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….
You know, there was a time not so long ago that I worried for the future of my very own Minnesota Orchestra. Even after the contentious lockout ended, there was a lingering fear that the scars left by the 16-month ordeal wouldn’t heal, or that the various parts of the Orchestra family would continue to work at cross purposes.
Let me say definitively that these fears have been completely put aside. And this year’s Symphony Ball is a crystal clear example of how effectively—and joyfully—all parts of the Orchestra family are working together right now.
And by working together, they are creating what is setting up to be the Twin Cities’ most exciting party of the year: Symphony Ball 2017. And everyone is welcome.
The Ball is set for June 24 at Orchestra Hall. This year’s theme is A Night on the Silk Road, and I can’t think of a better starting point that captures the energy of where the Orchestra is now. On the one hand, this theme references a journey, which certainly describes the last few years of the Orchestra’s history. But more important, it honors the idea of exchange, of sharing of cultures, and a rich tapestry woven together from distinctive threads. So it is no surprise that this year brings together classical elements, pop culture elements, and world culture elements
For me, the highlight is the musical concert portion (tickets are available here), which looks astonishing. As Kenneth Huber, Chair of the Symphony Ball’s Music/Entertainment Committee, explained in the Orchestra’s magazine, Showcase:
The Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä will perform the world premiere of the Silk Road Symphonic Fantasy, a 22-minute “medley” of excerpts from great symphonic repertoire. The Fantasy, which I helped create during the past year, is a musical journey by composers who were inspired by the Silk Road aura and composed some of the most colorful, exciting, beloved and well-known works in the symphonic canon. Each excerpt has a Silk Road connection—though none are literal representations or examples of music from that era. We’re very excited to have Brian Newhouse, the “voice of the Minnesota Orchestra” on MPR, as our narrator and host.
But that’s hardly the only highlight. In addition to the Fantasy, singer-rapper-essayist Dessa will perform with the Orchestra in two new pieces that she has created for the occasion followed by a 30-minute set with her own musicians. Dessa’s recent appearance with the Orchestra was a thing of wonder—bustling with sharp intellect, creative energy and musical passion. I’m thrilled she’s making a return engagement, and hope that her fans will come out to see this inventive collaboration… and to see that they have a place at Orchestra Hall, too.
For those who missed it, Dessa’s first appearance was chronicled on Twin Cities PBS’s award winning program, MN Original:
* * *
But as exciting as this event will be, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Symphony Ball is how it has brought together the entire organization into a monumental work of love. There is no standing on ceremony, no us-and-them, no silos. This was clear from the very beginning, when Board Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson and enthusiastically pushed for audience advocates Paula DeCosse, MaryAnn Goldstein and Laurie Hodder Greeno—all associated with the groups Orchestrate Excellence and Save Our Symphony MN—to serve as the event’s co-chairs.
As Graydon Royce mentioned in his recent Star Tribune article, audience advocate activists are now running the Orchestra’s premiere fundraising gala. What a sign of trust!
And the spirit of trust and cooperation has infused the entire operation; the co-chairs have been committed to building an inclusive model that draws on the talents of everyone in the organization. As Co-Chair MaryAnn Goldstein explained:
There are about 90 people on the subcommittee, drawn from the musicians, Board members, staff from virtually all departments, and many additional community members. They’re all volunteering to make this Ball something that really reflects the New Minnesota Orchestra.
Their collective goal was to bring everyone together and to make everyone feel part of the Orchestra’s team. MaryAnn continues:
We envisioned and created the evening to be a manifestation of the “Minnesota Model” in both process and result—and hope we will be able to deliver on more than just a successful fundraiser—inspiring people to become even more engaged with the Orchestra whether they are new, former or current fans.
In effect, Symphony Ball is combing the traditional elements of a gala fundraiser with the idea of crowdfunding to build a stronger, more durable base of support… plus a sense of connection to the Orchestra.
The sense of collaboration is particularly evident in the music. Kenneth Huber remarked that many of the musical ideas were generated by the musicians, particularly Michael Adams and Doug Wright. Music Director Osmo Vänskä helped finalize the ideas and give them wings. All involved raved about the spirit of cooperation and mutual support that infused the process.
