This year is turning out to be a much better for the Minnesota Orchestra than either of the previous two.
On Jan. 14, the ensemble's musicians and managers agreed on a new three-year contract, ending a protracted labor dispute.
Two weeks later, the orchestra won a Grammy Award for its recording of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius' first and fourth symphonies.
The orchestra returned to playing a regular concert schedule last month. And in celebration of the Grammy, former music director Osmo Vanska will be back to conduct three performances of the Sibelius symphonies — today, tomorrow and Saturday. Each time, the musicians will play for a full house at the newly-renovated Orchestra Hall.
Vanska, who resigned last year during the labor dispute, said he is negotiating a new contract with the orchestra. If the handful of unofficial concerts the orchestra played during the lockout were any indication, there will be a strong contingent of Vanska fans in the audience clamoring for his return.
"It's very touching. I'm really glad there are so many people who'd like me to come back," he said. "I think the way I went away from the orchestra, it's not a good way, and there are some unfinished jobs to do."
Vanska resigned in October when the labor dispute forced the cancellation of a concert series at Carnegie Hall. He declined to discuss the details of his possible rehiring. Minnesota Orchestra board chair Gordon Sprenger said through a spokesperson that "conversations are occurring."
After the lockout ended, Vanska said orchestra president Michael Henson would have to leave in order for the ensemble to heal. Last week management announced that Henson resigned by mutual agreement and will step down Aug. 31.
Vanska said he would like to return to his old job as music director, if in he is able to take care of the orchestra and play good music. The conductor said it was nice to be back rehearsing this week.
"It was a very emotional moment to start the first rehearsal and so I'm happy that finally I am making music on stage with the orchestra," he said.
Trombonist Douglas Wright said he appreciated having Vanska back -- at least for the weekend, for now. Wright was part of the musicians' negotiating committee during the lockout, and said many players are excited about the possibility that Vanska will return permanently.
"None of us knows how this is going to turn out. But we've done great things together, he and this orchestra have, and if that is able to be continued, I think that we'd enjoy that very much," he said.
In a modern symphony orchestra, the music director is much like a football coach, deciding who plays in what position, and what music will be on the concert calendar. Every artistic decision about the ensemble eventually winds up on the music director's desk.
Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, said that hiring a music director quickly will be critical to rebuilding the Minnesota Orchestra. Over the course of the lockout several musicians took leave, and some are still deciding whether to return. One, principal clarinetist Burt Hara, won a position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Fletcher said Vanska is uniquely suited to recruit new musicians.
"I do think that having Vanska back is the right thing, and a protracted search for a music director in a very uncertain climate for getting one is not favorable for the orchestra when there needs to be a big concentrated effort on finding some wonderful musicians, or persuading some of the wonderful musicians to come back," Fletcher said.
Mariellen Jacobson, a member of Save Our Symphony Minnesota, said rehiring Vanska is the smartest thing orchestra management can do.
"He has such a following among musicians among audience members, among donors. We think that the healing is going to proceed really quickly if he can move back into that position," she said.
Jacobson's group is urging people attending the upcoming concerts to wear blue and white -- the colors of the flag of Vanska's native Finland -- as a show of support. She hopes the performances will be a celebration not just of the Minnesota Orchestra's Grammy, but also of Osmo Vanska's official return.