Updated January 2003
Osmo Vänskä takes over as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra this fall, but the early appearances of this 50-year-old Finnish conductor have already created buzz in local and national media. He has a growing resume of American orchestras he's recently guest conducted, all of whom quickly invite him back. A Chicago Symphony Orchestra administrator, struck by the intensity Vänskä got out of the CSO in his debut a few seasons ago, said enviously of the Minnesota Orchestra: "It's the best appointment that orchestra's made since Mitropoulos." High praise, considering Dimitri Mitropoulos began here in 1937-five music directors ago.Time will tell how Vänskä measures up to that legend. Before then: Who is he, and what can we expect? Brian Newhouse traveled to Finland to find out.
Lahti is a city of 95,000 set in the spruce forests and "Moose Warning" signs an hour's drive northeast of Helsinki. In the language of local boosters, it is Finland's Winter Sports Capitol; three towering ski jumps in town emphasize that fact. It's also "The Business City," as announced by the sign at the city limits. Textiles and wood handling boomed here in the 1980s, but when Finland's main trading partner, the Soviet Union, went out of business in the early '90s, so did lots of Lahti. Unemployment soared to 30 percent. The diligent Finns have stomped that figure down to about 15 percent, but still, little Lahti-Winter Sports Capitol or The Business City-is one of the last places on earth where you'd expect to find a world-class orchestra. Its name is the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and before Osmo Vänskä took it over in 1988 few people in Finland paid it much attention. Fast forward to today. Under Vänskä, the LSO has now made 40 CDs, one of which captured a coveted Record of the Year Award from Gramophone magazine. Two years ago, the LSO moved into a striking new wood-under-glass home, Sibelius Hall. Its financial success is the envy of bigger European orchestras. And now Vänskä is poised to leap across the pond to America, another point of local pride.He and I spoke for several hours after an evening rehearsal in the pastor's office of the Lutheran Church of the Cross. Rehearsal had been held in the sanctuary because of a scheduling conflict at Sibelius Hall. And though neither the church nor this office were Vänskä's space, each fit him well. The feeling of order, the quiet, and the spiritual strength of the building are all qualities that Vänskä's players and critics note in the man himself. Though now he's just chalking it all up to plain old work.
BRIAN NEWHOUSE: How's he had this improbable success in little, out-of-the-way Lahti?
OSMO VÄNSKÄ: Working. It's just working. When I came here, I was a young man who knew everything. It was all black and white. I told the players 'Wrong note! Don't do it like that!' For some reason they didn't like that too much. The players gave me a new chance every time. Finally I learned that I have to respect them. We have to do this work together. The players and I are absolutely on the same level. Now our work is like making chamber music: Everyone knows what they are to do, and they are responsible. That's teamwork. My idea of hard work is that at the end of the rehearsal everyone is tired but happy. A great composer once said that his music was five percent inspiration, 95 percent work. It's the same for us who make the music.
You'll keep the Lahti Symphony Orchestra after you start full time in Minnesota?
Yes. I'm excited to work with two great orchestras at the same time. I won't need to start from zero in Minnesota, as I did here. The Minnesota Orchestra is almost 100 years old. I know it is a great orchestra already. What attracted me to them is that, more than any other orchestra I'd guest-conducted, as hard as I worked them in rehearsal, they seemed to like it and want more. Do you know how rare that attitude is?
You conducted Sibelius for your Minnesota Orchestra debut. When I landed at the airport and changed my dollars for Finnmarks, I saw Sibelius' face, first thing, on the 100-mark note the teller gave me. I asked her if she knew who that was, and she said, "Oh yes, everyone knows that's Jean Sibelius." That same scene wouldn't be played out in America. We have no composer of that profile in our culture. What does Sibelius mean to you as a Finn?
We got our independence in 1917 after centuries under Russia and Sweden. But our nation is smallwe're only five million people nowso it's not so easy to tell a big country "We want freedom." Sibelius began writing at a time when it wasn't allowed to say a word against Russia in a Finnish newspaper. When he composed Finlandia, it was as if he were saying "Wake up, Finland. Do what you have to do. Take your position against Russia." Then came his First Symphony, then the Second, and Finns felt this was our language. He was our national hero.
Does the Finnish affection for Sibelius say more about patriotism or sheer love of music?
I think it's a combination. But we are simply proud of him. We need those kinds of statues in a small country. In the US, you may not understand this because you don't have a neighbor who is 10 times bigger than you.
Are you interested in American music as well?
It would be boring for you if I listed all the pieces of American music I've conducted. Barber, Ives, Bernsteinthese are pieces that most people know. What I'm doing now is looking for other American pieces that are perhaps not so well known there. There have been so many composers who have had no one to champion them. Other composers, perhaps not as good, have had powerful conductors working to get their music performed. I'm sure there are hours of good American music in libraries and archives. If I'm lucky, I'll find something there.
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra has about 70 players, nearly 30 less than the Minnesota Orchestra. Have you been particularly eager to get to a bigger orchestra?
In Lahti, we don't do much Bruckner, Mahler, or Richard Straussmusic that requires a bigger orchestra. But remember, Sibelius wrote all his music for the size of our orchestra. Beethoven usually only had six or eight good violinists in his orchestra. I've learned in Lahti that quality is one thing, quantity is another. Don't put them together. Bigger is not necessarily better. I am very keen on music, not how many players there are. That said, though, if you have 100 good players in an orchestra, then the whole scale is open.
What's been the greatest musical success to date in your career?
Lahti, of course. If I have learned anything about the institution we call the orchestra, it's been with Lahti, and that's absolutely the most important thing. It's been the highest level of any kind of school. And what I've learned here has to do with teamwork and relationships between people, and how I need to speak to people and respect them.
