Osmo’s Top Concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra

Yesterday I wrote out some personal reflections of Osmo Vänskä’s tenure as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

It’s important to keep in mind that Osmo himself always spoke through his music. And so in that spirit, I’m offering a list of my favorite Osmo concerts, that I think collectively sum up his time here. Some are epochal events that will be talked about for generations… some are simply on the list just for personal reasons. I freely admit that I’ve performed in many of these concerts as a singer in the Minnesota Chorale—this is less a case of nepotism than it is a reflection that these will always be close to my heart. Moreover, I’ve written about many of them before, either here on my blog or a journalist for MinnPost. Enjoy.

And I’d be curious what others’ choices are…?

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Osmo’s Introduction, 2000.  I’ve written before about the profound impact this concert had on me. The program as a dram concert for me: the debut of a new concerto by Einojuhani Rautavaara, a favorite composer; the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell; and Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony, one of my favorite works… and one that is in no danger of being over performed. It was also that rarest of concerts… one that went off so impressively that it led to Osmo being named the new Music Director, after just one hearing. Yes, it was that good.

Osmo and Rajaton perform ABBA, 2005. If earlier concerts made Twin Cities concertgoers respect and admire Osmo, this one made them fall in love with him. Especially when he came out in a specially-made, 70’s era inspired white jumpsuit. Osmo led the Finnish vocal group Rajaton in orchestral arrangements of ABBA’s biggest hits, and it was one of the greatest things ever. Ever.

Britten’s War Requiem, 2005. This was a monster of a concert, a huge work that plumbs the deepest emotions.  It is a statement against war, all war. I was impressed Osmo chose to do it in 2005, as the US was struggling to come to terms with the reality of the Iraq War. It was also a wonderful collaboration that brought the Minnesota Orchestra together with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra on the same stage, along with several local choirs including the Minnesota Chorale. It really did feel like this was a community-wide enterprise, and one that much larger than the sum of its pieces.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, 2006. Beethoven’s Ninth became one of our signature works, and will show up on this list again. This concert was the first time we performed it with Osmo… and we recorded it days later. This was a huge thrill for me… it had the magic of a new partnership, with all the excitement about what was to come. I wrote about it here, and every word of that story holds up.

Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, 2011. Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music is one of my absolute favorite pieces of music. The text comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; it is a rumination about the power of music, set to what has to be the most ravishing orchestral score ever written. I was thrilled when Osmo chose as the opening work in another stellar performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. The huge smile, the look on his face in that first rehearsal, as we finished singing chords so luminous your heart breaks, was of such… delight. He could only whisper out the work’s last line as a kind of benediction… “such sweet harmony….” It was magical. As an aside, the piece became, for me, a bit of a war-cry during the lockout. Part of the text reads:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted!

I quoted this text in a Facebook post that defiantly called out against arts administrators who fit this description. Osmo quietly “liked” it.

Osmo’s Farewell, 2013. This was one of the most pivotal concerts in the Orchestra’s history, and a powerful testament to Osmo’s standing in the community. As a result of the administration’s actions in the lockout, Osmo felt he had no choice but to resign. We gathered at Ted Mann Hall to show our support, and hear him conduct the orchestra musicians one last time. It was absolutely devastating, and even now it’s hard for me to reflect on. I wrote about it here.

“Finnish It!” 2014. This was much, much more than a concert… it was an event. The lockout had ended, but things were still unsettled, and Osmo remained out as Music Director. To celebrate the recent Grammy win for the Sibleius First and Fourth Symphonies, the Orchestra scheduled a special Grammy concert, and invited Osmo to conduct for the weekend. I suppose it was a peace offering of sorts. Well, the community took this opportunity and ran with it. Save Our Symphony Minnesota put out the call to “Finnish it!”—to show support for bringing Osmo back by having everyone show up with Finnish flags, or by wearing Finnish colors (white and blue). And did we ever. People showed up wearing Finnish flags. Waving Finning flags they had made out of bedsheets. Wearing Finnish-flag face paint. With hair dyed Finnish blue. And we welcomed Osmo back with the wildest, most raucous applause/cheering I suspect has ever happened at Orchestra Hall. Looking out over the crowd, it was like the Finnish hockey team had just beaten Sweden in the Gold Medal game of the Olympics. And heck, the concert was pretty good, too! I wrote about the bedlam here. Needless to say, I believe our little show of support worked, and Osmo was soon hired back.

Mahler’s Second Symphony, “Resurrection,” 2014. Mahler is not one of my favorite composers, but I can’t deny the power, drama, and color of his works. This performance had all that, but it had another layer added on as well… this was the first work we in the Minnesota Chorale performed with him after he was re-appointed Music Director in the wake of the disastrous lockout. The work’s central idea of resurrection became for us a very real thing, and I still get emotional thinking about it. The moment we welcomed Osmo to our first rehearsal was electric. I wrote at length about the experience here.

