Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Osmo Vanska

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!


  1. I'd be interested in hearing more about what makes a conductor wear well or not. If Vanska's as limited as you think, why are the players fawning over him?

    I've got a suspicion that Michael Stern may not wear well in KC (or maybe that's wishful thinking on my part). He's very flashy, a trait that dazzles at first but can get old. But he schmoozes well, and there's something to be said for that at this point in the Symphony's development.

  2. Hello, David.

    In the specific case of Vanska, Vanska does not wear well because his performances are not penetrating or stylish. They are often merely peculiar.

    Vanska also has several bad personal habits, the worst of which is his tendency to play with dynamics far too much, at the expense of musical tension and momentum.

    The players like Vanska because he is all business and because he works the orchestra very, very hard, which the orchestra very much likes. Coming after Eiji Oue, who did not work the orchestra at all, and Edo De Waart, whom the members of the orchestra absolutely detested, Vanska has been the perfect prescription: a neutral, bland personality coupled with a very finely-honed work ethic. The orchestra is responding to him, playing better and better each year (at least in terms of sheer ensemble accuracy). However, in terms of musicianship and in terms of building a sophisticated orchestral sound, Vanska is not the answer to the Minnesota Orchestra's long-term needs.

    I have never heard Michael Stern. However, I have been told that the Kansas City Symphony selected Stern over some German conductor--was it one of the Sanderlings?--because the Board believed that Stern would do community outreach work better than the German fellow. I was told that the German candidate made the orchestra play and sound better than it ever had, but that the Board chose community outreach over musicianship.

    I trust all is well.


  3. Another interesting point is that MN Orchestra doesn't play as well when Osmo *isn't* on stage. Shouldn't they be able to keep the same level of accuracy in the "off" weeks when he's not there?

  4. Joseph, I think that one of the reasons why the orchestra does not play as well under guest conductors is because the orchestra engages a very lackluster roster of guest artists.

    Despite the Minnesota Orchestra's enormous endowment (one of the six largest in the country), the orchestra does not engage top-tier guest conductors. If the orchestra engaged better guest conductors, the orchestral musicians might be more engaged in weeks in which Vanska is away.

  5. Andrew, I could not help but notice on Joshua's blog that someone had stolen one of your blog entries and inserted it in an academic paper.

    I have to ask: was it your discussion of the Rabb book?

    Ron Brown

  6. Yes, Mr. Brown, it was the Rabb book.

  7. thoughts on the new season announcement?

  8. Drew, I wish you and Joshua a good visit in Washington this weekend.

    Osmo Vanska does not have much of a London presence, despite his short period working with the main orchestra in Scotland a few years ago. Vanska is engaged here only on a fill-in basis, not as a star conductor getting his own unique buildup and engagement.

    Esa-Pekka Salonen is an interesting case. The Philharmonia Orchestra has engaged him as its next conductor, but the Philharmonia only wants him as a figurehead, not as an active conductor. He will be limited to twelve concerts a year--not twelve WEEKS, but twelve concerts a year. This is because Salonen is not a box-office draw here, despite the fact that he got his start in London, and because he is decent (not good, but decent) only in 20th-Century works.

    The Philharmonia is already regretting taking Salonen on. The Philharmonia appearances at Theatre Du Chatalet in Paris have been abandoned because the theater is under new management. The Philharmonia engaged Salonen primarily for its annual appearances at the Chatalet, where it performed modernist works. Now that the Chatalet appearances are on hold, the Philharmonia is disappointed that it selected him.

    London audiences don't like him, and he is box-office poison at the RFH. Salonen is legendary here for the worst Bruckner and Mahler performances ever offered in London, and everyone remembers them. It is going to turn into a bad situation for both orchestra and conductor.

    So what does Salonen want to conduct here? Bruckner and Mahler, that's what, or so he has informed the orchestra. Not good.

