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Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä began his career as a clarinetist, first with the Turku Philharmonic in his native Finland (1971-1976), and later as the co-principal chair of the Helsinki Philharmonic (1977-1982). After completing his studies at Sibelius Academy with classmates Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Vänskä accepted appointment as Chief Conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  Under his leadership, the Lahti completed a U.S. tour in 2005, including stops at Orchestra Hall in Minnesota and Avery Fisher Hall in New York. Vänskä holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow for his work as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Glasgow (1997-2002), and was named “2005 Conductor of the Year” by Musical America.
 
When previous Music Director Eiji Oue announced his departure from the Minnesota Orchestra in 2002, a committee was formed to begin an international search for their future leader. Vänskä, who had previously conducted the Minnesota Orchestra only once, was the unanimous choice of the committee, and in September of 2003 he opened the orchestra's 101st season as its tenth Music Director. Known for his attention to detail, Vänskä has garnered much praise for both his live performances and his recordings. Recording heavily throughout his career with Swedish label BIS, he and the Minnesota Orchestra began a five-year project in 2004 to record the complete Beethoven symphonies under that label. Their recordings of Symphonies No. 3, 4, 5, 8, and 9 inspired Alex Ross of The New Yorker (November 20, 2006) to write, “This is some of the most vivid Beethoven playing on the market.” And of Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra’s live performances, James R. Oestreich, in The New York Times (December 17, 2006), wrote, “On one night in early December the Minnesota [Orchestra] seemed, if not the best American orchestra…at least the most important.”

Working 17 weeks of the year leading concerts, recordings, and other events with the Minnesota Orchestra, Vänskä has continued his work with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, in addition to appearances as guest conductor for the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, among others. It is widely accepted that, under Vänskä's leadership, the Minnesota Orchestra remains one of the Top Ten orchestras in the country.

The following is an interview conducted in March, 2007 after rehearsals with the University of Minnesota orchestra, two days before Vänskä was to guest conduct their Spring Concert. Vänskä speaks with a thick Finnish accent and his phrasing is original and individual. He is a true believer in music’s ability to transform the listener and, for him--as with food--to sustain life.


ID: Programs like your outreach to the University of Minnesota are a great way to reach out to the younger generation. How do you see the classical genre moving in to the future with young people? And how do you see the art form in general moving forward?

OV: Let’s think about what means: "classical." It’s something that is respected, basically a very positive thing, it has been there for ages. I think as human beings, we have different times in our lives. It is my experience that classical music typically comes to people’s lives a little bit later. So, it could be a part of our lives when we are children, we go with our parents, or we play an instrument. Ok, some of the players continue as a professional, that is a very, very select group of people. But most people have a connection when they are young, then they get a little bit older, they have a career, they might have troubles, maybe they are just busy with family things. And then I guess something like 35-40-years-old might be a time when you think, “Ok, classical music is interesting. I haven’t thought about that. It might be interesting.” So this is one point for your question. I think as an orchestra we have to take care that small kids have a chance to come to the orchestra hall, that they have a chance to have a good experience about classical music. It’s really a big number of kids that the Minnesota Orchestra is doing. I think it is more than 20,000 per year that come, and they can touch the instruments.

So this is one part of that. Then another thing is that we have to do young people’s concerts. We have to do special productions for the young people. But I’m not so worried if we don’t have a lot of people who are like twenties and so on. If you understand what I mean. This is it: if they’ve had a good experience, then they know where to go.

ID: It seems like a matter of just getting them in the door. When you see it live it’s completely different.

OV: That’s true. The live concert is always, always a better experience than even the best cds, because it’s totally different to see when people are playing and when people are listening. There are so many kinds of visual things, but I don’t want to say that this is not a problem at all. The problem is that if young people don’t have any connection to classical music then how do they know about it? That’s some kind of problem in this country, all over the world. We have to give concentration for younger generations. Without that connection there won’t be orchestras in the future. Think about what kind of clothes we are wearing. If you go to 15 or 20-year-olds, they don’t have any classical clothes. I think that people are buying such things later in life. There’s some kind of comparison.

