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Interview with Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä (langologitarok.blog.hu)

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sakari Oramo, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Osmo Vänskä – these four gentlemen are representatives of the extremely successful Finnish generation of conductors who studied under Professor Jorma Panula at the Sibelius Academy, and today are frequent guests of the most prestigious symphony orchestras of the world.  Osmo Vänskä started his career as a conductor with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and in two decades he transformed them into a widely recognised ensemble; his current company, the Minnesota Orchestra, is regarded as one of the top ten American orchestras.  The Finnish conductor arrived in Budapest early this week, and is scheduled to conduct three performances with the Budapest Festival Orchestra between 10 and 12 May in the Palace of Arts, and this gave him time for an interview with Lángoló Gitárok (Flaming Guitars).  What is the reason for the long series of successes in Finnish classical music and how long does the work of an orchestra-building conductor last?  Of course, we also asked the conductor about his son, a folk metal musician, the stalemate at the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as his letter last week announcing the prospect of his resignation.

Do you take your instruments with you when you travel somewhere as a guest conductor?

Three years ago I thought I had enough of the clarinet, but lately I started missing the instrument (Vänskä first obtained a diploma as a clarinet player – NMJ). Mostly because I’m a very bad pianist, but I would have liked to play chamber music again.  While playing like that I’m not surrounded by a symphony orchestra, and it requires a different type of communication.

What is the difference?

When conducting, I generally have to try and correct the things that are not yet perfect: to tell the orchestra to play more softly or loudly, more quickly or slowly.  But when playing chamber music, I’m a member of the ensemble and not conducting, I am communicating with the others through the language of music.  This is a huge difference.  Before you arrived, I was rehearsing Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet and Bartók’s Contrasts.

Is there any difference between how an American and a European orchestra needs to be conducted?

The main practical difference is that there is generally very little time to rehearse in America.  For now, Europe keeps to its good old habits, but not everywhere: especially in the United Kingdom, there is only time for one or two rehearsals with the orchestra before a concert.  Of course, the flip-side is that where there is a lot of time, the musicians don’t feel pressured to take a look at the piece at home.  But in America, everybody has to do their homework, so when the top orchestras show up at the first rehearsal they can already play the work magnificently, even if it is a contemporary piece.

You have said audiences need to be trained just like an orchestra.  What aspects do you have to pay attention to when you want to include contemporary works in the repertoire?  There was a well-known incident with Czech conductor Rafael Kubelík who had to leave the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after barely three years because, amongst other things as the critics reported, he tried to force the orchestra to play too many contemporary pieces, more than seventy to be precise.

This is quite an important issue, but whatever we do, there will always be people dissatisfied with the programme.  Some of the audience would only like to hear the part of musical literature which has been played over and over again.  You have to learn how to tackle this opinion and find the golden mean between the extremes.  If I tried to present only classical pieces, soon enough I would have to deal with the other part of the audience which feels no challenge at all in hearing the same works ad nauseam.  But it is very easy to go to extremes when you face these challenges.  What I always keep in mind is that whenever I work in another country, I cannot take all my “baggage” and every piece of knowledge gathered.  I must adapt to the community where I arrive, and I must understand that the people there have a different cultural background to me.

When does the time come for an orchestra-building conductor to say his job is done?

The question is a good one – but there is generally no correct answer to this.  I worked with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra for twenty-two years and even at the end I did not feel my job was “done”; but I still felt it was time to move on.  Each conductor gives something to the orchestra, and some of them can stay longer than others.  A conductor who only rehearses day after day after day becomes a burden for the orchestra after a while, and they want to work with someone who is capable of focusing on the pleasure of music instead of the workload.  The opposite is true too: sometimes there is a need for a conductor who rehearses a lot, if his predecessor neglected this aspect.  So generally the opinion of an orchestra’s members is shaped by the circumstances they have worked in during the previous five years.

Several prestigious conductors have led the Minnesota Orchestra; among others, Antal Doráti between 1948 and 1960.  How is he seen today?

