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.
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.
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.)
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….
[In spring 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned me to write program notes for Rachmaninoff’s Three Russian Songs, which would be performed with the Minnesota Chorale (and, yours truly). Unfortunately, the concert was canceled due to the coronavirus. But the Orchestra authorized me to post them anyway, and I am happy to do so below. Enjoy!]
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The Russian Revolution profoundly disrupted Sergei Rachmaninoff’s comfortable life, in ways that would resonate for decades. As chaos spread at the end of 1917, the composer began to fear for his family’s safety. In December, Rachmaninoff gathered his wife and daughters and fled overland from St. Petersburg toward Helsinki in an open sleigh, taking only what they could fit in their suitcases. He later learned his family’s estate had been burned to the ground; the family had lost nearly everything. Continue reading →
[In spring 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned me to write program notes for Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, which would be performed with the Minnesota Chorale (and, yours truly). Unfortunately, the concert was canceled due to the coronavirus. But the Orchestra authorized me to post them anyway, and I am happy to do so below. Enjoy!]
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One reason Igor Stravinsky’s music is so exciting is that the composer absolutely refuses to follow convention. Symphony of Psalms is a perfect case in point. It was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary 1930. The commissioners wanted something “symphonic,” and Stravinsky’s publisher pleaded for him to compose something “popular.” Stravinsky complied… but in ways they could likely never have foreseen. Continue reading →
Okay… sorry, I still can’t believe the recent editorial in the local Star Tribune about… yes, that blasted Minnesota Orchestra Lockout of 2012-2014—a half-page editorial that uses the lockout to preemptively complain about negotiations surrounding the Orchestra’s new labor contract with its musicians.
Let’s just drop all the elegance and introduction and get into why this has got to be one of the most idiotic things our state’s “newspaper of record” will publish this year.
And while we’re at it, let me say a few words about why I’m so hopeful about the situation.
The Minnesota Orchestra asked me to provide program notes in Showcase magazine for the upcoming concert of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. Since I love both the composer and the work, I was all too happy to comply. You can see the pages here; but with the Orchestra’s support, I’m also providing my program notes below.
Please come out this concert if it is at all possible—it features powerful music that calls on us to remember our shared humanity and work for peace. Plus, the concert serves as a reunion with our artistic partners from South Africa! The work will be performed with the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers, and 29:11, along with soloists Goitsemang Lehobye and Dashon Burton. Tickets and further information are available at the Orchestra’s website, here.
And look for me among the singers… I’m thrilled to be performing in this concert, too!
Minnesota Orchestra is finishing up its amazing Sommerfest summer season this weekend… and let me be blunt. I need you to stop reading this post—stop whatever you’re doing—and go immediately to get tickets to see the grand finale, La Pasión según San Marcos(“The Passion According to St. Mark”) being performed on August 2 and 3. Go. I’ll wait.
No, I’m serious. Go. Right now.
I don’t care that you think you’re “busy.” I don’t care that you’re actually out of town on vacation. I don’t care who is getting married. Just go get your tickets. You will thank me later.
Okay… back? Great! Now, let me say a few words about why I’m so excited. Continue reading →
Some years ago, while I was still teaching at the University of Kansas, a colleague stopped by my office to chat. I was kicking back with some music on my headphones at the time; curious, she asked what I was listening to.
I explained I was listening to Verdi’s Requiem, because it had been “that kind of day.” Continue reading →
Mahler is a curious composer—a bold visionary whose art is full of contradictions. His guiding philosophy was perhaps best summed up in a famous conversation he had with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in 1907. As Sibelius recounted later,
“When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. “Nein, die Symphonie müss sein wie die Welt. Sie müss alles umfassen.” (No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.)
That quote perfectly captures essence of Mahler’s music. It is a collision of thoughts, emotions, ideas and sensations that are constantly intersecting and interacting with each other. At times, it’s as if you were reading a story where each paragraph was written by a different author in a different style—such as Shakespeare followed by the Brothers Grimm, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Herodotus and O. Henry.
In the end, the cumulative effect is stunning, touching on all parts of the human experience… and vividly recreating the totality of human experience. It is no wonder why so many love his music.
Mahler’s music isn’t at all hard to listen to, but it is a wonderfully challenging to fully comprehend it. It rewards—if not requires—repeated listening and conversations to grasp its many layers.
The Second Symphony, Resurrection, is a magnificent example of Mahler’s achievement, and one of the easiest to get your arms around. It is a work about loss and a plunge into darkness… before finding inner strength and a renewed hope that allows you to rise to a new level of existence greater you had known before. It is about rebirth and new glory.
Let me explain a bit about why you don’t want to miss Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Minnesota Chorale’s performance of it… plus provide a few words about the circumstances surrounding the creation of this CD, which have been, and continue to be incredibly meaningful for me. Continue reading →