ID: On the point of recordings versus live music, you've received such critical and popular acclaim for your Beethoven recordings, could you explain how you were able to make them so fresh? You’ve been described as very detail-oriented. Is this part of your magic?

OV: I think for everybody the most important thing is music communicating with the people, and there are many ways to come to that. As you said, my way is giving a lot of attention for the details, and building up the wholeness from small pieces of musical elements. Also I try to be as loyal to the composer as possible, and it means that I have to believe for the composer. In other words, I don’t want to change things which are there. I try to be loyal and sometimes if I don’t understand something, I try to go for it anyway. Often understanding is coming when you try something, “Ah, that’s why he wanted do it this way.” But also, when we are doing symphonies which are the most standard repertoire, everyone has an idea, they know those pieces. If I know something, I don’t want to study it too much, because I know I know it. The thing with the Minnesota Orchestra is people have really accepted this kind of way. Trying to put away all this history, what we know about that, and start to read with the new eyes. Start to read exactly what’s written and not only as we are used to hearing it. And that's why people are saying, they are a “fresh interpretation” or “fresh way” of doing things.

ID: You said once that you aim for “passion and precision,” which I think you were just talking about there. You mentioned “wholeness,” which reminds me of James Joyce’s view of aesthetics, that art has to have wholeness, radiance, and harmony. With a novel or other piece of art the artist is working in his or her own individual confines. Here you have to work within the confines of the composer. How do you look for that individuality and passion, while being respectful to the composer?

OV: It’s a good question. It’s like the composer is writing with the single notes, so very small units, something that might take 48 minutes, 50 minutes. Those single units should be in the right place. Without that it would be chaos. But if our attention is only with the single unit, then there is not the wholeness. This might be a silly example, but if someone is saying, “I love you,” we know all those words, all the letters, and still there is a right to ask, “So, what does it mean? Which way?” There are many ways to do it. What does it mean on a practical level and in practical life. I think that’s some kind of the duty and responsibility for the conductor, when he or she is studying the score, trying to understand that when we go for those details, they are like letters, small words, even longer words, but they might be also just the letters and you have to feel, have to find out where are those ideas, where’s the direction. And many players are playing at the same time, so I have to make decisions from the score about what is the most important thing, what is the second important thing, and also control in rehearsals that people are doing that. To put things a little black and white, if the basses are playing BUM bum BUM bum BUM bum BUM, if this is the loudest thing you can hear, it cannot be very interesting for a long time. It’s the same thing as in theater, the light designer together with the director, they put the light so that the brightest thing should be on the spot. I have to take care that the right things are getting most of the light. It’s like setting small things so that when they are part of the big wholeness that things are in the right place. Harmony’s a great word, there’s no harmony if those small things are in wrong place. So think a long line, but make sure that the long line is built correctly with the small things. Hey, I go with what [Jean] Sibelius said, my countryman. He said that the right way to play music is so all those small pieces of food—meat, fish, or whatever—they have to swim inside of the sauce. That’s a simple, but a great way to say it. If you have only pieces of meat, or if you have so much sauce that you cannot see the smaller pieces, it’s not correct. But some kind of blend, and the sauce is pulling the thing together.

ID: That reminds me of something you said in rehearsal yesterday: “I’m not going to have the soloist play louder,” because everyone else was playing too loud.

OV: Right, there are two ways to do this: you can ask the soloist to play louder, but then you might change the color. So, the other way around, is put [the rest of the orchestra] down. And they might have more space there. That happens very often in music. For some reason, the first reaction so often is, “Play louder, we cannot hear you,” when you can get maybe a little bit more quality asking everyone to give more space. It’s like, again, the lights, if you just put it brighter and brighter and brighter, then everything is so bright that you don’t have any contrasts. For me, that’s one part of the Beethoven, quietness. For me the music is often stronger when we go to softer language. There’s much more communication than when everyone is playing loud.
Seeing Anew: Osmo Vanska and the New Minnesota Orchestra
By: David Luke Doody  w/ editing contributions from Taya Mueller
InDigest