    Salonen won't last long here. He should have remained in LA, where both orchestra and audience aren't any good anyway.

    He'll play to empty houses here for a couple years at the new RFH, and then he and the Philharmonia will come to a parting of the ways.

    I've seen this happen so many times it no longer surprises me.

  9. Joseph, I don't really have too many thoughts about the announcement for next season, probably because the current season is not yet one-third over.

    One thing that stands out is that, again, the roster of guest conductors is the same tired old bunch. I would be willing to give each of them a prolonged rest.

    Boreyko I very much want to hear. I have been told that, when he matures, Boreyko will be one of the top handful of conductors in the world. He is supposed to be the most talented conductor to appear on the orchestra scene since Riccardo Chailly.

    Some of the programming strikes me as exceedingly stale. A Bernstein festival? A Beethoven festival (again)? The Silk Road Project? Yikes! This stuff is old hat.

    Nevertheless, as I mentioned, I am still focused on this year's concerts, of which I have only attended two thus far (opening week and the Skrowaczewski concerts).

    Even my parents, this season, have skipped more weeks than they have attended. They have tired of Vanska. After being high on him for the first three years, they started to tire of him last season, and they are more tired of him than ever this season.

    So, as you see, I have nothing whatsoever worthwhile to say, except that I am very keen to hear Boreyko.


  10. Hello,

    There are so many inaccuracies in your comments regarding Osmo Vanska, that in the name of accurate journalism I simply had to reply.

    1. Vanska, "does not wear well". If this is true, it hasn't made itself apparent. Attendance for Osmo's concerts are considerable higher than for any other conductor - and they have not begun to taper off. In fact, it appears one of the main problems with the Minnesota Orchestra currently is getting people to show up at concerts that Osmo is NOT conducting.

    2. Vanska "does not know how to create a special orchestral sound". The Minnesota Orchestra HAS one of the more distinct sounds of any orchestra in the U.S. at the moment. The winds are playing extremely well right now, there is tremendous clarity. Even in the strings, there is clarity between the individual groups. The notion that Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia has a "special" sound is completely old-school nonsense. The Philadelphia sound is long-gone - and it was artificially created to begin with - using an excessively large string section, not through any miraculous conducting work. And Baltimore? Yes, the world-famous Baltimore sound. They have been one of the most lackluster groups, even during their heyday with Zinman.

    3. Vanska has barely touched Dvorak (Symphony #9 is about all I can remember) in his concerts here thus far, so what evidence to you have that he conducts Dvorak with great brio, but is not good with music of the classical period?

    4. "Vanska has no feel for French, British or American Music". This is the craziest statement of them all. I haven't heard him conduct French music - therefore it's safe to say he doesn't have a feel for it, but not conducting it isn't a bad thing. The Vaughan-Williams Symphony No. 2 that he conducted here a number of years ago was one of the best Vaughan-Williams performances I've ever heard (and I am extremely well-versed in his music). Have you heard Osmo's way with American music? I doubt that you have or you would realize that he has taken it on with impressive skill - the John Adams that he has been conducting has been outstanding in every way - perhaps better than even Edo de Waart's excellent performances. And how many other world-class conductors do you know of that would take on a Composers Institute like Vanska does with the Minnesota Orchestra? Not one of his caliber would do it - and he does it with such ambition and skill.

    I could go on and on, but I don't have the time. Yes, Vanska has his faults - all conductors do - but they are relatively few in number - and the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. Your comments seem completely uninformed - and I find that bothersome.

  11. Spartacus, you seldom hear concerts beyond the confines of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Further, you are not in command of your basic facts, and I will address the factual issues you have raised, in the same order in which you have raised them.

    ONE—It is hardly surprising that Osmo Vanska outdraws guest conductors engaged by the Minnesota Orchestra. As a general rule, the Minnesota Orchestra does not engage distinguished guest conductors. Who truly wants to hear more concerts from Edo De Waart, Andrew Litton, Neville Marriner and the other stale names that crop up in Orchestra Hall over and over? The most important issue facing the Minnesota Orchestra right now is its undistinguished roster of guest conductors. The fact that Osmo Vanska outdraws our tired crew of guest conductors proves nothing whatsoever.