Members of the orchestra sometimes tell stories about him.  I think he was an excellent conductor, but the one I’d like to mention now is a leader who has perhaps even stronger ties to the ensemble: Stanisław Skrowaczewski.  He’s a fantastic conductor and, as I too am often called, an orchestra builder.   (A few weeks ago, this ninety year-old music director emeritus conducted his former orchestra again – NMJ) Each orchestra has a tradition passed on to every generation, which makes people say, for example about the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, that they play just as they played under George Szell – regardless of the fact that there are fewer and fewer members who played in the ensemble under Szell.  Generally the performance of a conductor’s activity can be linked to the quantity of time spent rehearsing; if a conductor works very hard, he is able to create a tradition hallmarked by his name.  The old ones used to rehearse sixteen, even eighteen weeks a year with their orchestras; today, we hear only about twelve, ten, or, as rumoured recently, eight weeks.  How could a conductor leave his mark on the orchestra’s life if he spends so little time with them?  I think that legendary conductors share an important characteristic, namely that they were able to dedicate enough time to pass on their experiences; quite simply, they “invested” their working hours in the orchestra.

Last November, you wrote a letter to the board of directors and musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra warning them that the prolonged and unresolved lease issue was compromising the ensemble.  In October the musicians had already been locked out from the building which hosted the orchestra’s rehearsals, but the situation hasn’t improved; last week you mentioned the possibility of you resigning if the orchestra’s performance in Carnegie Hall in the autumn was endangered.  It is an open secret that the management previously threatened you with dismissal if you sided with the members of the orchestra.  Could there be a situation where the conductor is obliged to take an opposing view to that of the musicians?

(pauses) It would be very complicated to give a generally applicable answer to this question.  Sometimes it becomes obvious for a music director that one of the parties should act differently than it does.  I don’t want to insinuate that one of the answers is always correct, because in all cases this depends on the course of things, on the cards played or on the claims of the parties.  If I answer, later it will smack me in the back of my head like a boomerang. (smiles) The only thing I can say about the situation – which is obvious – is that the orchestra is not rehearsing and is not currently performing.  The quality of the orchestra is very much under threat.

How could things get to this stage do you think?  I’m not speaking just about Minneapolis; it is well known that several American orchestras are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

In the best-case scenario, the directors, management and the orchestra work together, and if there are any problems they try to focus on solving them.  However, if people sit back in their corners and don’t communicate, sooner or later this will lead to problems.  Joint work, the sharing of information and openness have always been basic tools of team-building – in sports and in music alike.

In his book Who killed classical music?: Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics, Norman Lebrecht, British music commentator, blames the artificially high prices of concert tickets and big-time star soloists and conductors as the cause of the current crisis in classical music.  In his opinion, many orchestras become nearly bankrupt for these reasons, and due to the ticket prices inflated as a result the orchestras cannot play to audiences filling the halls.  Do you agree with these statements?

These issues we are talking about are not just black and white.  It is important to mention that for a long time now, proceeds from concert tickets have not been important sources of funding.  Whatever happens in the ticket offices, it cannot significantly affect the orchestra’s budget.  Of course, this has a bigger impact in America, but everywhere in Europe the main part of income comes from other sources of funding.

I hope you don’t mind my asking you about these things, but you did mention that you found it weird to talk about music.

Oh did I? (laughs) I remember, I must have mentioned this with regard to my role when I have to meet our sponsors.  I believe I said I would not talk about money, only about music with them. In America, the music directors are generally involved actively in fundraising, and in that interview I must have spoken about how to talk about money to people who give the money.  Every orchestra has people whose duty it is to talk money, but luckily this is not my task and I am very glad for it.

The Minnesota Orchestra has made several recordings for illustrious publishing companies such as Mercury, Vox and Reference Recordings.  Recently you recorded Beethoven’s complete set of symphonies for BIS.  Is it a criterion for the orchestra that it makes recordings for audiophile publishers only?

There is nothing strange in the fact that record companies follow the soloists and conductors they used to work with.  In my case it was like this: when they announced in Minnesota that I was appointed music director, BIS immediately told me that they would love to continue working with me – by that time they had published almost seventy records with me.  Moreover, the orchestra didn’t have a contract with any record company at the time, and the musicians were very much content with the quality of records made by BIS and with the work of the record company’s leading producer and art director, Robert Suff.  Musicians want to present themselves with records that are better and better, and if there is someone who can tell them what they need to do to achieve this, it will surely be fruitful.  The Beethoven symphonies, the Sibelius cycle currently at its second disc and the Beethoven piano concerto recordings with Yevgeny Sudbin are all results of these common efforts.

The second disc of the Sibelius series with the Minnesota Orchestra was published in February.  Why did you start a new Sibelius cycle after recording the same works with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, also for BIS?