Osmo in Cuba, 2015. This is cheating, I suppose, in that there were two concerts performed, with very different music choices. I don’t care—my list, my rules. The electricity… the absolute bedlam of having the Orchestra perform the Cuban and American national anthems back-to-back in Havana is an experience I will cherish forever. This was also a great experience in that I was hired by MinnPost to cover the trip, and the story I published about these concerts is something I’m still quite proud of. I was also deeply honored, and humbled that it was my readers who made it possible for me to travel as an independent journalist. And as an extra bonus, it was a hoot serving as Osmo’s Spanish translator on our first day there. Something had fallen through, and the Orchestra asked me last minute to step in at the last minute. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Sibelius’ Kullervo, 2017. Kullervo is the first piece Sibelius wrote, and he never composed anything like it again. While his symphonies, particularly the later ones, are textbook examples of refinement and understatement, Kullervo is raw, massive, primal, and terrifying. This was the second time Osmo performed it with the Orchestra, and the concerts were recorded live for a CD release by the Swedish label BIS. While the earlier performance was stunning (Alex Ross gave the million-dollar quote, “…the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.”), but this one was for me even better—more of an event.

Soweto Concert, 2018.  This concert was one of the greatest musical moments of my life. The emotional heart of the 2018 South African tour was a performance with the Gauteng Choristers, the Cape Town group 29:11, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale. Every, every part of the experience was magical. We performed in Regina Mundi Church, which was one of the centers of anti-Apartheid resistance, and the bullet holes from when security forces shot up the church—and shot off the hand of Jesus on the cruxifix over the altar—were still very much visible, and immensely powerful. We joined Beethoven and South African songs together in a concert where the entire audience was dancing in the aisles. A mere 20 years ago, not only would our Black colleagues banned from singing Western classical music, they would literally have taken their lives in their hands singing the anti-Apartheid protest songs. There was a sense of stunned, ebullient joy throughout the evening… I remember one woman asking in joyous wonder, “Who are these white people who come to us singing our songs in our own words?” At the concert’s conclusion, our South African colleagues broke into song and marched us around the church in triumph, singing all the while. I will never, ever forget it. I wrote about this magical concert for MinnPost.

Vaughan Williams, Dona Nobis Pacem, 2019. Curiously, this was the last concert I performed before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This was the flip-side of our Soweto concert (above), and grew naturally from that experience. The Soweto concert was so wonderful that we couldn’t let that experience go, and the Orchestra invited the Gauteng Choristers to come to Minneapolis and sing in Vaughan Williams’ powerful call for peace in a troubled world. The Chorale members hosted the Gauteng Choristers in our homes, adding to a sense of connection, friendship, and using music to build a better world (and let me say: Molemohi, you’re welcome back anytime! Peace, my friend!). And as we did in Soweto, we marched off the stage singing, filing into the lobby to continue an impromptu concert of South African songs with our colleagues. This concert was an absolute joy.

Bonus: Sibelius Festival, 2020. This is obviously, terribly cheating, as it lumps together a half-dozen concerts that showcased all of Sibelius’s seven symphonies, plus the original and final version of his Violin Concerto, and a stunning rendition of his Humoresques. Some might claim Sibelius was too minor a composer to warrant such a festival… but they are stupidly wrong. The music was absolutely fantastic, and given breathtaking performances. My God, I was ugly crying at the start of the Seventh Symphony. Who does that? But more than that, this felt like Osmo’s real farewell… a massive project that showed all his life’s work and experience performing music that clearly spoke to his soul. Every moment of this festival was glorious, earth-shattering, healing, and just plain wonderful.

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1 thought on “Osmo’s Top Concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra

  1. I agree with all of these, even though I wasn’t present for the Cuban and Soweto concerts. There is another concert, though, I’d like to mention, the first time I was in Orchestra Hall for an Osmo concert. It happened to be a Coffee Concert, too. I don’t recall the first piece on the program, but I recall the rest — Mozart’s 36th symphony and the Shostakovich 5. The Mozart made my jaw drop. One thing Osmo does extremely well is to bring out the inner voices and musical details that often get lost, and he gave that Mozart symphony a freshness I’d NEVER heard before. And then the Shostakovich, a symphony I know extremely well. This was where his insistence on dynamic control and really reaching ppp brought out the emotional landscape of this music for me. I was in tears by the end. This concert happened, I want to say, early in 2005, but I’m not certain without looking it up. A second concert I heard on the radio I won’t forget either — the Beethoven 9 at the BBC Proms. Wow. Wow. Wow. That was electric.

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