Conductor Osmo Vänskä is intent on taking the Minnesota Orchestra to the very top

By David Fleshler

Conductor Osmo Vänskä leads the Minnesota Orchestra in concerts this weekend in Miami and West Palm Beach. Photo: Ann Marsden

At a rehearsal of the Minnesota Orchestra, the conductor Osmo Vänskä did something shocking: He placed a metronome on the podium. While the battery-operated timekeeper is often used by and for music students, it’s considered unnecessary—and insulting—for professional musicians about to rehearse Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“People absolutely didn’t know what to think,” said Bill Schrickel, acting principal bass and a veteran member of the orchestra. “Some people were quite offended, rolling their eyes. People were muttering.”

But Vänskä insisted, and to the tick-tock of the metronome the musicians played and replayed a short passage of the first movement, one that’s notoriously difficult to perform in a thoroughly unified manner. “That’s only time in my career anyone would dare do such a thing,” Schrickel said. “It’s one thing if it was an all-state high school orchestra, but to pull it out in front of an orchestra that knows the piece so well takes tremendous courage in a way.

“I think he was showing us he didn’t care if we necessarily liked it, he just wanted it to be together. When we got to the concert, we knew how to play those four bars together.”

Vänskä’s sharply etched musical personality and disciplined, hard-driving approach to rehearsals has made the Minnesota Orchestra, which performs Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami and Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, one of the most talked-about symphonic ensembles in the United States. The New Yorker‘s highly respected critic Alex Ross, after hearing a series of orchestras that included those of Boston, Chicago and New York, declared that the Minnesota Orchestra under Vänskä sounded the best of all.

There is no secret to the orchestra’s success. It is the result of hard work that drew the best performances possible from the musicians, with an interpretive and ensemble unity achieved through long hours of rehearsal.

“The main idea, the main method is very simple,” Vänskä said in a telephone interview, speaking fluent English with a piquant Finnish accent. “We practiced as much as possible and try to play every single program a little bit better than the previous one. We have had some new players since I started but my basic philosophy is I have to make music with those players who are available. So I think it’s kind of an idea of team spirit, team work and if we can get 100 percent of every player’s capacity then we are obviously playing well.”

The orchestra, founded in 1903 and known through most of its life as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, has always enjoyed a good reputation, honed under such conductors as Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Antal Dorati, Neville Mariner and Edo de Waart. But it was considered, along with the orchestras of Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Saint Louis and a few other cities, just below the historic top tier, a cluster known as the Big Five, consisting of the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia.

Vänskä took over in 2003, the latest musical gift to the United States from Finland. This nation, which has slightly fewer people than the combined populations of Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, has produced a disproportionate share of contemporary conductors, composers and performers. Vänskä trained as a clarinetist, served as conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and established himself as a sought-after guest conductor for leading orchestras before taking the Minnesota podium.

Determined to take the orchestra to the highest level possible, he brought an unaccustomed intensity, focus and discipline to rehearsals, holding the orchestra to high, even rigid standards. Like a basketball coach forcing a player to do layups over and over so that during the game he would make the shot, he would make the orchestra repeat passages on a continuous loop 15 or 20 times, subjecting them to a brutal rehearsal regimen that paid dividends in the concert hall.

“We have to play together,” Vänskä said. “And that kind of work is never coming to an end. Different players have different opinions of how to play it. They might have their favorite version of the piece. I try to take care that everybody is playing the same version, that they are breathing at the same place, that they are using the same kind of sound colors and the same phrasing, and listening to each other so that even though it’s a symphony orchestra it could be and it should be as a chamber music ensemble.”

Jorja Fleezanis, concertmaster of the orchestra from 1989 to 2009, who served on the search committee that ultimately brought Vänskä to Minneapolis, said the conductor’s methods instilled a sense of personal responsibility among the musicians.

