Vanska negotiating possible return to Minnesota Orchestra

osmo vanska, microphone
Osmo Vanska at his 2013 farewell concert at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis.
Nate Ryan / MPR

Former Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska says he's in talks with orchestra management about a possible return to his old job. He declined to provide details about the talks, but said he'd like to come back if the ensemble is able to perform at high standards.

"We started negotiations last Saturday, and I think that the purpose of those negotiations is to try to find out if there is a way for me to come back," he said.

Board Chair Gordon Sprenger confirms that conversations are occurring.

Vanska resigned last fall amid a 16-month long lockout of the orchestra's musicians. The dispute ended in January, when musicians agreed to pay cuts in a new three-year contract.

After the lockout ended, Vanska said Orchestra President Michael Henson would have to step down in order for the orchestra to heal.

Last week orchestra management announced that Henson resigned by mutual agreement.

Vanska will return to the conductor's podium at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis this weekend. It will be his first concert with the Minnesota Orchestra since the lockout ended last month.

Vanska spoke with MPR News' All Things Considered between rehearsals this afternoon in his first broadcast interview since his resignation. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

Tom Crann: This weekend's concerts celebrate the Grammy Award that you won for the Sibelius Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4, along with most of the musicians that you're conducting at Orchestra Hall. So first, how does it feel to be back on the podium, back in Orchestra Hall, back in, what is for the most part, I imagine for you, familiar territory?

Osmo Vanska: Well, it's great. It's really great and it's very emotional.

Actually, this is the first time I'm conducting after the renovation and the acoustics are slightly different and the colors are different. And so it was a very emotional moment yesterday morning to start the first rehearsal. I'm happy that finally I am making music on stage with the orchestra. And so it was a very emotional moment yesterday morning to start the first rehearsal. I'm happy that finally I am making music on stage with the orchestra.

Crann: Now, does that feeling of happiness make you want to return to the Minnesota Orchestra as its music director for good?

Vanska: Yes, if I can do good music. If I'm going to be able to take care of the orchestra and being their artistic director. And if I'm allowed to make music with them, yes. Otherwise, not.

Crann: Now at the first concert after the lockout, I was there when the board president got up to speak, and people shouted, "Bring back Osmo!" and he said, "We're addressing that situation." What are you hearing about the addressing of that situation from orchestra managers, board members, about how much they'd like you to return as music director?

Vanska: I have no idea how much do they like me to return, but I can tell you that we started negotiations last Saturday and I think that the purpose of those negotiations is to try to find out if there's a way for me to come back.

Crann: What would that return, as far as you are concerned, have to look like?

Vanska: If the negotiations are going on, there is no reason to comment on them yet.

Crann: What's your answer to those people who shouted in the hall that they want you to come back? What would you say to them?

Vanska: It's very touching. I'm really, really, glad that there are so many people who would like me to come back. And I think the way how I went away from the orchestra, it's not a good way and there are some unfinished jobs to do. So if I can do my job again it will be fine.

Crann: It sounds to me, if I can read between the lines, that you'd be willing to come back as the music director of the orchestra, very similarly to the way you were for a decade.

Vanska: Yeah, I'm happy to hear your reading skills.

Crann: But a lesser, something like a principal conductor, or principal guest conductor, or something like that, you're less interested in?

Vanska: I don't want to comment because as I told, the negotiations are on right now.

Crann: Can I ask you, philosophically, why is it important for an American orchestra today to have a music director as opposed to maybe a model where there might be different conductors in and out over a season, a couple of times? What's so important, as far as you're concerned, about that music director role?

Vanska: I think that it's not so important what is the name or what is the title. Actually, I think that only the Americans are using the title of music director. There are many other titles. Or maybe not so many, but the European way to say always is chief conductor, and artistic director.

But I think that the main thing is that making art is never a democratic kind of process. There must be someone who is saying, "Do we need to play faster or louder or softer or slower?" It just is so that there must be one guy who is making those decisions. Go to the theater and try to think about the director who is doing teamwork how this play should be done. I think it's not a great idea.

Crann: You were fairly frank in saying that for the orchestra to begin healing, the president and CEO Michael Henson needed to step down for that to happen. And I'm wondering why you felt that was important?

Vanska: Do I need to say anything about that? I think that I have said enough and I think that it doesn't need any description.

Crann: What else do you see as you conduct these musicians that's going to need to happen long term for this orchestra to heal? What's the path?

