Osmo: The Right Person, in the Right Job, at the Right Time

Well, I suppose it’s time.

Time to write a farewell to Osmo Vänskä as he steps down from his 19-year tenure as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

He joins the ranks of several other venerated conductors who have made their mark on the ensemble, but ultimately moved on—greats like Dimitri Mitropoulos, Antal Dorati, Neville Marriner, Eugene Ormandy.  And now Osmo.

I’ve been dreading writing this out for a while… well, maybe “dread” is too harsh a term. I’ve thought many times about writing a retrospective, about trying to give Osmo the send off he deserves. But it’s harder to do than I thought. Hard to imagine this end to an exceptional era.

Publicity Photo from the Minnesota Orchestra

It’s curious. We’re hardly bosom buddies, but I can’t help but note how deeply he has been intertwined with my life over the last 22 years. He started as Music Director with the Orchestra at about the same time I started on as a full-time staff member. While I have not had the pleasure of close-knit, near-daily interactions with him like the Orchestra musicians, or even the senior staff at Orchestra Hall, I have had a surprisingly rich and varied series of encounters with him. I’ve worked worked closely with him as an arts administrator on staff of the Orchestra, performed with him as a singer in the Minnesota Chorale, served for a time as his translator in Cuba, interfaced with him as a member of the media, interviewed him as a program annotator… and served him drinks as a bartender.

An altogether strange mixture of experiences. So many experiences that I’m not even sure where to start, if I am to give a proper retrospective.

So I guess I’ll start here: simply put, Osmo was exactly what we needed. The right person in the right place at the right time.

He was and is an incredible musical talent, and I think his legacy will ultimately (and rightly) be judged on his exceptional contributions as an artistic leader. But there is more to it than that. He was also a pivotal organizational leader… and I’m not sure if his contributions in this arena get the credit they deserve. And finally, Osmo was a perfect fit for Minnesota… both the state, and the Orchestra.

And I’d like to say a few words about why.

(The usual disclaimers that I’m writing this simply from my own perspective, based own experiences. I do not presume to speak for others or any of the organizations I’m involved with.)

* * *

I’ve written before about how I first “met” Osmo… I knew him as an extraordinary conductor with a scrappy orchestra in a distant corner of Finland. His recording of Jean Sibelius’ Wood-Nymph almost literally blew my mind, and I started actively following his career through recordings and trade publications. Back in 2000 I heard he was conducting the Minnesota Orchestra in one of my favorite works, Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony, and a world premiere by another favorite composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara. I drove 500 miles to hear it, and my God it was worth it.

The CD that started it all

I wasn’t the only one to think so; with blazing speed Osmo was announced as the new Music Director for the Orchestra. On the basis of one concert. (Believe me, if you heard it, you’d understand.)

Curiously, at nearly the same time, the Minnesota Orchestra—in a surprise move—offered me a job in the administration, becoming in effect the Assistant House Manager. I had a comfortable career going teaching Latin American History at the University of Kansas. But with a couple of calls I bailed out of my academic career, packed the U-Haul, and moved north to Minneapolis. It wasn’t Osmo’s appointment as Music Director that caused me jump careers, but it was part of the package that made coming to the Orchestra so enticing. I could see that Osmo’s appointment sparked a real jolt of adrenaline in the organization. Even before he arrived, the staff knew something amazing was taking place. There was a… swagger. A sense of wonderful new horizons opening up. And I was thrilled to get swept up in the excitement.

Right from the get-go there was an appreciation about just how special his appearances were. I remember the scuttlebutt from the ushers and volunteers. After one of his first concerts, folks were excitedly talking about Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite being, and I quote, “smoother than Godiva chocolate.”

I got to experience the magic first-hand as a singer in the Chorale. The early concerts were getting-to-know-you events where I’m sure he was curious about who we were as an ensemble and what we could do. He pushed us, and to his delight we delivered. I remember clearly an early performance in 2004 of Mozart’s Requiem where he kept asking for the singing to be quieter, still quieter… reflecting his legendary obsession for super-soft pianissimos. Finally, our leader, Kathy Saltzman Romey, arched an eyebrow and said the immortal words, “I’m worried at that level the singers won’t be able to phonate.”

Osmo chuckled and responded gently, “I’m not ready to give up quite yet.”

Kathy considered, and made a plan to make it all work out, and it was a smashing success. I remember running into him backstage shortly thereafter and he recognized me as a singer. He got a big grin on his face and said, “How wonderful to sing with such a great organization!”

I was beaming for the rest of the day.

That early concert set the stage for an outstanding partnership. Osmo was never exactly our conductor, but we were thrilled to collaborate with him each and every time a joint project was announced—in fact, it was usually a knife fight to get on those rosters, even today. And I can cheerfully report that the “Osmo pianissimos” that so terrified the singers has now become a standard descriptive term among the Chorale members. And, I chuckled to see Kathy return to the same sound-quieting techniques in our current performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. And sure enough, in our final run-throughs for Mahler’s Eighth, Osmo chuckled and said again, “You know me… could you make that softer?” Kathy immediately stood up and said, “Singers? You know the drill. We’re executing Plan B.”