“Every single person on the stage was accountable very specifically, participating in the act of the music from the podium’s point of view,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with a very specific kind of tight ensemble playing and a very specific amount of energy being put into dynamic control, which is probably the most stunning aspect of what he brought and then cultivated in the orchestra: a total unanimity in dynamics, especially in very soft playing, which is the hardest thing for orchestras to do as a whole.”

Under Vänskä’s baton, the orchestra’s reputation quickly ascended. He led the ensemble on four European tours, including performances at such temples of classical music as Vienna’s Musikverein and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. The orchestra released recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies and this year the first disc of what will be a complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies.

In his New Yorker piece, Alex Ross wrote that he attended performances in New York of the Minnesota Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam; the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of St. Petersburg and New York Philharmonic. Of these ensembles, which included some of the greatest names in the symphonic world and some of the best-known conductors, he was most impressed with the Minnesota Orchestra and Vänskä in their performance of Sibelius’s choral symphony Kullervo.

“The crucial element in his work is unanimity—not unanimity of execution (although that was hardly lacking) but unanimity of feeling,” he wrote. “The climaxes were as shattering as on any other night, but the quietest moments registered even more strongly….For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.”

As any university president grappling with the U.S. News rankings knows, reputations can be self-fulfilling, as the best students flock to the most selective schools. And so the Minnesota Orchestra’s rising stature allowed it to recruit top musicians, with a few arriving from the orchestras of Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles, a reversal of the usual order of things.

“Normally you wouldn’t expect players already in orchestras in Chicago or LA to want to come and audition to play in the Minnesota Orchestra, but in fact that’s not the case,” said bass player Schrickel. “We have players from Chicago and LA coming to audition for this orchestra, and that speaks volumes to the quality of the orchestra and how we are perceived around the country.”

In Miami the orchestra’s program will consist of the Brahms Haydn Variations, Beethoven Fifth Symphony and Sibelius Violin Concerto with the violinist Midori as soloist. Vänskä has made a particular study of the Beethoven symphonies, as he attempted to justify yet another recording of the world’s best known symphonic works.

“When I was to record the Beethoven symphonies, my question was why do we need one more, because there are already more than 100 recording cycles,” he said. “I just wanted to go back to the score,” he said. “I didn’t want to listen to recordings, I didn’t want to load my mind more with tradition because as a player and music lover of course I had heard many many times those previous ones, and played them. I just wanted to do them as written.”

As for Sibelius, his role as a Finnish patriot and composer of world renown gave him a unique stature for Finns, serving as a voice of patriotism as the nation struggled to achieve independence.

“Sibelius is a big, big person not only for the music lovers but for the whole nation because of his international recognition,” Vänskä said. “Today I think if you go the marketplace in Helsinki and you ask people to give you the 10 most powerful names in the history of Finland, I’m sure that eight of them are going to give you the name of Sibelius.”

Conducting Sibelius’s music takes particular concentration, he said, because so many elements of melody and harmony intertwine. “It’s complicated,” he said. “When we are doing a Haydn symphony, then we know which is the bass line, which is the melody, which is the harmony and who is playing each of those things. But when we go to the music of Sibelius, it’s not so simple. One theme could start with one group, the same theme continues with another group and it comes back to the original group, those kind of things. If the guy who has to lead it knows what’s going on, it usually sounds better.”

Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra with violinist Midori perform 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami (, 305-949-6722) and 8 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach (


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2 Responses to “Conductor Osmo Vänskä is intent on taking the Minnesota Orchestra to the very top”

  1. Posted Mar 10, 2012 at 10:48 am by Dianne

    it was exciting to read of the methods Mr. Vanska uses to achieve harmony….imagine a world of such players brought together under such a baton……divine!

  2. Posted Mar 14, 2012 at 8:07 pm by Carter

    I’ve had the privilege of hearing some of the greatest works in the repertoire performed with the Minnesota orchestra under the baton of Osmo Vänskä, and to my ears as well, truly amazing!

    They play with such passion, and he leads with grace and power.

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Thu Mar 8, 2012
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