Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra’s conductor laureate, is renowned internationally for his compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires. His 19-year tenure as music director came to a close at the end of the 2021-22 season, a year in which the Orchestra celebrated his lasting impact through performances of Jean Sibelius symphonies and other signature repertoire, reconnections with favorite guest soloists and the continuation of a project to perform and record all ten Gustav Mahler symphonies.
During his tenure, Vänskä led the Orchestra on five major European tours, as well as a 2018 visit to London’s BBC Proms, and on historic tours to Cuba in 2015 and South Africa in 2018. The Cuba tour was the first by an American orchestra since the normalization of Cuban-American diplomatic relations, while the five-city South Africa tour—part of a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s centennial—was the first-ever visit to the country by a professional U.S. orchestra. He also led the Orchestra in appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Symphony Center and community venues across Minnesota.
Vänskä’s recording projects with the Orchestra have been met with great success, including the ongoing initiative to record all ten of Mahler’s symphonies—the series will conclude during the 2022-23 season with the Third Symphony. Thus far, seven discs have been released, most recently the Tenth Symphony, issued in February 2021 on the BIS Records label. The first release in the series, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, earned a 2017 Grammy Award nomination for Best Orchestral Performance. His earlier recording projects with the Orchestra included a three-disc cycle of the complete Sibelius symphonies, of which one disc won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance. Other projects for BIS included a live in-concert recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo and Finlandia and the world premiere recording of Olli Kortekangas’ Migrations; Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos featuring soloist Yevgeny Sudbin; a disc of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony; the oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, composed by Stephen Paulus with libretto by Michael Dennis Browne; and a particularly widely-praised cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies. Also acclaimed was a two-CD set featuring pianist Stephen Hough in live, in-concert recordings of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos and Concert Fantasia on the Hyperion label.
As a guest conductor, Vänskä has led all the major American and European orchestras. He has appeared with the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Abroad he has led the Berlin Philharmonic, London’s BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Vienna Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Czech Philharmonic, Helsinki Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra in Taipei and other major ensembles. His guest conducting schedule for the 2022-23 season includes engagements with the orchestras of Bamberg, Chicago, Los Angeles, Helsinki, Israel, Houston, Montreal and Pittsburgh.
He has served as music director of the Seoul Philharmonic since 2020, and will lead the ensemble’s European tour in fall 2022 before stepping away from that role in 2023. Vänskä also holds positions as honorary conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Lahti Symphony, where he served as music director from 1988 to 2008, transforming it into one of Finland’s flagship orchestras during his tenure. Under his leadership, the Lahti Symphony received international attention for performances in London, Birmingham and New York, and for its Sibelius recordings on the BIS label that amassed numerous awards, with the original version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto featuring Leonidas Kavakos winning 1991 Gramophone Awards for Record of the Year and Best Concerto Recording.
Vänskä, who began his music career as a clarinetist, held the co-principal chair of the Helsinki Philharmonic (1977-82) and the principal chair of the Turku Philharmonic (1971-76). Following conducting studies under Jorma Panula at Finland’s Sibelius Academy, he was awarded first prize in the 1982 Besançon International Young Conductor’s Competition. Three years later he began his tenure with the Lahti Symphony as principal guest conductor, while also serving as music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Tapiola Sinfonietta. In addition, Vänskä served as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Glasgow (1997-2002).
In 2016, Vänskä led the Minnesota Orchestra in a halftime show to inaugurate U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home of the Minnesota Vikings, performing selections by Beethoven and Prince for an audience of more than 66,000. A second collaboration with the Vikings took place in summer 2021, when Vänskä and the Orchestra recorded Symphony of the North, a new composition by Tommy Barbarella that was featured before each Vikings home game in the 2021 NFL season.
Honors and distinctions awarded to Vänskä include an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow, a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for his outstanding contributions to classical music; and the Ditson Award from Columbia University for his support of American music. Musical America named Vänskä 2005 Conductor of the Year; in 2008 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota as well as a Champion of New Music Award from the American Composers Forum; and in 2010 the Minneapolis Star Tribune named him its Artist of the Year.