    TWO—You clearly do not hear other orchestras on even a semi-regular basis. It is too bad that other orchestras never travel to Minneapolis, because concert-goers in the Twin Cities have no point of reference. For them, the Minnesota Orchestra is the standard—but they often do not realize that the Minnesota Orchestra is nothing more than a fine regional ensemble.

    There is an ocean-wide gulf between the quality of the Minnesota Orchestra and the quality of the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. This gulf applies to sound quality, level of ensemble and musicianship. The gulf between the Minnesota Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra is not quite so wide, but it is still a substantial one. Philadelphia can still play any other American orchestra under the table—other than the orchestras in Chicago and Cleveland—when the Philadelphia musicians want to.

    The Minnesota Orchestra does not have “one of the more distinct sounds of any orchestra in the U.S. at the moment”. That statement can only originate from someone who does not hear other orchestras. To stick with second-tier ensembles alone, the orchestras in Cincinnati, Dallas and Pittsburgh have more distinct sounds than the Minnesota Orchestra.

    The fact that woodwinds play “with clarity” has nothing whatsoever to do with developing a special orchestral sound quality. Further, woodwinds, like all musicians, are expected to play “with clarity” as a matter of course. The woodwinds of the Atlanta Symphony play “with clarity”—in fact, probably with greater clarity than the winds of the Minnesota Orchestra—but the Atlanta Symphony has an even more generic sound than the Minnesota Orchestra.

    The strings of the Minnesota Orchestra have “clarity between the individual groups”? Well, I would certainly hope so! However, that statement, like the one above, is a meaningless one and, moreover, has absolutely nothing to do with developing a special orchestral sound.

    What you are trying to say, I believe, is that the strings of the Minnesota Orchestra play with cleaner articulation and with better balance under Vanska than they did under Eiji Oue. And if this is what you are trying to say, you are correct. The strings of the orchestra DO feature cleaner articulation and better balance under Vanksa. This does not signify, however, that the orchestra has a special sound.

    A special orchestral sound must be developed beginning with the strings. The Minnesota Orchestra has years and years of work if it intends to develop a special sound. The string sound is not sufficiently transparent. It lacks luminosity, it is incapable of bloom, it lacks depth (a deep core of sound arising from the basses), and it lacks lightness. It also lacks a broad spectrum of color on which to draw. Most importantly, perhaps, and of greatest significance: it is not an inherently beautiful sound.

    The strings of the Cleveland Orchestra, by comparison, have both a deep core to the sound as well as remarkable lightness and transparency. The strings of the Cleveland Orchestra can summon a thousand shades of color, depending upon the requirements of the music being performed. The strings of the Cleveland Orchestra are positively incandescent, and produce a stunningly beautiful sound. If you cannot hear and recognize and appreciate the special beauty of the Cleveland sound, Spartacus, you have no business discussing music or orchestras or conductors. You are far, far out of your depth.

    The strings of the Chicago Symphony have a core of steel—a very transparent steel, as it happens—to their sound. I happen to like that steely quality of the Chicago strings—it somehow complements those aggressive Chicago winds and that powerful Chicago brass section. The Chicago musicians can blend the sound, and refine it, at will, always while retaining perfect balance. Of all orchestras in the world, only Cleveland has a more perfect balance than Chicago.

    The Minnesota Orchestra could duplicate the feats routinely achieved in Chicago and Cleveland only after working twenty years or more with a very demanding master orchestral technician. If the Minnesota Orchestra wants that, the orchestra should contact Ivan Fischer’s agent.

