A Conductor’s Tumultuous, Invaluable Tenure Ends in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — Osmo Vänskä has said goodbye to the Minnesota Orchestra once before. But this time, it’s for real.

In October 2013, at the nadir of one of the darkest periods any major American orchestra has faced, Vänskä resigned in protest over a lockout that was diminishing — and would come close to destroying — this ensemble, which he had spent a decade drilling to perfection as its music director.

A few days later, blazing a trail for conductors to side openly with their players during labor stripe, he led three concerts with the orchestra’s musicians, whose management had exiled them from their own hall. Vänskä asked the adoring audience members to withhold their ovations after his encore of Sibelius’s “Valse Triste,” a dance with death that he led in fury. He left in silence, and to tears.

Eight seasons later, any tears at his departure will be because of his triumph.

The Minnesota Orchestra stands proud again. That lockout ended shortly after Vänskä’s angry resignation, and he returned in April 2014, as if by popular acclamation. After 19 years as the ensemble’s conductor, he bids farewell with Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Orchestra Hall here on Sunday.

“I don’t want to say this is a happy family, because there is not a happy family in the world,” Vanskä, 69, said jokingly during an interview last week. “But it is as happy as it is possible to have.”

His departure is a moment to take stock of why his tenure, one of the most tumultuous in the history of American orchestras, has been so important.

Born and trained in Finland, Vänskä, a dynamic podium presence, arrived in Minneapolis in 2003, declaring that he would make the Minnesotans “the best orchestra in this country in four or five years.” He pursued that ambition with an intensity that he now admits was too aggressively intolerant of imperfections in rehearsal. But there was a time around a decade ago when critics habitually haired the ensemble as one of the greatest in the country — or anywhere — for its willingness to take risks, its rhythmic verve, its crisp articulation and its unanimity of purpose.

Ask Vänskä — who led the orchestra on a diplomatic mission to Cuba in 2015 and a pioneering tour to South Africa in 2018 — what he is most proud of, and he lauds the musicians for always playing, he said, as though their work is about “more than getting a paycheck.”

Consult the recorded legacy he has left with the BIS label, one at least equal in status to those of predecessors including Dimitri Mitropoulos and Antal Dorati, and it would be difficult to disagree. If Vänskä’s Mahler cycle misfired in symphonies that need more extroversion than reserveit also includes a Tenth that is among the most convincing available. His Sibelius remains admired, richer than his taut, biting earlier set with the Lahti Symphony. His enthralling Beethoven still sounds as fresh as it did when it first came out, and remains arguably the finest such survey of the century so far.

These are signal achievements, but Vänskä’s time in charge has been about more than the pursuit of musical excellence. There was ample proof of that, though, in a concert here on June 2 that ended with the premiere of his friend Jaakko Kuusisto’s Symphony — an unsparing, frightening reflection on mortality that was left unfinished at Kuusisto’s death in February from a brain tumor and completed by his brother, Pekka.

Now, after a lockout and a pandemic lockdown, what seems to matter more than national or international acclaim is that the ensemble tries to be the best it can be for this city, which Vänskä — with Erin Keefehis wife of seven years and the orchestra’s concertmaster — will continue to call home.

“We are stronger when a crisis comes if we are connected to this community,” he said. “We have to be there for this community, and then they will take care of us.”

Being there requires first of all that the Minnesota Orchestra continues to exist, an imperative that was once not as obvious as it should have been.

Although the ensemble’s underlying finances have improved since the lockout, its chief executive Michelle Miller Burns said, it continues to face the sobering constraints familiar to many orchestras. Even before pandemic restrictions ravaged its income in the last two years, the balanced budgets that had steadily built confidence after 2014 had yielded to a record deficit of $8.8 million in 2019 — a reminder of grimmer times.

