The rumor among persons serving on various charitable boards here in the Twin Cities is that Osmo Vanska, Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is being courted by the Philadelphia Orchestra to succeed Christoph Eschenbach.
Vanska recently made a Philadelphia Orchestra guest appearance, his second with that ensemble, and he was very well-received by the members of the orchestra, the orchestra’s administrative personnel, and the musical public in Philadelphia.
I do not know what to make of the rumor, although it would not surprise me if the rumor’s foundations were nothing more than the Philadelphia Orchestra Board Of Trustees putting out very tentative and very subtle feelers to Vanska to see whether he had any interest in discussing the position. I would be astonished, however, if anything other than an initial feeling-out has occurred.
The Philadelphia Orchestra is a “hot” orchestra—by comparison, the Cleveland Orchestra is a “cool” orchestra—and hot orchestras generally fare well under hot conductors. Vanska is a cool conductor and a cool musician (although his podium manner, highly demonstrative, is anything but cool) and I do not believe that Vanska would be a good long-term match for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Philadelphia would do better to wait for Simon Rattle to become available. Simon Rattle is not a good match in Berlin, and his work with the fabled Berlin Philharmonic has not been impressive. Rattle’s departure from Berlin, voluntary or involuntary, is inevitable.
One thing going for Vanska is that he is a very good guest conductor. With a couple of rehearsals, he can make an orchestra do pretty much what he wants it to do, at least in scores he has performed dozens of times.
The problems with Vanska are threefold: (1) he does not wear well, at least for many longtime concertgoers (as Minneapolis is now discovering); (2) he is at his best in Scandinavian music, and has nothing special to offer in non-Scandinavian repertory; and (3) Vanksa knows how to get an orchestra of 100 musicians to play accurately and to play together, but he does not know how to create a special orchestral sound.
The Minnesota Orchestra has never had a special sound—among U.S. orchestras, only the orchestras in Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia (and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore) have special sounds—and the Minnesota Orchestra of today has a generic sound even after more than four years of working with Vanska. This is because Vanska, although a professional conductor for over a quarter-century, has spent very little time working with top-tier ensembles, and Vanska has no idea how to create or how to perpetuate a special orchestral sound.
Vanska is not good in music of the Classical Period, and he is not good in Central European repertory of any period other than music of Dvorak, which he conducts with great brio if not much charm.
Vanska is better in Russian music, but the only Russian composer whose music he plays at a notably high level is Rachmaninoff.
Vanska has no feel for French, British or American music. His performances of modernist music are clean but uninteresting. I have never heard Vanska conduct Baroque repertory, but I suspect that music of the Baroque is not quite up his alley.
Even in music from Scandinavia, Vanska is competent more than he is memorable—and he is never inspired. His Sibelius is not as good as many people think it to be. His Sibelius performances always elicit the widest possible range of opinions, from extremely positive to extremely negative. For me, Vanska’s Sibelius lacks mystery, and genuine drama, and, where required, soul. Even in his native repertory, Vanska is a fine second-rate conductor, but nothing more.
Vanska shares his limited skill set with his other Finnish conductor contemporaries, all of whom were students of legendary instructor Jorma Panula and none of whom will ever enter the pantheon: Mikko Franck, Sakari Oramo, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. None of these conductors has remotely lived up to his early promise (although the most talented of the bunch, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, may be excused because he has suffered from personal problems that have seriously hampered his career).
Even the most high-profile of these Finnish conductors, Esa-Pekka Salonen, has never proven himself to be much of an orchestra builder or much of an interpreter of music from any school or period. (Salonen’s Sibelius, for example, is far, far worse than Vanska’s Sibelius—and light years inferior to Saraste’s Sibelius. Salonen would do well to drop Sibelius from his repertoire entirely, as those unfortunate enough to have had to sit through his gruesome Sibelius cycle in London a month ago can attest.) In fact, Salonen should give up conducting entirely and return to composition full-time, since it is in composition where Salonen’s greatest talent lies.
Vanska does a little composing on the side, too, but Vanska is clearly a conductor who also composes, and not a composer who also conducts.
Is Vanska ready to leave Minneapolis? Not as far as anyone here can tell. Vanska has been treated with kid gloves by the orchestra’s management. Musicians in the orchestra continue to fawn over him. Ticket sales are excellent (although there are, as always, lots of no-shows, because many subscribers—including my parents—choose not to use their tickets every single week).
Myself, I doubt that Vanska is ready to move on from Minneapolis anytime soon. Although it would be difficult for any conductor to turn down the Philadelphia Orchestra, I find it hard to believe that the Philadelphia Orchestra would ever offer Vanska its conductorship. The administration of the Philadelphia Orchestra must know Vanska’s limitations as well as anyone, and Vanska’s limitations make him a most unsuitable candidate to take over in Philadelphia.
However, I would not be sorry to see Vanska leave Minnesota. He has energized the orchestra after three consecutive listless tenures (Neville Marriner, Edo De Waart, Eiji Oue) and that has been a good thing. However, I doubt there is much more, given his skill set, that Vanska can do here. It is probably better for him to leave too early rather than too late.
Now if only we could entice Ivan Fischer to Minneapolis . . .
Fischer could make this orchestra special!