After 19 years leading the Minnesota Orchestra, Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä will be saying goodbye this month, with performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 from June 10 to 12 and a “farewell celebration” on June 17. His tenure with the orchestra—and especially the recordings he’s made with the group—have been almost universally acclaimed: It took days of googling before we found a single negative review of any of his albums (by critic David Hurwitz of ClassicsToday). Vänskä’s Sibelius interpretations are especially renowned, with the Minnesota Orchestra’s sounding breathtakingly crisp, precise, and sparkling in the symphonies.
Before Minnesota, Vänskä led the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Finland from 1988 to 2008. Now he’s unattached, having decided not to extend his contract with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. On Zoom, we spoke with Vänskä in a mixture of Finnish and English about the ups and downs of a long-term conductor-orchestra relationship, the agendas behind the 2013 lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra, and why his home audience is always his priority.
VAN: In a recent VAN interview, conductor Daniel Harding quoted Herbert von Karajan as saying that “being a music director is saying the same three or four things to an orchestra every day for 40 years.” After 19 years with Minnesota, do you think that’s true?
Osmo Vänskä: Yeah, in my opinion it often goes like this: A visiting conductor is considered interesting, and people feel positive about them. But once they become music director, the enthusiasm falls flat, followed by a kind of blah feeling. The orchestra questions why this conductor has been hired in the first place. Then, after a long-term commitment with the same orchestra, once the contract comes to an end, all of a sudden they start to appreciate the conductor again.
That dynamic probably goes both ways though, right?
Yes, it does go both ways. The biggest challenge for a conductor is to find out how to make it interesting and not repeat themselves over and over. But a person [who never repeats themself] probably doesn’t exist. It’s like most human relationships: You have good days and not so good days, and it depends a lot on your perspective. In an orchestra, there are more than a hundred players present, which is why there are always some individuals having a good day and some having a bad day. Despite all the obstacles you keep going. The most important thing is that the orchestra improves. If that happens, then my job is done.
Do you think that an orchestra has a maximum level to which it can improve, at least under one conductor?
I don’t think that way. I’ve had very long relationships with two different orchestras. I conducted the Lahti Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, and now I’ve been in Minnesota for almost 20 years. My method is very simple: Every single program or concert performance needs to be a bit better than the previous one. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal. I disagree that any orchestra has a maximum quality level that can’t be exceeded; you must always try to improve its performance. It’s a never-ending task, but if we look at it in the long run—if the job has been done well—after a couple or many years of working together, the orchestra will be objectively better than when we started. If it hasn’t developed at all, something has gone wrong.
This doesn’t only apply to the great orchestras. Sometimes things work even faster with the lower quality orchestras, as people see the difference faster. In great orchestras, sometimes the musicians simply get tired, as they can’t see an end to the continuous [pursuit] of perfection. Like, Will this never be finished?
It’s also problematic that the performers themselves very seldom have a chance to listen to their own orchestra’s performances from the audience. From their seats [in the orchestra] they simply do not see how much it’s developing. I’ve had similar experiences both in Lahti and in Minnesota where I’ve seen retired orchestra members, or some who happen to be on sick leave or something, have a chance to listen to their group’s performance. Afterwards they’re astonished by how much better the orchestra sounds compared to earlier times. The musicians need to get some external feedback so that they maintain their energy and motivation. Otherwise, they might just start feeling exhausted.
Harding also said that when he worked as a guest conductor in the United States, he sometimes encountered an attitude where orchestras didn’t want to rehearse too much or get too deep into details. Did you experience that at the beginning of your time in the U.S.?
I’m totally aware that people tell some guest conductors: “You do your job, and we’ll do our job,” and then they don’t try too hard. I haven’t had that—or I’m naive enough that I haven’t seen it, because I just can’t do anything without always trying 100 percent. I can’t do, “Let’s have fun and go to the concert.” I must try to do it as perfectly as possible. And that’s a good thing, but that [counts] against me with some orchestras, when people don’t want to work. If people tolerate me, then usually the orchestra improves.
You need some sort of synchronicity. People don’t need to like me, but they do need to do what I say. I don’t need to be an asshole—I try to do it better—but this also goes along with the Finnish temperament. When I’m working, very seriously, hyvin vakavasti, people fear that I’m angry. And sometimes it’s true: If I don’t get things when I first ask, I get frustrated. But for me working seriously mainly means I don’t make jokes and have fun. That’s the Finnish way. Obviously that’s sometimes a problem for Americans, because everything should be so positive.
Still, I’ve gotten used to being one of the musicians; I don’t really want to be an authoritarian figure. I don’t want to be called “maestro.” I’ve met so many asshole maestros that I don’t want to be associated with them. I’m just Osmo. My way of working is very intimate. I talk to individual performers a lot, like, “Your intonation is a bit high,” or “You’re rushing.” My way of working gets close to people. Wonderful, creative situations develop with some musicians, while others find my methods more foreign. I suppose this is not just my problem. What kind of a relationship do you have, and how close can it become, so that we can work together as efficiently as possible?
Efficiency seems important to you—cutting out everything unnecessary from the communication.
It’s very Finnish. My [conducting] teacher, Jorma Panula, doesn’t say more than three words maximum in ten minutes—and one is a swear! It’s just like, “Don’t rush.” I remember with the BBC Scottish in Glasgow, He’d just say [flatly]: “That’s too low. Play together.” For me that’s the most effective way, but some people are not ready mentally for it. It’s a strength, but it can also be a weakness, if the chemistry isn’t right.
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In 2013, during a lockout of the musicians at the Minnesota Orchestra, you briefly resigned as music director. How did you rebuild trust at the organization after you came back?