It was not my idea.  When the publisher came up with the idea of a new recording of the Sibelius cycle, I asked the same question: what for?  But I asked this not only about Sibelius, but also when we talked about releasing the Beethoven symphonies: who on earth would listen to another Beethoven series?  Then we talked a lot, and I also talked to my friends whom I share my dilemmas with, and I realised it was indeed worth publishing.  When the first disc of the new Sibelius cycle was published, somebody told me that a decade and a half had passed since the recordings with the Lahti ensemble.  I had never even noticed it happened so long ago!  Perhaps I am not the same guy I used to be, and the two orchestras have quite different characters.  I think with the two Sibelius discs published so far we have proven that we had good reason to do this.

I will ask you the same question I ask every one of your fellow musicians coming to Budapest: what is the secret of the outstanding success of Finnish directors and contemporary music?

You are not the only one asking this, so I have an answer ready.  I believe the entire process traces back to Sibelius.  It is important when a small country – with a population of four and half million under the Russian tsar – starts to think about its independence, because doubt immediately arises as to whether it has the necessary force or knowledge.  To this very day, the Finns ask foreigners with some doubt: how come you know Finland existed?  Sibelius was one of the few international celebrities of the Finns at that time, and I believe he was one of those who demonstrated that fame could be gained beyond the boundaries of the country.  And thanks to Sibelius we realised music was one of our strengths and people decided they had to do more about it. If you visit the market-place in Helsinki and ask people about the most influential personalities of Finnish history, most of them will mention Sibelius.  He wasn’t just a hero of music-lovers but of Finland as a whole.  I don’t think there is anyone like him anywhere in the world.

Recently you held a course for maestros at the Sibelius Academy.  Has it ever occurred to you that you should return to Helsinki to teach?

I would consider it a challenge if I had to teach young musicians and conductors, because essentially their future would be at stake during my work.  I have had several clarinet students every now and then, so I am aware of the technical and psychological background of teaching.  Until now there wasn’t any opportunity for the right people to ask me this question so I’ve never thought about it, I don’t have any such plans.

In your opinion, which are the most important senses of a conductor?

First of all, he must understand music.  He must feel the rhythm, recognise the pitches and have a feeling for telling what’s important and what’s not – in a word, to put everything in the right place.  He must know the structure of music and the possibilities of instruments, but perhaps the most important aspect is that the conductor must know how to work with the musicians.  It doesn’t matter how great the ideas are that someone has; if he cannot communicate with the ensemble, he doesn’t have a bright future at the front of the stage.

What modern and contemporary works would you take with you to a deserted island?

Spring Sacrifice definitely.  Perhaps Kalevi Aho’s Clarinet Concerto or Flute Concerto, or even the orchestral composition entitled Minea, which we will play with the Festival Orchestra too.  Aho is an important composer, I have recorded many of his works – the only problem with him is that he composes extremely complex pieces, so to perform his works you need to find an orchestra whose members are sufficiently open to complex things too.  We finished the rehearsal with the Festival Orchestra not long ago, and I am very satisfied with all of them.

I heard you no longer ride your motorcycle as often as you used to.  What happened?

I bought a bike – a very nice and light racing bike.  I realised riding a motorcycle was a nice thing to do, but you can do two things on a bike at the same time: be outdoors, see the world – in my case, the area surrounding Minneapolis – and also work out.  If I had more time, I would ride my motorcycle more, but there are only twenty-four hours in a day.  Working out is very important to me.

How many minutes does it take you to run ten kilometres?

My usual workout means I run for fifty or sixty minutes.  I don’t count the distance I run, I just check that my pulse rate is alright.  When I work out on the treadmill it generally amounts to ten kilometres, but I focus more on the time.  For example, yesterday I ran for fifty-five minutes on the banks of the Danube.

Your son Olli is the violinist of the Turisas folk metal band.  How did you take it when he announced this at home?

(laughs) I asked him about the people playing in the band and about their habits – mostly about drugs.  That’s the only thing I wanted to know.  Early this year, they were on a six-week tour in North America, and I knew they planned to visit South America at the end.  I too had to travel to Brazil for two weeks to the São Pauló orchestra, and it turned out we were in the city at the same time.  Early Saturday night I had a performance, and afterwards Turisas had one of the last concerts of their tour in a club; so I took the concertmaster, the assistant conductor and a friend, and we took a taxi and went to listen to them. I was happy to see that Olli has had the chance to develop his musical skills in the band and that he is enjoying what he does.