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S & H Interview

Osmo Vänskä talks to Bill Kenny


I talk with Osmo Vänskä for half an hour or so and gain a real sense of his modesty and respect for his colleagues. Teamwork is everything, he says, between himself and his players, between players and the production staff of recording companies and between everyone and the administrators who arrange practicalities. When I ask about his plans for both Lahti and Minnesota, his reply is the same for each: to work together to improve performances. ‘Sometimes I have ideas,’ he says, ‘and sometimes it’s the players.’

Mr. Vänskä’s enthusiasm for his post as Minnesota’s latest Music Director is also very evident. ‘People used to talk about the Big Five orchestras,’ he says cheerfully, ‘but now we have the Big Ten.’ After naming Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia for the first group, he adds Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Minnesota and San Francisco to complete the roll - call. ‘It’s a fine orchestra,’ he says of Minnesota, ‘with very good players. I’m enjoying getting to know them and of course it takes time to build up good relationships.’ He is pleased with the progress so far and feels his performances are already getting better, even in these early days of his tenure. What he fails to mention is that his appointment to Minnesota makes him part of a different Big Ten: his predecessors included Ormandy, Dorati, Marriner and de Waart.

Minnesota’s 98 member Orchestra was called the Minneapolis Symphony until 1968 and celebrated its centenary last year. It gives 200 concerts annually to audiences of nearly 400,000, and reaches a huge public by broadcasts to more than 100 cities through Minnesota Public Radio. This broadcasting commitment is part of a long history of public service which also includes Young People's Concerts attracting more than 55,000 students each year and a great variety of schools projects. Repertoire always includes a good deal of contemporary music and composers from whom works have been commissioned by the orchestra have included Adams, Bartók, Copland, Corigliano, Ives and Aaron Jay Kermis, the orchestra’s current New Music Advisor.

Immediate repertoire plans for the Minnesota Orchestra include a three-year cycle of Beethoven symphonies, a two-year programme of Nielsen symphonies and in the current season there is also the Rautavaara Violin Concerto. There’s little Sibelius though, apart from Finlandia and The Oceanides. ‘It seems better not to do much Sibelius too soon,’ Mr. Vänskä says, ‘I prefer to do other things first.’

These other things are considerable: a two year project to record the Beethoven symphonies with BIS begins in May of this year and this week the orchestra has a concert at Carnegie Hall as a prelude to a three week European tour. Mr. Vänskä is pleased by both prospects and once again specifically mentions the support that he receives from BIS. In these days of financial constraints, he is grateful for the company’s commitment to such an expensive project. It seems almost as though his own reputation as an innovative Beethoven interpreter never occurs to him.

Although the Minnesota Orchestra had a successful European Tour in 1998 under its former Music Director Eiji Oue, and returned again in 2000, the new tour will be Mr. Vänskä’s European debut as Music Director. The tour is particularly demanding: after the initial concert on February 9th in New York where Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg plays Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1, subsequent concert venues are Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Stuttgart as well as Leeds, London, Birmingham and Glasgow in the UK. The final concert is on February 26th in Lahti’s Sibelius Hall, home of Sinfonia Lahti of which Mr. Vanska has been Music Director since 1988. Violinist Joshua Bell has a significant role in the tour, playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto in almost every venue. Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildiko Komlosi and baritone Michele Kalmandi also join the orchestra for performances of Bartók’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in Vienna’s Musikverein and the Barbican in London. In addition to music by Bartók, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky, the Minnesota Orchestra will perform two works by Aaron Jay Kernis: Color Wheel (2001), for Orchestra, and Musica celestis for String Orchestra, although these last will not feature in every concert.

Mr. Vänskä is also pleased by an unusual aspect of the tour. The Orchestra joins with Minneapolis based ‘Mighty Media’ to create an online Virtual Tour. Together, the two organisations hope to repeat the successes of their previous virtual tours of Japan and Europe in 1998 and 2000. Teachers and students can log on to the ‘Virtual Tour Europe 2004’ site to learn more about the traditions of the countries visited by the Orchestra. Touring musicians and their families, including Mr. Vänskä, will be guides for this interactive experience. In addition, fifth graders at the Lotila School in Lahti, which Mr. Vänskä says has an excellent choir that has performed with his Lahti orchestra, will connect through e-mail to other students in the Minnesota Orchestra’s Adopt-a-School programme. The ‘Virtual Tour’ is free though, and everyone is encouraged to follow its progress by logging on to

As time runs short, I ask Mr. Vänskä about developments with Sinfonia Lahti and the Lahti Sibelius Festival. He is proud that the orchestra’s 2003 tour to Japan was a success and that Japanese critics voted their Sibelius Kullervo symphony the best classical music performance of 2003. He also mentions the release of their latest BIS recording, the opera Die Loreley by Fredrik Pacius, the 19th century German-born composer who was also responsible for Finland’s first opera, The Hunt of King Charles in 1851. In the light of this recording and the inclusion of Duke Bluebeard in the Minnesota tour, I ask if more opera is on the agenda. It isn’t. It turns out that Ulf Söderblom, the conductor responsible for the Pacius revival was suddenly indisposed so Mr. Vänskä filled the gap. ‘I’m mostly a concert conductor,’ he says, ‘and although I like Bartók’s music very much, I’m not planning more opera at the moment.’

We talk briefly about the annual Sibelius Festival at Lahti. He expects it to carry on for the foreseeable future, he says. This year is devoted mostly to tone poems and next year to violin works other than the Violin Concerto. The festival has a good reputation now and fortunately attracts good audiences, both local and international, so Sinfonia Lahti and Mr. Vänskä are happy to go on with it for as long as audiences continue.

I cannot resist asking one other thing; does he ever feel tempted to ignore or modify anything he finds in a Sibelius score? ‘I don’t,’ he answers instantaneously, ‘If there’s something I don’t understand, then I think about it until I do.’ Respect for colleagues, it seems, extends to composers too.

Bill Kenny


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