Conductor Osmo Vänskä to exit Minnesota Orchestra when contract expires
Osmo Vänskä, whose baton led the Minnesota Orchestra back from a bitter lockout and on historic tours to Cuba and South Africa, announced Wednesday he will step down as music director when his contract is up in 2022.
At that point, Vänskä, who is 65, will have spent 19 years with the orchestra — matching its two longest-serving music directors. The news, delivered at the orchestra’s annual meeting, will give the orchestra time to find its next conductor and artistic leader.
“I feel at this moment, more than ever in my life, that the Minnesota Orchestra is my own orchestra,” he said. “And that’s a great feeling. What we have achieved, especially since the lockout, is something very special.”
Minnesota’s largest performing arts organization was silenced for 16 months after contract talks broke down. Vänskä resigned in frustration, but returned to lead the musicians in 2014 after they accepted pay cuts and other concessions.
Together, they staged comebacks at Carnegie Hall in 2016 and, this summer, at the BBC Proms, where they earned critics’ praise. They became the first orchestra to travel to Cuba after relations warmed and the first U.S. orchestra to tour South Africa. They have recorded symphonies by Sibelius and Beethoven, winning a Grammy for a 2013 Sibelius release. Next, they will wrap up recordings of all 10 Mahler symphonies that earned them another Grammy nomination.
“It’s better to make the decision to leave when things are going well,” Vänskä said, comparing it to leaving a party “when people are happy, and you have a lot of good food and wine.”
It’s important, too, that the orchestra has time to search for its next music director, he added.
In the world of symphony orchestras, searches take years.
“Knowing this news from Osmo now — three and a half years prior to the end of his contract — allows us an opportunity to do a very thoughtful and thorough international search,” said Michelle Miller Burns, the orchestra’s new CEO.
There will be a search committee, comprising musicians, board members and others. But the process also involves putting candidates on the podium. An orchestra in the market for a music director will often invite candidates to guest-conduct programs, well in advance.
One of the exciting parts of the search, then, is the possibility that, when someone steps onto the podium — as Vänskä himself did three years before he was hired — they could be in the running, Burns said.
“It causes audiences to really engage in an exciting and meaningful way ... ‘Oh my goodness, could this be our next music director?’ ”
A healthy financial report
The orchestra is hoping a strong balance sheet helps lure new leadership. At Wednesday’s meeting, for the fourth consecutive year, it unveiled a balanced budget.
The nonprofit’s annual report shows a surplus of about $65,000 on its $36.7 million operating budget for fiscal 2018, which ended Aug. 31. Earned revenue for the year totaled $12 million, topping the orchestra’s peak of $10.9 million in 2009. Contributions were up, too, but much of that bump came from a one-time gift for the South Africa tour.
The orchestra filled 91 percent of its seats during the season, the highest share since Orchestra Hall was renovated in 2012-13.
A spokeswoman declined to share Vänskä’s current salary. In fiscal 2016, he made about $734,000, according to the orchestra’s tax return. He earned $936,000 before the lockout.
Vänskä told the board members, donors and staffers gathered in Orchestra Hall’s atrium Wednesday evening that “there’s no drama. Nothing has happened, no bad feelings.”
But conductors are busy people, he said, booked years in advance. “I really hope that four years is going to be a long enough time to find someone who is going to care for this orchestra.”
Plans to keep his home here
The Finnish conductor was a “sandy-haired, bespectacled 48-year-old” when he took the stage at Orchestra Hall as a guest conductor in October 2000, according to the 2009 book “Osmo Vänskä: Orchestra Builder,” by former Star Tribune critic Michael Anthony.
Though he was the longtime chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and, since 1996, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Vänskä was lesser known outside Finland and Britain.
That October 2000 concert led to another, then the gig: In 2003, he became the Minnesota Orchestra’s 10th music director.
Since then, he has appointed 37 new musicians to the orchestra, including 20 principal or titled positions, according to the orchestra.
From the beginning, the musicians noted that Vänskä “had an extremely good ear and a very good work ethic,” said Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, horn player and chair of the Musicians’ Artistic Advisory Committee. Since the lockout, the orchestra has “morphed into an organization that really talks to and trusts each other and works together,” she said. And that “has to be led from the top person.”
Over time, the musicians have gotten to know Vänskä personally, appreciating the sense of humor behind the stoicism.
“I don’t know if you know much about Finns, but their personalities can take a while to get to know,” Smith said. “It’s kind of fun to look at the twinkle in his eye and know what he’s thinking.”
There are still 3½ seasons left in his tenure, Vänskä pointed out, with symphonies to record and tours to embark upon. Even after his contract ends, it’s likely he will return to the podium. After the late Stanislaw Skrowaczewski stepped down as music director, he occasionally conducted the orchestra into his 90s, in between international gigs.
Vänskä is married to the orchestra’s concertmaster, Erin Keefe. “We love our home in Minneapolis,” he said. “That is our plan, to stay here.”
Outgoing board chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson praised him for making a decision on a timeline that’s good for the organization.
One reason for his success with the orchestra was that “we weren’t a stepping stone,” she said. “We were his heart and soul.”
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