I get to the end of the piece," he told them, "I will put my arms all the way down, and then you will know when it's time to boo."
The audience loved that — and him.
During the bitter and prolonged contract dispute that would mark the midpoint of his tenure, Vänskä resigned his post after management failed to secure a settlement, then led the locked-out musicians in three concerts just days later.
A music director taking a public stand in a labor/management dispute "just wasn't done," said Rebecca Albers, principal viola. "It was politically dangerous for him.
"That's the prime example of his personal integrity."
It endeared him not only to the musicians, but the community, as well. After the lockout, audiences chanted his name: "Bring back Osmo!"
"They loved him before," Wright said, "but that whole experience almost turned him into a folk hero."
Musicians witnessed how seriously Vänskä took each piece and each program, which led them to do the same.
"It doesn't matter what the repertoire is," Albers said. "If it's music, he's fully there. It's infectious."
At other orchestras, a maestro might leave neighborhood concerts to assistants. Vänskä "would take the orchestra to the most prestigious stages in the world," Xie said. "But he'll also conduct us in high school gymnasiums."
That's part of why he's so "deeply rooted" here, Xie continued. "People have seen him not just in our concert hall but in their own community."
His unending energy isn't reserved for the podium. Waiting to return home from their historic, whirlwind 2015 tour to Cuba, musicians were slumped on the floor at the Havana airport, sleeping, but Vänskä was still jumping, still dancing.
Albers has the video evidence: "He's just a ball of energy."
He reads books to Albers' daughter, a 2-year-old who knows Vänskä as "ukki," the Finnish word for grandfather. When Albers and her wife, violist Maiya Papach, were in a tough spot, he babysat. If they have a piece of furniture that needs putting together, "we have to stop him from doing it."
"He has this incredible warmth and vitality," Albers said. "And seeing him with my daughter, it makes me adore him more."