    To wind this point up, Spartacus, you are the only person on the planet who does not believe that the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony have special sound qualities. You clearly have not heard those orchestras on a regular basis, and you clearly have not heard those orchestras in a very long time. The only orchestras in the world, at this moment in time, that carry their own sounds with them, wherever they travel, are the orchestras in Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, Cleveland, Dresden and Vienna. You could sit me in a concert hall, blindfolded, and ask me to identify each of those orchestras, and I would be able to do so, accurately, within the first two bars of music played.

    Chicago’s sound is even finer now than when Daniel Barenboim was at the helm—it is warmer, more gemutlich—and Cleveland’s sound is better under Franz Welser-Most than it was under Christoph Dohnanyi. This is because Welser-Most has added a great dollop of warmth to the transparency and refinement of the Cleveland sound.

    I warrant that not everyone agrees that the Philadelphia Orchestra has retained its unique sound. This issue is discussed constantly among musicians these days. Myself, I DO believe that Philadelphia has retained its special sound, at least in part. I heard the orchestra often while I was an undergraduate, and less often while I was in law school. The fabulous string sound is still present, ready to be called upon, whenever the musicians want to give it. Strangely, it is Charles Dutoit, a conductor I generally do not admire, who seems the conductor currently best able to summon that fabled sound from the Philadelphia musicians. (Maybe the Philadelphia Orchestra management actually knew what it was doing when it named Dutoit to be the orchestra’s post-Eschenbach caretaker?) The orchestra’s musicians certainly do not give that special sound to Christoph Eschenbach. The musicians dislike Eschenbach, and they do not respect him. Consequently, it is all for the best that Eschenbach is leaving Philadelphia.

    The Philadelphia Orchestra sound was not unique because the string ensemble was large! Goodness gracious! What astonishing balderdash! Where do you get such blathering nonsense?

    The Philadelphia Orchestra sound was unique because the 1857 Academy Of Music was erected as an opera house, and sounds made by string instruments did not project well from the opera stage into the auditorium. To address this deficiency, the Philadelphia Orchestra string players became accustomed to applying greater pressure to their strings so that the sound would carry into the auditorium. This is the genesis of the Philadelphia “wall of sound”.

    The Baltimore Symphony acquired a very sophisticated, urbane sound under Sergiu Commissiona. David Zinman refined and lightened that sound, and gave the orchestra greater rhythmic flexibility. During the five years Yuri Temirkanov was in charge in Baltimore, he darkened the sound considerably, called for more sound from the basses, and summoned more color and warmth from the players.

    You obviously have not heard the Baltimore Symphony for years and years and years. Under Temirkanov, Baltimore Symphony concerts were red-letter events. The quality of the orchestra under Temirkanov was near-breathtaking, rivaling (and, to the ears of some, exceeding) that great orchestra to the north, Philadelphia. Even the Philadelphia critics acknowledged that Baltimore had at last matched Philadelphia’s exalted level. Music-lovers in Minnesota have not heard concerts like Temirkanov’s Baltimore concerts since . . .well, probably never! (However, the beautiful Baltimore sound will quickly disappear under Marin Alsop.)

    THREE—I have heard Vanska conduct Dvorak, in Washington and in Europe. In Dvorak, he made Hans Vonk look good.

    I have heard Vanska conduct Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in several cities. In music of the Classical period, he made Andreas Delfs look good.

    FOUR—I have heard Vanska conduct French music, in Minneapolis and Washington. In French music, he made Seiji Ozawa look good.

    I have heard Vanska conduct American music, in Minneapolis and Washington. In American music, he made Robert Spano look good.

    I have heard Vanska conduct English music, in Minneapolis and Washington. In English music, he made Andrew Davis look good.