I think one of the greatest partnerships between the Chorale and Osmo centered around Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony… the great Ode to Joy. During the tenure of Osmo’s predecessor, the Chorale performed the Ninth every year around the holidays. I don’t want to say it became… tired, but after so many performances the novelty had slipped somewhat. It was also nearly always performed right on top of Handel’s Messiah, so both the Chorale and Orchestra were stretched thin. Plus, it was almost always conducted by a guest conductor, so each performance had a different feel.

It was a surprise, therefore, that Osmo announced that he was pushing to perform and record the work in 2006, as part of a full-blown Beethoven cycle. I was privileged to write about the experience of recording the Symphony, and re-reading it these years later still brings a smile to my face.

Osmo rehearsing in Pretoria (my own photo)

For me, that performance and recording experience remains the quintessential Omso project. It encapsulates his approach to music and music making. One of the things I remember was how much work it was (or in his Finnish accent, how much verk it was) in the best of all possible senses. Osmo refused to follow conventional or received wisdom about what the piece should sound like. He wasn’t trying to score musicological points, or re-start feuds about period performance standards vs. modern standards.

No, Osmo took a different approach: he looked at the score, and determined to do what it said, come Hell or high water. We endlessly polished details. We paid infinite attention to subtleties. And as a result, the score… sang. In ways that it hadn’t done for me before. Again and again, he pushed for everything to come out right, again saying “That’s good, but I’m not ready to give up quite yet.”

And yet for all that, it never felt micromanaged—either in that project or any of our subsequent ones. I’ve worked with other conductors who were sticklers for details, and I can remember coming out of those rehearsals drained, frustrated and exhausted. Not so with Osmo. I remember feeling oddly exhilarated by the whole process. Of knowing we were creating something special. Something no one had heard before. And that performance became ours. We’ve performed Beethoven’s Ninth many times since, with other conductors, but that is still our reference point. I loved working with a conductor who truly knew what we were capable of, and worked to help us unleash things to our fullest potential. And I miss some of those subtle details when they’re not in a performance.

I am so grateful that we not only recorded it for posterity, but were able to bring performances of that very special Ninth to places as varied as the small town of Winona, Minnesota, and Soweto, South Africa. It very much deserved that wide exposure.

Another favorite memory came early on, back in 2005, when I as a wet-behind-the-ears writer for the Orchestra was asked to help with a program note for a Sommerfest concert. As I was a nobody, I initially was tasked to be backup on a team that would have a short interview with Osmo about one of the Beethoven Trios that was to be performed. As it turns out, at the last minute my boss was going to be delayed, and I was going to have to get the interview started. Alone. I was tasked with “breaking the ice,” presumably to ask initial questions about what he liked about the work and why it was chosen. I went in a different direction. I took a cue from Osmo’s approach, and dove into the work as best I could and came up with my own questions. I started by pointing out that four-part harmony, whether in a string quartet or vocal music, was very much the standard. How did Beethoven play against those expectations with his musical material, and how does the conductor play against audience expectations of what music should sound like? Osmo did a double take, but excitedly started a fascinating answer about the inherent “conversations” between composers and listeners, and the conductor’s role in facilitating that conversation and making sure both sides understood each other. From there, we launched into an animated dialog about Beethoven’s role as an innovator and as a conservator, and how you bring this 200-year-old music to modern audiences. It was an extraordinarily insightful conversation, and an extraordinarily generous use of his valuable time… he would have been very much within his rights to say, “Kid, let’s wait for the real folks to show up.” But he didn’t. When my boss finally did show up, Osmo, paused, looked over, and said, “He asks good questions.” It was one of those moments that had me walking on the clouds all day. Right there he gave me, a relative newbie, the encouragement to think that I might have something to say about music and the process of music-making.

And it wasn’t just me he gave encouragement to. Osmo was a champion of the Composers Institute, a rare platform that gave emerging composers a chance to have their new works performed by a real, world-class orchestra. Mentoring is and always has been a key element of the program. As I reflect on how much Osmo’s words meant to me as a rookie writer, I can only imagine how powerful they would be to composers trying to find their musical voices.

Music Director Osmo Vänskä works with pianist Frank Fernandez for Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. (my own photo)

Another thing I’ve appreciated about Osmo has been his commitment to playing music that we needed to hear. New music. Music by overlooked voices. Challenging music. This was more than lip service; he actively championed this music. His advocacy was backed up by a deep, deep respect and excitement to hear what unfamiliar composers had to say. To bring in new instruments into the orchestra, so to speak. His commitment helped audience members get out of their comfort zone, and expand their horizons. And connected us to some absolutely fantastic music we might have otherwise missed.

