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Meet the Musicians

An Interview with Osmo

Osmo Vänskä conducting
Osmo Vänskä | Photo © Greg Helgeson

This June, Osmo Vänskä will conduct his final performance as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, but after 19 years in this role, Osmo’s remarkable legacy will continue indefinitely.

Perhaps one of the most impactful ways will be through the expansive recording library he and the Orchestra have built up over that time. This spring, Osmo and the Orchestra are tackling two additional Mahler symphonies—the Eighth and Ninth—for future releases on the BIS Records label. The final concerts of this season will feature Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, a finale so grand that there could be no better fit to match this historic conclusion to Osmo’s tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra. We had the opportunity to ask Osmo about these two recording projects and his thoughts on this final season as music director.

MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA: You have now completed many ambitious recording projects with the Minnesota Orchestra (Beethoven and Sibelius symphonies, plus many other notable recording projects). What was it about Mahler’s symphonies that inspired you to take on this enormous feat?

OSMO VÄNSKÄ: Mahler was not only an incredible composer, but also a conductor, and I have always loved and admired his music. After recording Beethoven and Sibelius with the Minnesota Orchestra, the team at BIS and I thought it would be both fun and challenging to tackle recording the ten Mahler symphonies. His music is incredibly difficult to play, and I think the level of the Orchestra has really grown throughout the process of learning and recording them.

MO: You’ve seen this Orchestra blossom during your tenure, making a big mark on the international stage and earning acclaim through multiple awards and recognitions including Grammy nominations (and a win!) and most recently, the Gramophone Award for Orchestra of the Year in 2021. Do you feel the music of Mahler has played a role in this success?

OV: I absolutely think the Mahler recordings have a lot to do with the awards and accolades the Orchestra has received. There are many benefits that come with making recordings, but one of the most important is grabbing the attention of the media and the general public. Recordings make the Orchestra more accessible to those who can’t travel to Minnesota or see us on tour, so it allows the listeners to experience our music-making from the comfort of their own homes. Even more importantly, with every recording we have made I have seen the level of the Orchestra grow. The act of listening in such minute detail, trying to get everything “perfect,” is such an educational and transformational process for an ensemble.

MO: Most of us have not seen the process in which these recordings come together. Can you share some of the challenges that come up through these recording sessions and how they differ from a regular performance at the Hall?

OV: The mindset for a concert is completely different than that for a recording session. In a concert you have a lot of adrenaline and you feed off the energy of the audience. We are only human, so mistakes will be made and you just have to move on. For a recording, we expect the performance to be perfect without intonation issues, ensemble problems, etc., so sometimes we will go over the same eight-bar phrase 20 times to get it just right. The hardest part is maintaining the energy and focus towards the end of a long day of recording when we are all exhausted both physically and mentally.

MO: You’ve witnessed the impact our donors make on the Orchestra. What has their support meant to you and how has it enabled projects such as the Mahler recordings to take place?

OV: Without the support of our generous donors, we would not have a world-class orchestra right here at home in Minneapolis. As the music director, it is my job to find projects which will improve the level of playing and our reputation, both locally and abroad. We have done many successful domestic and international tours, but it really is the recordings which will leave a lasting legacy for this organization. The donors are such an integral part of everything we have been able to accomplish over the years—I really can’t thank them enough for their support.

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MO: With only a few months left in your time as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, how are you feeling about this remarkable era coming to an end? And what will you miss most about your time with the Orchestra?

OV: When I started my job as music director I would never have guessed that I would stay for 19 years! I have loved living in this great community and getting to know our donors and audience members alongside the musicians and staff. The Orchestra’s focus during my time here has been on trying to make an impact not just with the tours and recordings, but more importantly here at home in Minnesota. I have learned so much from this great Orchestra and I am immensely proud of all we have accomplished together. I will miss making music together week after week, but I plan on still attending concerts regularly and keeping in touch with all of the wonderful friends I have made.

Osmo Vänskä outside Orchestra Hall, 2021
Osmo Vänskä | Photo © Zoe Prinds-Flash