There was one group of people, consisting of the CEO and a few people on the board, who caused all this mess to happen. The reason was that the CEO had lost his belief in classical music, and that salaries could be paid for the musicians. According to him, all American orchestras would need to [downsize] and start over with a smaller crowd. He marketed his idea very efficiently, especially to a couple of bankers, two of whom used to be the former and current heads of the board [respectively]. That’s where everything started. When they asked me back, my conditions were that the CEO must be fired, and that the two bankers can’t be members of the board anymore. Moreover, the general manager who had been part of their clique would need to be let go, too. When all this happened, the musicians’ trust in me was perfect again.
It was something inside of the whole organization. These bankers were board members. There was a group of board members who liked the CEO’s idea: Yeah, we’ll just destroy everything and start something new. Because they were asking for 40 percent pay cuts [for the players]. Also the junior manager—he was the fourth person that I asked that he not continue if they wanted me back.
I had written a letter that if we were going to lose the four Carnegie Hall concerts and the BBC Proms, I’d resign. And it didn’t mean anything to the bankers: [They said], “Who cares?” So I resigned. Then, when the board changed their spokesman for the negotiations, we negotiated a new contract in two weeks. So it was just a bad person’s mission.
And that was my second point: I said, I’m not going to come back and continue as we had. Because the disaster had [happened]. And the old version was what you already said about the mentality of the players: “We just play, you conduct.” Inside the organization people didn’t work together. The board had a lot of bad thoughts about the players; everybody was in their courts. I said, “If you want me to come back, we have to start working together. We need special skills: We need the board members, we need the administration, but [sarcastically] for some reason the orchestra also needs players. They are not the minority. So we started many groups, I don’t know how many altogether. Board members, administration, players. The new group for the program planning, we allowed one board member to be there. The CEO could be there. But then it was six or seven players and me. As far as I know, that has never happened in any American orchestra.
In 2013, you told the radio station MPR that the Minnesota Orchestra needed to tour in order to “prove that what people are listening from the recordings is true.” With the increasing awareness of the environmental cost of touring, do you still think that’s the case—that the orchestra has something to prove?
That’s part of a bigger picture. There are three legs in my understanding of how to build up the orchestra and how to take care of the audience. The first leg is the home concerts, our own audience. We have to take care of our home audience, that’s the most important thing. The second thing is, it’s great if we’re able to do recordings, and to do good enough recordings that they get good reviews. It’s our way of sending the message out from Minneapolis that that’s how we play. If we get good feedback, then the music festivals are interested. And if we get good reviews from [abroad], our home audience is really curious about us: “Oh, they got great reviews in London, let’s go to the next concert when we get back!” If those three legs are working, then they feed each other.
But the environmental impact of touring is much bigger than playing concerts at home and making recordings.
Yeah, it is. For example, [our label] BIS only uses paper in their CDs, so there is absolutely no plastic in the covers. With regards to touring: Should all the musicians travel along? There could be 100 people on board [on a flight], and if all the other staff would be included too, we might easily reach 150 people, plus cargo. This would of course be an environmental problem. But the pandemic has taught us a lesson. We’ve learned that we should first and foremost consider our home audience. This must be an orchestra for the people of our city. In the Twin Cities, we have 3.3 million people, and these are the people who are our main audience. The most important thing is not that we go to perform in London, for example. Everything related to touring is just a byproduct. What we’ve tried to do is, we don’t allow a tour where we change cities every night and then we come back home.
Racial equality is also a priority for us. We have been very outspoken about it, especially after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which happened ten minutes away from us by foot.
You’ve also been programming a piece by Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov on recent concerts. How important is it for you that the Minnesota Orchestra be reacting to current political events?
To me it’s immensely important that, if something sad or horrible happens, be it a subjective or collective experience, music will be there to console us. The murder of George Floyd was one of those things: We wanted to contribute to the citizens’ collective grief or even anger. [In April], I started my international concert programs either with the Ukrainian national anthem or with Valentyn Silvestrovy’s piece “Hymni.” As an arts institution, we can’t keep silent. It’s not our job to take political stances or to tell people what is right or wrong, but now that people are dying and having to leave their homes, we want to play something that fits this extremely sad situation.
There’s a section on the Minnesota Orchestra website about “disrupting systemic racism,” with “anti-racist learning projects” to “reduce the reproduction of white privilege,” working with an external consulting company called Hillombo LLC. To what extent are you participating in these projects personally? Have you been working with this company too?
Yeah, when I’m in Minneapolis I go to those events. One goal is to find something which [encourages], let’s say, different-looking people to come to the audience. We also want to find a way to encourage people who are, let’s say for racial reasons or whatever reasons, people who don’t want to go to the [orchestral] auditions because they know they are not going to be taken seriously. It’s extremely difficult, because the whole tradition is that the best player should get the job and nothing else should be involved. That’s an opinion that has been there, and of course there are many good reasons why that opinion has been there. But we need to find a new way to open the door for those people who might have lost their faith in the audition system.
The other goal is that we try to do one piece in every concert which is written by someone other than a white male composer. This is a policy that this institution is behind. And we have found great pieces.
You were appointed music director of the Seoul Philharmonic in 2020. Why did you decide not to extend your contract there past 2022?
I’ve learned many things during these two years, I’m going on my third year now. I believe that I have given what I can in these circumstances. I would like to have a chance for someone else to find a way to work with this great orchestra.
And when you say you’ve given what you can under these circumstances, what “circumstances” do you mean?
I don’t want to say more publicly.
Earlier you mentioned the Finnish mentality, and in almost every interview I read with you, there’s a question about the nature of Finnish music or the “Finnish soul.” Are you tired of answering those kinds of questions?
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