Vanska: I think that it's a large, it's a big organization, the whole Minnesota Orchestra, and the orchestra is one part of that organization. And so the job for the orchestra is to play together, to rehearse together, to practice together, and trying to play better, and better, and better. That is the orchestra's part of, if I may say, cleaning up things. And I think that the same process should happen at every corner of the organization.

Crann: I want to go back to that time in October, because I have to say that that concert at Ted Mann Concert Hall, I believe it was October, "The Firebird," and then you conducted Sibelius — And it was a pretty shattering experience for a lot of us. Almost anyone in the audience. And I wonder, what was going through your mind at that point? It seemed almost funereal. Someone said on the way out it was like Good Friday, where we leave the church in silence and in mourning. Tell me, what was going through your mind at that experience?

Vanska: I think what you said is very correct. I just felt that there is no reason to give any applause. Because the situation was so terrible, really terrible at that time. And that's why I wanted to tell people, "Let's leave the music to stay in our minds and then let's think about the music, what it would like to say to us."

Crann: Did you think at that time that your association with the Minnesota Orchestra was truly over at that concert, or that the orchestra itself may have been close to being over?

Vanska: I don't know what to say to that. I think that it's like, if you are involved in a big accident you don't start to think what's coming after that. The accident is too big a thing, too big of an issue to deal with.

Crann: Now, you conduct other major orchestras in the U.S., but also abroad, and you've seen the way orchestras work as a business. And I'm wondering, did this situation in Minnesota, does it signify that the business model for the way we run and fund orchestras in this country — is it broken?

Vanska: I think that it's a global problem. I think that there are a lot of issues happening all around. Like in every country, the typical question might be like, "Do we need music? Do we need classical music? Is it something we can live without?" Or I think that in Nordic countries, it's typical to think that we need more money for the hospitals and for health care, how can we take care of operas and theaters and orchestras if we don't have money enough for old people?

Crann: And what is your answer to that? Do we need this music?

Vanska: Well, those things are always coming and going. There are always people who would like to say loudly those questions, and then it's more like a question of the day. Then people are always, always finding out that we don't want to live without music, we don't want to live without theater, we don't want to live without opera, of course we need that.

But then I think it's a challenge for those artistic institutions so to find out what is our way today to take care of this institute, and to take care, make it at the highest possible level.

Maybe it's something we cannot live without. It's like the weather. It's nice to have sunny days, but for me it's very boring if there are no rainy days. And eternal summer would be really, really boring. I would like to have cold winter and I would like to have the chance to ski the cross country skiing, and then it's good to think that the summer is coming. That's kind of the eternal moment of life.

And there are always people who are in power who would like to change things. They feel that they are important when they change things. And sometimes it's necessary and sometimes it's not necessary. And I think that if there is anyone living in this globe 500 years from now, they still are listening to Mozart...and listening to Bach.

I'm not worried about the classical music. We just have to survive when there are rocky times and we are going to survive.

Crann: Do you think the rocky times are in the past for the Minnesota Orchestra? And financially, is everything in order so that in 10 years or 50 years there will be a Minnesota Orchestra and people going to a hall in Minneapolis to hear them?

Vanska: I don't see any difference about the Minnesota Orchestra than if I compare it to the other part...I said that people are always willing to listen to classical music and it will happen in Minnesota, too.

Crann: Do you think financially here anything has changed through this lockout and the situation that makes it either more or less sustainable in the future?

Vanska: That's a problem which should be handled correctly and should be taken care of, of a way which is going to give a chance for the orchestra to survive. And it will.

Crann: When might we hear news about the future of the Minnesota Orchestra and its former music director Osmo Vanska?

Vanska: I have no idea about that.

Crann: Sooner rather than later?

Vanska: Well, the orchestra needs a conductor, desperately, as soon as possible.

Crann: So your recording won the Grammy Award for best orchestral performance. This is part of a cycle, a series of Sibelius symphonies. What do you think it is about Sibelius and you and the Minnesota Orchestra that comes together and is unique compared to other recordings of Sibelius performances?

Vanska: Well. I don't know. We are just working very, very, very hard in every rehearsal, whatever we are playing. And when the Swedish recording label BIS wanted us to do the cycle of Sibelius symphonies, it meant that we are going to play it in concerts and we are going to record. And we have been working very hard and it looks like the musicians are understanding really well the music Sibelius wrote. And for me it sounds the best played music of Sibelius that I have ever heard.

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