The Minnesota Orchestra is now about half-way through its Sibelius Festival. Which has been a thing of joy for the ages… I can’t remember the first time a soloist got a standing ovation after the first movement of a concerto. I mean, Osmo had to all but shush us to be able to continue….
This is not, strictly speaking, the Big Finale celebrating his time as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, but you can’t escape the feeling that this is a finale of sorts. A final victory lap of incredible music that he—and the Orchestra—feel deeply connected to.
And the fact that we just heard a stunning performance of the Sixth Symphony—which just happens to be my favorite piece of music—I wanted to come full circle and share another story, about another Sibelius Sixth. And how it healed my soul.
It’s the story about how I finally met one of my musical idols, at what ended up being a pivotal moment in my life.
And, it is a story that I reflect upon repeatedly, as the season winds down….
So. Back in the 1990s, I had a very different career; I was in academia, and teaching Latin American history at the University of Kansas. At the time I was less active as a performer (although my students were surprised when I appeared in a production of Die Fledermaus), and to compensate I threw myself more into the musicology side of things: researching, writing, and ravenously exploring works via CD and video.
In 1996 I ran across something unusual (and those who know me know my love for unusual music). It was a “lost” tone poem by Sibelius called The Wood Nymph. Whether due to ethnic pride or shared cultural language, I adore Sibelius’ music with rare passion, and I decided to get the CD even though I didn’t recognize either the band playing it or the conductor. It was a revelation. The only thing more astonishing than the music itself was the stunning—and I mean stunning—playing of whatsitsname orchestra led by whosthisguy. All I could do was to stare slack-jawed at the stereo until the work was done, then scramble for the jewel case to see who was performing this.
And that is how I first came across Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.
I was completely hooked, but a bit sad; the CD was put out by BIS label, which had already recorded a well-regarded cycle of Sibelius’ symphonies. The economics of the music industry suggested it was unlikely this small label would double up and record a rival to a major seller in their own catalog. I was disappointed—if Osmo could work a miracle with a lesser work, what would he do with a major one?
Mercifully, my gloomy projection was entirely unwarranted. BIS did see they had a major star on their hands, and chose to have Vänskä do a Sibelius symphony cycle of his own. It was somewhat difficult getting BIS’s recordings in Kansas at the time (they’re a small international label, and didn’t have the distribution firepower of larger rivals), but I did snap up the first CD released—Symphonies 1 and 4. I was excited for the 4th, as I love that somewhat bleak work, but the 1st has never really spoken to me. It was laziness that had me pop in the CD into my car stereo and not immediately skip ahead.
And so the First Symphony started playing. And for the first time in my life, I literally stopped my car and pulled over. The opening grabbed my attention with the solo clarinet, and when the orchestra came crashing in… well, if it wasn’t such a blow to masculine pride I would swear I gasped like a Victorian schoolmarm. I ended up listening to the First Symphony twice through, back-to-back, wondering all the time “Sweet Jesus, who are these people?”
And after that I became a huge, huge Osmo fan. I kept an eye on the trade magazines to follow upcoming releases; as a result, I watched his career unfold. Perhaps the biggest treat was his CD of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony, which I mentioned is one of my all-time favorite works of music. As a symphony it is particularly hard to pull off—there’s a reason it’s not his most popular work—but from the opening suspensions to the luminous final chorale, there is simply no other work like it. It can bomb in a bad performance, but on that CD Osmo gave a performance for the ages. I don’t have a “desert island” CD list, but I do have a “living in the rainforest” list… a small group of CDs I hauled down with me when I was living in the rainforests of Costa Rica. This was one of them.
So, imagine my surprise in 2000 when the Minnesota Orchestra announced a special concert, led by no other than guest conductor Osmo Vänskä. Even better, he was going to conduct my favorite, Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony—a work in no danger of being over-performed. I had already resigned myself to never hearing it live.
You all probably heard my scream of delight, but never quite realized what the sound was.
But, as they say: wait, there’s more! As a special treat, it the concert also featured a world premiere of a new Harp Concerto written by another composer I loved, Einojuhani Rautavaara. It didn’t matter that I lived hundreds of miles away in Kansas, I immediately grabbed tickets and laid plans to come see it. (Tickets were somewhat difficult to grab, as the other work on the program was the Sibelius Violin Concerto performed by some guy named Joshua Bell. Whatever.)
Alas, as the weekend approached, my own personal life got fairly messy, and I the night before making the roadtrip, I went through a fairly nasty breakup. Beyond the scramble in logistic plans, I was in a truly black mood and chose not to drive up to Minneapolis that night, but to emotionally gather myself up, try to get a good night’s rest, and drive up the next day. The next morning was pretty rough. I maybe got in a couple hours of fitful dozing, and was now feeling both raw and exhausted. But I got myself in reasonably good shape and hit the road for the 8-hour drive north. I don’t remember much of the ride up, but got in with enough time to make myself presentable and get to Orchestra Hall. Tired, hurt, mad as hell—just how you want to go to a concert. I’m sure I was radiating toxicity to my neighbors.
And then the music started. I have long, long associations with the Minnesota Orchestra, but I had not heard them like that before. It is hard even now to quite describe it… forgive the cliché but it really did have charms to soothe the savage breast (as an aside, this is one of the most mis-quoted texts out there… the original is “breast” not “beast”). It was Light, it was Luminosity, it was Serenity. And not in some passive, forgettable elevator-music kind of way, but in a way that was engaging and stimulating. Healing.
I was a mess. I’m grateful the folks next to me didn’t call for the house doctor.
That concert fed my soul. I entered the hall in a very dark place, but came out… whole. And it wasn’t until that music washed over me that I realized how much I needed it. I actually slept that night.
Interestingly, the next year my life changed remarkably, and within a year I was offered a full-time job with the Minnesota Orchestra. I maintain to this day I’m the only person on the planet who made the jump into the fine arts for the better pay, better job security, and lesser politics. And, amazingly, at roughly the same time, the Orchestra named Osmo its new Music Director. And after joining the Minnesota Chorale, I was able to perform with him onstage. It has been a deep, deep privilege to have been able to work administratively and artistically with the only conductor whose career I followed like a fanboy.
Performing with him has been a gift, and attending the concerts he’s led has been one of my life’s great joys these last 19 years.
I’m scheduled to be a performer in the Mahler 8th Symphony that brings a formal close to his tenure. And I can’t imagine how hard that’s going to hit me.