All in all this is setting up to be fantastic evening embracing the idea of community, culture, sharing and growing. And, it will help support a wonderful community treasure. But best of all… this sounds like one incredible party!
I’m planning on going, and I hope you will do the same. Special price tickets are available through June 20 here.
Today I learned some sad news—the passing of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara at age 87. I’m saddened by the loss, as he was not just a brilliant composer, but one of my favorites. Long-time readers may remember that I’ve referenced his music many times here on my blog, and included his Angel of Light symphony on my list of the greatest works of the 20th century.
I first ran across his music through a recording of his breakout hit, Symphony No. 7, Angel of Light. It was one of those gripping works that, while thoroughly modern, was written in a thoroughly approachable manner and contained a profound, palpable spirituality. I started tracking down other works, which was made easy by the heroic efforts of the Finnish label Ondine—a company committed to releasing recordings of his new works nearly as soon as the ink was dry on the page.
As I’ve mentioned before, I had the good fortune to hear the world premiere of his Harp Concerto in 2000, performed by none other the Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra. It was Osmo’s first performance with the Orchestra, some years before being appointed Music Director. The inclusion of a world premiere by one of my favorite composers, coupled with a performance of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (one of my all-time favorite works of music) sealed the deal for me; even though I was living in Kansas at the time, I drove eight hours each way to hear the concert, and felt it was more than worth it.
Rautavaara’s career spanned many decades, and encompassed many different styles. To honor his life and music, allow me to share a few recommendations, for those who might wish to know him better. Continue reading →
This week, the Minnesota Orchestra, along with superstar violinist Hilary Hahn, played at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Osmo Vänskä… and days later it’s still difficult to get my head around all that happened and what it all means. As a teaser, let me free-associate a few words: brilliant, shattering, thrill-ride, fire, partnership, joy, pride, triumph.
Sibelius’s Kullervo is an undoubted masterpiece… but boy, is it a quirky one. By all conventional rules of classical musicdom, it simply should not be. Consider:
It was the first significant orchestral work Sibelius ever wrote.
It came from Finland, which at the time was distant corner of the Russian Empire that did not have a particularly strong or well-developed classical musical infrastructure.
It featured singers singing in Finnish—a language that was looked down upon as being low-brow at the time.
It chronicled the adventures of a decidedly unconventional hero from Finnish mythology.
It was only performed five times before Sibelius withdrew it and banned all future performances of the work; it was only after his death that his heirs authorized the work to be performed again.
In short, Kullervo is an oddity, an enigma… much like the legendary figure upon which it is based.
But make no mistake, it is a masterpiece that is as startling today as it was at its premiere in 1892. It is the work that created Sibelius’s reputation. And it is a work I love to distraction. Continue reading →
The Minnesota Orchestra just finished (…or perhaps “Finnished”) recording its CD of Sibelius’s Third, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies for the Swedish label, BIS. Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano posted his thoughts on the recording process over on his Facebook page; it was such a good piece, I asked if he’d allow me to cross-post it here on my blog. He agreed! Please enjoy—I think it gives a fantastic insider look into the creative process. I’ll keep you posted on when the CD is released!
* * *
Lots of you know this past couple of weeks has had the Minnesota Orchestra recording in addition to playing our season finale and “Inside the Classics” concert. But precious few really know the inside baseball of putting out a memorable recording with a great orchestra. Here’s your chance. I hope I do the process justice. Continue reading →
It’s been a week since the finale of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season… a season filled with remarkable achievements that I don’t know I could have imagined at this time last year. And of course, things didn’t end with that final concert… the Orchestra jumped right into a week-long, monster recording session to finish up their album of Sibelius’s Third, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies.
But before it gets any later, I wanted to share my feelings on the final concert, as well as the season as a whole. Continue reading →
My introduction to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams came when I was 17. A recent convert to vocal music (back in the day, I was more of a pianist and oboist, in that order), I was looking for music to compete with at an upcoming competition.
“You know,” my teacher at the time said, “I think this one would really suit your voice… and your entire personality. Give it a shot”