This has been a hallmark of his entire tenure, but I was particularly interested to read his continuing dedication to this in the “end of an era” interviews he’s been doing in the past few weeks. He continues to strongly support doing works that connect with the community and the issues it’s grappling with today. I fully agree with this. Look, I like “art for art’s sake” just fine, but for art to be meaningful, for art to be impactful, and for art to linger in the mind, it has to be connected to the real-world community, and the real-life experiences of community members. Osmo gets this this.

But more to the point, he wasn’t just a conductor and an artistic leader… he was an organizational leader. He wasn’t just collecting a paycheck, dropping in for performances and then jetting around the world for other appearances. He has always taken an active interest, and an active role, in shaping the direction of the organization, setting out its priorities. And doing the hard work of connecting the community to the music. This was true when I worked in the administration, and I think is doubly true today. From the beginning, it was widely acknowledged that he “got it.” Got the need to ground the work of the Orchestra in the community, and bring all the stakeholders together. As a staff member, this was a huge morale boost, and a great motivator for us behind the scenes, too. Osmo was an ally.

And nowhere was his commitment to the organization—and more importantly, its musicians—clearer than during the disastrous lockout between 2012-2014, and the rebuilding that followed. When faced with a series of orchestra executives who did not share his vision, or a share a commitment to community-building, artistic excellence, and using music as a way to build connections, he said simply, “I’m not ready to give up quite yet.”

And he didn’t.

Rather than bow out, or try to detach himself from the struggles to “remain above the fray,” he got involved. Osmo was a key element in holding the ensemble together, and making sure the community understood what was at stake. And when it was over, he was a key figure in putting it back together even stronger than ever. His commitment to community-building meant there was a huge reservoir of trust between him and the music-going public, and he drew on that reservoir to help rebuild lost trust in the organization as a whole.

No wonder the community stated in no uncertain terms that the Orchestra was going to need to bring him back, if any healing was to take place.

And it is also clear that his insistence that we could not, and would not, go back to the old system gave the Orchestra the kick-start it needed to jettison the status quo and build a healthier organization. I don’t want to disparage the hard work of so many people who have been in the trenches this whole while. Yes, other leaders were certainly involved. Yes, many voices advocated such things publicly… including yours truly in my writing. But Osmo had the vision, the stamina, and the political capital to actually help make all that happen. Osmo’s insistence on “building back better” truly helped set the stage for so many initiatives, and much of the organization’s current success.

Osmo rehearsing with the Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers in Soweto, South Africa (my own photo)

But at the end of the day, I think one of the most important things to consider is that Osmo was a particularly good fit for Minnesota. He could easily have brought his gifts elsewhere, and another orchestra would have his musical leadership, his finesse at programming, his commitment to presenting music of our time. But Minnesota was a perfect match; the right person for the right time. Not to dunk on his predecessors’ achievements, but when Osmo joined us the Minnesota Orchestra was a well-respected, if often overlooked, regional ensemble that had good things going for it. But it was ready for more.

Osmo got the organization to up the ante. To boldly dream, and then to work hard to make the dreams come true. And having an orchestra—and organization—that supported this vision and wanted to go on this journey with him gave him the ability to make the change happen. It was a win-win, mutually supportive Virtuous Circle that moved from success to success. The result is an organization with much greater stature, and a bright future. 

But there’s more to it than that. Minnesota is a curious place, one that values humility, even when wanting and expecting excellence. Osmo’s temperament fit in well—I don’t know that the community would embrace a media-star as a Music Director, an imperious overlord, or someone who relied on their name. Minnesotans want you to put in the work, honestly and diligently. To earn their trust. But once you have it, they can be ridiculously loyal.  

Well, Osmo did put the work in. He gained our trust. And he’s more than earned our loyalty. He has been remarkable.  He has been the kind of man who envisioned what final success would look like… then forged ahead as if it had already come to pass.  He has been a true force of nature.

Kiitos, Osmo. We’ve been lucky to have you here.

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2 thoughts on “Osmo: The Right Person, in the Right Job, at the Right Time

  1. I’m sorry, Scott, that I’m just now getting to reading this post. It was the media frenzy a few weeks back that made me put everything about Osmo aside for later when the world calmed down. I agree 100% with your assessment of Osmo. I too had an amazing interview experience with him that I wrote about at my blog (https://ccyager.wordpress.com/2022/06/12/thank-you-osmo/) and was so impressed with his generosity of time to a complete stranger. Julie Haight and I were talking about the end of his music directorship and how the media frenzy made it feel like he was now going to disappear off the planet. He’ll be back. He’s now our Conductor Laureate. I expect to see him on our podium at least once a year if not more. I have a real fear about his successor — he or she really needs to be someone with the same work ethic and discipline, I think, as well as the life seasoning, in order to keep the orchestra at the level it is now. We wait and see.

    Like

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