    (No doubt you heard Vanska butcher the Holst showpiece in this season’s opening week of subscription concerts. The standard of playing from the orchestra was provincial, if not execrable, and Vanska had not a clue what to do with that score. Vanska made Gustav Holst sound like bad Carl Nielsen. Perversely, I enjoyed Vanska’s total cluelessness with the Holst—in fact, I enjoyed it immensely. I have seldom had such a good time in the concert hall. It reminded me of a disastrous Daniel Harding performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto I caught in Paris in 2004, which I similarly enjoyed and recall with inexplicable fondness. Truly awful performances can often be lots of fun!)

    I never heard Vanska’s reading of the Vaughan Williams “London” Symphony. I am pleased you enjoyed it.

    The fact that Vanska devotes a week to the Composers Institute has no bearing on his qualities as a conductor. Leonard Slatkin does all kinds of similar work on behalf of new compositions, for which he must be commended. This fact does not, however, make Slatkin a remarkable conductor or a remarkable musician. That Vanska devotes a week to the Composers Institute does not make him a remarkable conductor or a remarkable musician.

    Further, given that attendance at last year’s Composers Institute was only 700 persons, according to the Star Tribune, I cannot believe that this is an efficient use of the Minnesota Orchestra’s resources. The Composers Institute should be left in the capable hands of a good youth orchestra.

  12. Sparty, you are ignorant. You’re a fool.

    “The notion that Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia has a "special" sound is completely old-school nonsense. The Philadelphia sound is long-gone - and it was artificially created to begin with - using an excessively large string section, not through any miraculous conducting work.”

    Not true, Sparty, Not true at all. Total bullshit. All three orchestras maintain their special sounds. Philadelphia is going through a rough time, what with Eschenbach not working out, and yet I can hear the special Philadelphia sound peep through every week.

    “Excessively large string section.” What total bullshit. You don’t have a fucking clue. And Stokowski and Ormandy were big time conductors, like it or not.

    “And Baltimore? Yes, the world-famous Baltimore sound. They have been one of the most lackluster groups, even during their heyday with Zinman.”

    Not true, Sparty. You are ignorant. Baltimore has been a special orchestra since the late 70s. And their heyday was not under Zinman. It was before and after Zinman. And Baltimore has been much better than Minnesota for over three decades. Commissiona did wonders there. Zinman benefited from it. Temirkanov improved things further.

    ”And how many other world-class conductors do you know of that would take on a Composers Institute like Vanska does with the Minnesota Orchestra? Not one of his caliber would do it - and he does it with such ambition and skill.”

    Sparty, you are ignorant. In addition to Slatkin, ever hear of Michael Tilson Thomas? What a stupid statement.

    Your orchestra is a regional orchestra, Sparty. Vanska may be doing good work there, but you still have a regional orchestra.

    I heard Vanska in Philly. He is very intense. He is also very odd. There is some mild talk here about him coming here, but the Philadelphia Ochestra can do much better than Vanska. He’s not cut for a major orchestra.

    Let him improve Minnesota for a couple more years. Then have a good conductor come to Minnesota.

    And Sparty, get a clue.

  13. Let me assure you Cleveland retains its special sound. The orchestra's sound is more refined and more luminous than at any time since the Georg Szell era. There is not a more beautiful sound anywhere than Cleveland's current sound. There is not a more unique sound in any other American orchestra. I have been attending concerts in Severance Hall since 1966. Frankly, Cleveland has never played better. Welser-Most is a miracle worker, the perfect conductor for the ensemble. Robert

  14. Spartacus, your comment from earlier today was rude and idiotic, and I have deleted it.

    In fifteen months of blogging, Spartacus, I have never deleted a single comment until today, when I deleted yours. (Joshua, however, has deleted a few comments on his blog.)

    I am confident, Spartacus, that you, upon reflection, will be thankful that I have deleted such public evidence of your profligate idiocy.

    It matters not at all that you are unintelligent and uninformed and impolite.

    However, I do not think that it is too much to ask that comments be coherent, follow a logical train of thought, be reasonably on point, and demonstrate some minimal grasp of the subject matter under discussion.

    Your comment failed each of those tests, and failed them miserably.