A Moment with the Maestro

Our extended conversation with Osmo Vänskä as he leads the Minnesota Orchestra into a new season

We chatted with music director Osmo Vänskä about the season ahead for the Minnesota Orchestra, the praise that’s been heaped upon the ensemble, and where he feels they stand some seven years into his tenure.

The new season is starting. Like football players, do you have to get conditioned to get ready?

Individual players know that when they come to the first rehearsal they must be in the top condition. We don’t have a training camp. We have to take care of ourselves.

You’re not waiting for Brett Favre to show up.

We don’t need to—this is our team and we are building up with these players and that’s it. It’s about playing in the same way, breathing the same way, and even thinking the same way. Members are really listening carefully to each other and giving their comments. A good orchestra is like one instrument.

The harvest of this is better and better music to enjoy, and there is always room for that, there is no limit.

The orchestra can enumerate many successes this year—the European tour, critical acclaim, the Beethoven symphony recordings hailed as the new standard for recorded classical music. How do you put this success in perspective?

I think of three legs in terms of building up the orchestra to an international level. One, the home concerts here. Two, the need to do recordings that are so good they are recognized outside of Minnesota and the U.S. So people are saying, “Oh wow, what’s happening here?” And the third leg is touring. It’s nice to go to Willmar and Bemidji and it’s also important to go to London and New York. If we are playing well outside of here then local audiences are also curious why people are saying good things about us.

You are starting the season with Brahms.

We are going to play all the Brahms symphonies throughout the season. We are also going to play, in the season opener, a premiere by Rautavaara. So we’ll start with something old, something new. The whole season, generally speaking, reflects my idea of programming something familiar and something good enough to be introduced. If we have only familiar pieces, people get tired. With new music, maybe you like it or don’t like it, but it has ideas that get you moving in your heart or your brain.

A good concert is like a good dinner—you don’t want three entrees or three desserts. You need different tastes, different ideas. I want this orchestra to be like a gourmet restaurant, where you don’t even know what’s on the menu but you know everything will be good.

The orchestra has worked very hard the last few years to expand the definition of orchestral music beyond classical, with its jazz program and a burgeoning pops series.

Classical music is going to survive, always. But I want the orchestra to be the orchestra for music lovers in this community, so that we’re able to play in different areas for them—jazz, pops. But they’re never going to be the main part of this orchestra—classical will be the main part. Classical music is the focus and then we have some other things that we play for this community.

I’ve heard from artists lately that they have trouble concentrating for long periods of time, with all the modern world’s demands on their time. There is an attention deficit not just on the part of audiences but composers. Can there be another Brahms or Mozart with this situation?

I don’t think it’s so different than before—the old composers had the same troubles. They complained that they didn’t have money enough for the bills, and how would they have time to compose. I don’t think people had more time. We are still human beings. And we’ve never had more than 24 hours in a day.

We can hear the music much faster than a long time ago, but people have always said, “I’m so stressed.”

And because of high-tech equipment, we have many more opportunities, too. Computers have helped us write the parts—we can be more efficient. It’s not a guarantee that they are writing good music, but nor is it a guarantee that they are writing less good music. It’s still about the human imagination. Are people writing poorer quality books now than they did 200 years ago?

To use the book analogy, the novels written in the 19th century—we might take a page now to say what took those authors two or three pages to say.

Well, language has certainly changed. But let’s use the analogy of food. The best taste of food using five minutes of preparation time is what? The microwave. I don’t want to believe that the most gourmet restaurant now is using a microwave.

And yet those books certainly sound different, even odd, to us now—will there be a time when our classical music sounds so esoteric, the way Japanese classical music sounds today?

It’s an interesting question. A longer piece doesn’t mean that we get more from it. A pop or rock song is around three minutes, and sometimes less is more. We have to keep our mind open.

The biggest challenge is that we need to find as many ways to build up our lives so that we are happy. If I have an hour of time, I could be using Facebook or I could be listening to Brückner’s music. I don’t want to say that classical music is the only way to build up your mind, but I know it’s a good way.

For more of our interview with Osmo, read “Coach Vänskä.”