The spirit and collaboration of transparency, consultation and collaboration that emerged from the lockout served the orchestra then and during the pandemic. In September 2020, the musicians willingly took a temporary 25 percent pay cut to help right the finances, and no full-time administrative staff were laid off. Vänskä chose to forgo 35 percent of his salary his.

Despite the pain, no major problems are expected in coming negotiations over the musicians’ contract, which expires in August. The financial plan remains to try to raise revenue, rather than impose cuts.

“Every decision we make, we are making it together,” said Sam Bergman, a violist and the chair of the orchestra committee. “There is a greater trust level than there would be if it was just decisions handed down from on high.”

Much of that collaborative impulse has come from the musicians, as well as Burns and her predecessor, Kevin Smith, but Bergman said that Vänskä had also taken a leading role in helping to foster a healthy culture at the orchestra, not least in an artistic planning process that includes musicians more meaningfully, such as in auditions and repertory choices.

“When you have musicians and an administration that want a collaborative working model, a music director who is too easily threatened could potentially be a huge impediment,” Bergman said. “He has embraced the idea that the musicians need to take some ownership of the organization, and to lead in the way that we interface with the community. And he didn’t have to do that.”

That has been particularly true of the players’ efforts to address racism in classical music and beyond. Their work predated the murder of George Floyd here in May 2020, Bergman said, but intensified after it. The issue struck even closer to home in February, when Minneapolis Police Department officers fatally shot Amir Locke in an apartment across the street from the stage door.

Concerts that included Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” in May came with an exhibition mounted in conjunction with the George Floyd Global Memorial; after Locke’s name was spray painted onto Orchestra Hall during protests, the administration invited teen artists to commemorate him more formally.

Among other initiativesthe orchestra has also started a musician-led project to record works by Black composers, including Margaret Bonds and Ulysses Kay, that have not received professional recordings. And it continues to work with the Sphinx Organizationthree of whose affiliates held one-year positions in the strings this season, and whose Virtuosi ensemble shared the stage last week.

All this is intended to be just a beginning, though one that goes further than the token efforts of many other orchestras. Laurie Greeno, a former co-chair of Orchestrate Excellence — one of the two main community groups that sprang up during the lockout — and who later joined the board of directors, said the board was eager to diversify a roster that remains 84 percent white.

“If you look at just the demographics out 30 years,” Greeno said, “this organization will not exist if it’s not relevant.”

Vänskä, for his part, has embraced this agenda in planning recent seasons; subscription programs in Minnesota now routinely include at least one work by a composer of color.

“We cannot say that this is our style, and we just play this and that,” he said of the inherited canon, and insisted that elevating underrepresented composers does not mean compromising on quality or taking a box-office risk. “No. We have to change.”

Vänskä’s blend of musical ability and steadfast local commitment will make him difficult to replace. He will serve as conductor laureate, but the organization remains in no hurry to confirm his successor his, four years after he announced that he would leave.

“Someone who is going to really embrace what and who this orchestra is, is really important,” Burns said of the search committee’s priorities. “I think that is going to be well indicated by how engaged and active in this community our next music director is.”

The roaster for next season offers few clues. Fabien Gabel and Dima Slobodeniouk have been mentioned in rapidly changing lists of candidates in the local press. Otherwise, there is a blend of experienced hands like Donald Runnicles, midcareer maestros like Thomas Sondergard and Pablo Heras-Casado, and younger possibilities, including Dalia Stasevska and Ryan Bancroft, a Californian who, at 32, was recently announced as the chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

Vänskä has no immediate plans to raise another orchestra to the heights that he insists on. His brief dalliance his as music director of the troubled Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra ends this year, and he is in no rush to find a new long-term post.

“The orchestra must be ready to work hard,” he said of any potential music directorship. “There are orchestras that don’t want to work, and we both start to hate each other pretty soon. The good thing is that it is not a must for me to get a new job. I can guest conduct until it comes to the end.”

He continued: “That’s the only thing I can do, to make music. If I stopped right now, I would go mad in a month.”

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