Coach Vänskä

How much higher can the maestro take the Minnesota Orchestra?

Anyone who still thinks of tuxedos when they think of classical music hasn’t seen Osmo Vänskä on summer hiatus. He has plenty to do: Since arriving from Finland to head the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003, the music director has turned a very good ensemble into perhaps the “greatest orchestra in the world,” as the New Yorker opined this spring. And now there’s a steamer trunk in his office, awaiting the orchestra’s European tour. And plans to be laid for next year’s $40-million Orchestra Hall renovations, which will force the orchestra to play elsewhere for a season. And he’ll do it all in leather sandals and a lime Izod polo.

“I’m a kind of coach,” he says, listening to trombonists rehearse in an adjacent room. “And now that the team—these 100 players and myself—have been together a while, we are all playing the same way, breathing the same way, even thinking the same way. We are like one instrument now.”

The team’s season opener, on October 1, will feature Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 and a world premiere from Einojuhani Rautavaara—a mix of old and new that Vänskä believes has helped the Minnesota Orchestra maintain its audience throughout the recession. He thinks for a moment of the right English words (he’s using his Finnish-English dictionary less and less these days), then says, “A good concert is like a good dinner: You don’t want three main courses, and you don’t want three desserts. You need different ingredients.”

But the future of orchestral music, Vänskä knows, is up for grabs when all the new media, from YouTube to Facebook, require just short bursts of attention. “Which will give us more satisfaction,” he asks, “a piece that lasts 45 minutes or three minutes, the length of a pop song? Sometimes less is more—we have to keep our minds open.” He smiles, sure of one thing: “Classical music is not the only way to build up your mind,” he says, “but I know it’s a good way.”


1. His contract has been extended through 2015, news touted by the Embassy of Finland.
2. He still practices the clarinet, which he calls “both satisfying and tortuous.”
3. He composed “The Bridge” in response to the collapse of I-35W near his condo.
4. He’s a fan of high-tech composing. “It’s still about the human imagination,” he says.
5. He believes distractions have always bedeviled artists: “Mozart worried about bills.”

Read more of our chat with Osmo at

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