Without Osmo Vanska, some say Minnesota Orchestra could lose its way

Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska. The story of Vanska's success in Minnesota began quietly, said Fred Child, host of the American Public Media program "Performance Today." Few people would have predicted that Vanska would achieve such accomplishments when he arrived 10 years ago.
Photo: Ann Marsden

Underneath the turmoil involved in the ongoing labor dispute between the Minnesota Orchestra management and musicians lurks a disturbing worry.

Without a successful resolution, internationally acclaimed Music Director Osmo Vanska may soon resign.

The question of whether Vanska stays or leaves has become a central concern in the contract dispute and almost year-long lockout of musicians by orchestra management. Without him, many say, the orchestra could lose its way.

That increasingly worries Minnesota Orchestra fans everywhere, given Vanska's reputation and his string of successes.

And what accomplishments they've been: two Grammy nominations and national and international tours, including repeated high-profile appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Proms in London.

The director also won high praise from the likes of New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who was struck by a 2010 Minnesota Orchestra performance with Vanska on the podium. "For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world," Ross wrote.

SUCCESS BUILT UP QUIETLY

The story of Vanska's success in Minnesota began quietly, said Fred Child, host of the American Public Media program "Performance Today." He said few would have predicted that Vanska would achieve such accomplishments when he arrived 10 years ago. But what a difference a decade makes.

Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska with the Minnesota Orchestra at a rehearsal Friday, Feb. 1 2013 before a performance that evening.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Osmo Vanska's work with the orchestra has attracted the kind of national and international attention that every orchestra craves, but only a few can earn," Child said.

Vanska is unavailable for interviews these days. But two years ago he explained what he described as his simple method.

"It's just, let's try to do the next concert a little bit better than the previous one, and always try to build up," he said. "And I think it has happened."

But the accolades have not come easily. On some pieces, persuading 70, 80, or 90 musicians to play together is tough. Having them play on a level that attracts international attention is an even greater challenge.

Vanska said that involves a lot of work for the musicians — and for him.

"I think that the conductor should be stubborn too," he said two years ago. "I am not hesitating to try 12 times if needed. But finally I need to get the sound which I believe is the right one for these bars and these phrases."

Vanska focuses on making musicians play not just together, but with a single voice — a method that works only because the musicians respect the director and his vision, Child said.

"At one rehearsal he even brought a metronome, a little tick-tock counter, to a rehearsal, which would normally be considered an insult for a conductor to do that," Child said. "Well, the musicians heard what he was getting at and responded.

"He has melded this orchestra into a marvelous-sounding ensemble. Not just a combination of 95 wonderful musicians, but an organization with a single musical mind."

For Vanska, rigorous rehearsal is just one leg of a three-legged stool of orchestral success.

"We have to be able to do recordings which are so good that they will get international attention," he said. "And then the third thing is we have to be able to go out from home to do national and international touring to prove that what people are listening from the recordings is true."

The orchestra's inability to do that during the lockout raises the possibility of Vanska's departure.

RESOLVE OR RESIGN

In a letter leaked to the press in May, Vanska said if the lockout meant the orchestra was insufficiently rehearsed for a scheduled September recording session for the Swedish recording company BIS or for two Carnegie Hall concerts scheduled in November, he would be forced to resign.

Osmo Vanska
Osmo Vanska said he has not been involved in the contract talks, nor would he get involved should he be invited. The question of whether Vanska stays or leaves has become a central concern in the ongoing contract dispute and almost year long lockout of musicians by Orchestra management.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The recording session has been moved to the spring, but Vanska recently told the Orchestra Board he needs to rehearse with musicians by the week of Sept. 30 to prepare them for the Carnegie Hall performances.

Management then said for that to be possible there needs to be a deal in place by Sept. 15 — this coming Sunday.

The apparent threat of a Vanska departure has caused a lot of people to weigh in, among them Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

"Osmo's been a tremendous resource to this orchestra and has led it to incredible heights," Rybak said. "I think it would be a horrible thing for him to leave this community. I would hate to see that happen. I think right now both sides need to put a realistic plan on the table, as realistic as they can get with the dollars we have, and figure out how we can make this work."

While the two sides are working with one of the world's best-known mediators in former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, they have resisted other outside attempts to resolve the dispute.

Labor expert John Budd of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School said Vanska could make a difference.

"The conductor in this case does have more leverage than a politician who is more disconnected," Budd said. "So maybe there is some reason for optimism that this can actually be a more pressure-filled mechanism to get both sides talking and ultimately settling."

But there have been so many deadlines issued by so many people — many of them malleable — that Vanska's threat is less potent, Budd said.

"What's needed right now is something very hard, very fast, not subject to reinterpretation, that says, 'It's now or never,' " Budd said. "You've got to get to the table, you've got to settle now, or there's going to be serious consequences."

WHAT LIES IN A VANSKA-LESS FUTURE?

Everyone wants Vanska to stay.

Musicians see him as a beloved leader who has taken them to the top.

"Right now we should be celebrating the 10th anniversary of his arrival, but instead we are chewing our fingernails and wringing our hands over the possibility of his departure."

Management has said it wants Vanska to help it through what are likely to be challenging times once the contract dispute is settled. However, it has said the orchestra faces such financial challenges that it is not prepared to cave simply to save two concerts at Carnegie. It says the decision on whether to leave or stay lies with Vanska.

As time passes with no progress, the possibility that he will leave becomes more real.

Some observers don't like what they see when they look into a Vanska-less future.

"It means the end of artistic progress," said Bill Eddins, music director of the Edmonton Symphony.

If Vanska leaves it would be demoralizing for the orchestra, said Eddins, who has lived in the Twin Cities for two decades and is a former associate conductor at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Eddins points to the end of the tenure of Vanska's predecessor Eji Oue.

"What did not happen is that Osmo came in and immediately everything was better," recalled Eddins. "It took six, seven, eight years to bring the orchestra to the point where it was capable of sustained artistic growth."

Child said wherever Vanska goes, he is so well respected, he will be fine.

But the "Performance Today" host is not so sure about the Minnesota Orchestra. For a conductor of Vanska's stature to walk away from the organization can only reflect negatively on Minnesota, he said.

"It was 10 years ago that Osmo Vanska arrived, in 2003," Child said. "Right now we should be celebrating the 10th anniversary of his arrival, but instead we are chewing our fingernails and wringing our hands over the possibility of his departure."

Vanska is reportedly back in the Twin Cities after conducting at the Proms in London. Ultimately only he knows what he'll do.

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