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Inside the Music

Jean Sibelius, the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä

The Minnesota Orchestra’s three-week festival celebrating the music of Jean Sibelius, which kicks off on New Year’s Eve, represents the latest chapter of the ensemble’s longtime connection with the Finnish composer’s works that begin more than a century ago. That link has never been stronger than in the past two decades under the leadership of Music Director Osmo Vänskä, whose lifelong passion for his countryman’s music has led the Orchestra to some of its greatest artistic triumphs in their time together. Following are a few things to know about the various connections between Jean Sibelius, the Minnesota Orchestra and Vänskä.

The beginnings

The Minnesota Orchestra, founded as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, first performed Sibelius’ music on November 21, 1909, when founding music director Emil Oberhoffer conducted Valse Triste. Its first performance of a Sibelius symphony, the First, came in December of 1910. The Orchestra’s first Sibelius recording was made in 1935: the First Symphony, conducted by the Orchestra’s third music director, Eugene Ormandy, who later said it was “perhaps…the first Sibelius symphony to be recorded outside of Scandinavia.”

In 1955, two years before Sibelius died, the composer wrote a letter to the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra upon learning of the ensemble’s plans to celebrate his 90th birthday with a program of his music conducted by Music Director Antal Dorati. That letter is now kept in the Orchestra’s historical archives at the University of Minnesota’s Performing Arts Archives.

Letter from Jean Sibelius


Vänskä in Finland

Jean Sibelius’ birthplace of Hämeenlinna, Finland, is just 40 miles from Lahti, Finland, where Osmo Vänskä was music director of the Lahti Symphony from 1988 to 2008. Early in his career, Vänskä studied conducting at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki while acting as principal clarinet for the Helsinki Philharmonic. 

In the early 1990s, Sibelius’ heirs gave special permission to Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony to perform and record the original version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, with Manfred Gräsbäck as the soloist for the concert performance in September 1990, and Leonidas Kavakos as soloist in the January 1991 recording. Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony recorded many of Sibelius’ works for BIS Records label—some of which had never previously been recorded—for the decades-long BIS Sibelius Edition project to record all of Sibelius’ music. 

A new era in Minnesota

In his first-ever guest appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra in October 2000, Osmo Vänskä conducted the standard final version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, with Joshua Bell as soloist. Vänskä has since conducted more than 300 performances of Sibelius’ music with the Orchestra—more than any previous music director. In all, the Orchestra has given more than 1,100 performances of Sibelius’ music. One of the most notable performances came in March 2010, when the Orchestra performed Sibelius’ Kullervo at Carnegie Hall, prompting The New Yorker’s Alex Ross to write that on that evening, “the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.”

Black and white photo of Osmo Vänskä on stage with musicians

From 2011 to 2015 Vänskä and the Orchestra recorded all seven of Sibelius’ symphonies for a series of three discs on the BIS Records label. In 2012 Gramophone magazine called the Orchestra’s first Sibelius symphonies recording “…a fine start to what may be the benchmark cycle for the 21st century.” The Orchestra and Vänskä received their first-ever Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance in 2014 for the second disc in their Sibelius symphonies cycle. A year earlier, their first Sibelius album was nominated in the same category.

In February 2016 the Orchestra undertook another Sibelius recording project for BIS, this time a live-in-concert recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo and Finlandia with Finland’s YL Male Voice Choir, along with a new work, Migrations, written by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas. A set of concerts in September 2017 celebrated the centennial of Finland’s independence, spotlighting the music of Sibelius and other Finnish composers, with a very special guest on hand—Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö.

Courtney Perry

The grand finale

The Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival from New Year’s Eve 2021 through January 16, 2022, features performances of all seven Sibelius symphonies and both versions of the Violin Concerto—the first of which has never before been heard at Orchestra Hall—among other works. The concerts that feature Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony on January 15 and 16, conducted by Vänskä and hosted by Orchestra violist Sam Bergman, focus on two versions of the symphony, and represent the Orchestra’s final scheduled performances of Sibelius’ music before Vänskä’s 19-year tenure as music director concludes in summer 2022. 

Join us at Orchestra Hall from December 31 through January 16 for eight unforgettable concerts of Sibelius’ music—tickets are now available.