Orchestras reflect their conductors. The LSO reflects you, and in time the Minnesota Orchestra will do likewise. What's the sound you try to create?
I like a rounded sound. It's very important to have all the middle voices. Not just the melody. Another thing I think is important is that the Lahti Symphony is one of the quietest orchestras. People always speak about our special pianissimos. People connect that with me. This is a particular skill of the Lahti Symphony. I don't believe in simply playing louder and louder and louder. But if you can play softer and softer and softer, then the loud parts sound even louder. Also, people say they can see in the concert that this orchestra plays well. Our people move when they play. The body language. Are they active? Enthusiastic? You can see it in the faces. They play with a full heart.
For many people, their greatest successes are professional ones. I'm wondering if there are personal successes you're proud of outside of music.
We're getting into deeper things now. I have three children who have none of those big problems that the world is filled with now. I have a wonderful wife. I have to be thankful to God for all that.
Speaking of God, the New York Times ran an article in its Sunday magazine last year that delved into the world of Finnish classical music. One quote I remember in particular is that, for Finns, classical music has become almost a new kind of religion, at least a secular one.
I think that's accurate. If Finns start to recognize that something is important, then we do it seriously. It's a Finnish mentality. If we like something, believe in it, then we work for it seriously. The whole Finnish education system, the schools, the music institutes ... parents can send their children very inexpensively to a good music school beginning when the kids are very young. People in other countries have to be rich to allow their kids to have this kind of education. That's not the way in Finland. I accept high taxes in Finland because this has been enormously good for the country.
How old are your kids and what music did they listen to growing up?
They all listened to rock and popular music even though they took instrument lessons. Our oldest one, Tytti, is 27, and she's studying musical theater in a very competitive program in Finland. Our two sons are Olli, who is 22, and Perttu, 20. Olli is in the military now. He's a good violinist, but he's decided he doesn't want to play in an orchestra. He'll probably go into marketing and business. Perttu, I think he'll be a musician. He plays electric guitar with bands. He writes music with a computer.
How old were you when you knew you'd be a musician?
I started playing violin when I was nine, and at 10 I switched to clarinet. I wasn't sure I could do it, but the dream was there, to be a player in an orchestra. Not so much later, when I was 12 or 13, I had my first ideas about being a conductor. My parents bought a stereo system, and one of the first records they got was Brahms' Second Symphony with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I conducted that at home. It went very well every time. I can still remember the tempi that he used. I used a pencil to conduct. I felt I had to move with this, even if it was with just a pencil in my hand. I was thinking as a conductor.
That seems young to have an intuitive knowledge you would want to be a conductor. Do you believe in past lives?
Not really. But my whole life is based on religious faith.
[Here, Vnsk takes a Finnish-English dictionary from his briefcase. It takes him several minutes to find the exact word he's looking for.]
Providence. That's the word. When God gives you the way to go. If I have followed his voice in my life, I have something. I feel very strongly about this.
I've talked to dozens of conductors, none of whom have ever mentioned God. What's the role of faith and religion in your life?
One of my first memories is going to church as a small kid. My oldest brother became a Lutheran pastor, my next brother has been a missionary in Japan for 15 years. So, I came from quite a religious family.
When I was 13 I had some strange ideas about becoming a professional musician. I had a feeling that if I accepted Jesus into my heart, then I couldn't become a musician. I liked music so much I was ready to take that kind of risk. Then, when I was 16, I came to understand something about connecting talents in my life. If it is true that God has created us, then who gave us these talents? They have come from God. If my talent is music, it's stupid if I'm thinking that God doesn't want me to become a musician. Something clicked in my head. It was at this same time I accepted that all of life is given to us by God. Since then, I have never thought seriously of doing anything else.
With your conducting schedule taking you all around the world, how much do you attend church?
I go whenever I can. I am also the chairman of a Finnish Christian society which has connections to Campus Crusade for Christ. We work with confirmation schools when kids are 15. It's popular in Finland to go in summer time, like a camp for two weeks.
I would like to speak about all this in very small letters, though, in a very quiet voice. I feel strongly that I have got great things in my life, but at the same time I don't want to give anyone this feeling of, "Look at me, I've done so well, and I'm a Christian!" Maybe this gets at the Finnish mentality, and it may be hard to understand for you. But I've seen too much of this in my life, this "theology of the favorite." I feel very much the opposite of this. I mean, these values are real, serious, deepso this isn't any kind of commercial.
I'm not hesitant to say in front of 100,000 people that I'm a Christian and I believe in God. But that's not the point. The situation has to be quite right before we can speak about this. This is not about a star turning to Christianity. That is too cheap. And for me this is never cheap. These things are valuable. I don't go to the cafeteria and grab people by the lapels and say, "Hey, you've got to change something in your life." Everybody in this orchestra knows I'm a Christian, but it's very seldom I've ever spoken about this. I don't want to be a salesman. Don't say anything about these things if people can't see it in your life.
Is there any tension between the Christian beliefs of having a warm heart toward your fellow man and being the boss of an orchestra?
No, I have learned things from the Bible to help my job. The most obvious is Jesus said, "Do unto others what you would have them do to you." That is how I work an orchestra. With respect for the players, not as a dictator.
It's obvious, also, that with a lot of music there is some kind of picture of real life there. A picture between the individual and God. The big things of life are happening there. I feel it deeply. People say they've been crying in our concerts. That may sound un-American. But for me, tears mean real things are happening. Something is happening to you and coming out. That is the best compliment I get.