Osmo Vänskä is currently Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, an ensemble he has led since 2003. Prior to Minnesota he was Chief Conductor of the Lahti Symphony orchestra. During his tenure in Lahti, Vänskä and the orchestra recorded over 80 discs for the BIS label, most of which featured the orchestral works of Jean Sibelius. In this interview, Vänskä shares his thoughts on Sibelius, and what this music means to him.
« The most important guy on stage is the composer, never the conductor. »
ResMusica: Let’s start with a general question: Why Jean Sibelius? Why does he speak to you? Why do you think he continues to speak to audiences today?
Osmo Vänskä: For me, personally, I think it was just because I was born in Finland. My parents took my two older brothers and I to concerts. My dad was a fiddler, and he wanted to give us the chance to have music lessons as well. If you have a connection to classical music in Finland, it means that you will hear the music of Sibelius quite often.
Regarding the larger picture, for example why Finns love Sibelius, it is because they are listening to this music. There are colors, harmonies, and rhythms which are somehow connected to us; we feel that the music is speaking to us and it’s coming from this corner of the globe.
RM: What was your first experience with Sibelius’ music, and what kind of impression did it leave on you?
OV: This is not the very first experience but an important one: The University of Helsinki student orchestra visited Kotka, my hometown. The conductor was Leif Segerstam, a very young man at that time. They played Sibelius five and it was a huge experience, to hear a big orchestra live! I have no idea about the quality of the performance, but it was something like, wow! You need one experience like that, and then you want to hear more.
RM: In collaboration with BIS and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, you have quite possibly done more for Sibelius’ recorded legacy than any other conductor. Tell us more about this project and how it began. What would you say are your proudest accomplishments from this project?
OV: BIS had started with Gothenburg and Neeme Järvi. Then the orchestra got an offer from Deutsche Grammophon, and started to record for them. Suddenly, BIS was in a situation where they needed an orchestra.
I think we had about two other recordings with BIS at this time. The first one, a CD of clarinet concertos by Crusell–Karl Leister was the soloist–Leister because I studied with him and asked if he was interested, and also because I was a young conductor wanting to record something. Robert von Bahr, who owns BIS, was producing at that time. It was a hard time for any orchestra that worked with him because he was such a perfectionist. Robert had said that the orchestra played so badly during the first recording that he thought he would never come back to Lahti! But we learned many things during those sessions.
The CEO of the Lahti SO contacted Robert again, asking for another chance. I do not know how many times they spoke about it, but finally Robert said yes. It was some of Kalevi Aho’s symphonies. Robert asked me during the first break, « What’s happening? Have you changed all the players of the orchestra? » I said no, but that we learned something and are working much harder now. After that, he loved the orchestra. It’s typical for Robert, he’s a guy of extremes!
He was then ready to ask us to replace the Gothenburg SO. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that we got. It is obvious that we have learned a lot of things during that collaboration. I don’t know how many recordings I have done with BIS; I guess it is something like 80, or even more. The orchestra learned, I learned, we all learned. It changed our lives.
Robert’s idea was to record every single note that Sibelius ever wrote. After Gothenburg, we were the orchestra of that project. We had the chance to do the original version of the Violin Concerto with Kavakos, the original fifth symphony, the original En Saga, the Wood-Nymph. Of course, when you do those things that no one else has done, then you are spotted in the music business. It’s not only that–I have to say that we had good quality too. It was not only that we did some rarities, but the way we were able to do them well. It was a huge gift, or task, and it was a big thing in my life, and in the life of the Lahti SO. I think it is a big thing for BIS too.
There are many things about this project that make me proud. I have learned a lot more about conducting; about how to rehearse more efficiently and effectively. And also it gave me many opportunities to guest conduct all over the world. It was a project that changed my life.
RM: Is it possible to generalize your approach to Sibelius? Are there key “messages” or stylistic features which you feel should be highlighted? Do you feel that there is an overall essence to Sibelius’ orchestral output?
OM: I would like to tell you one example of something which also changed my life very much as a conductor.
Every conductor has this job always, or problem, possibility, chance, challenge–whatever. When studying a score, I have to make a lot of decisions. How to do it, what I am going to follow–especially for pieces which are performed and recorded often. There are traditions, and it is difficult for a young conductor to know where to go, because there are so many possibilities. It is difficult to know what is right and what is wrong.
Tradition is not always following the score. In the last movement of the fifth symphony, there are some differences between the original and final versions. I was wondering, in the version we know, why one particular section is so much slower. I checked to see what the score says. The final version says « Un pochettino largamente, » which means just a little bit slower. The tradition is to do something like « moltissimo largamente, » which stops the whole thing! I thought something is wrong. If the composer is giving instructions, maybe there is a reason to follow the instructions, and not to try something totally different! It was a eureka moment, it was like, wow! Maybe I have to find out what the composer has written in the score, and then try to follow it rather than what is done traditionally.
I took this as my first duty and responsibility–to be loyal to the composer; to do things as the composer intended them to be. Those are the number one, two, and three rules. However, one aspect of music that I find fascinating is that there can be so many different interpretations of the music while still following the composer’s score. That’s great: we need different opinions/interpretations!
RM: Before I heard your Lahti recording of the fourth symphony, I noticed that the 3rd movement of this work was usually played faster than your performance. To play it that quickly was sort of a tradition, right? What is Sibelius’ tempo indication here?
OM: This was the only time Sibelius wrote in his symphonies « Largo. » It is a little more complicated to conduct if you keep the tempo very slow. For me however, it speaks much more strongly.
I might be too fanatical but I believe that if Sibelius wanted us to go faster, he would have written it. The players will sometimes say that it is too slow, or that they have always played it faster, or that everyone takes it faster. This is a risk–do you have enough conviction to play it the way you feel is right even if others disagree with you?
As a conductor, my job is not to try to make those pieces as easy for the players as possible.
The most important guy on stage is the composer, not the conductor.
RM: You are now rerecording the symphony cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra. In addition to being a larger orchestra, this ensemble does not have the same relationship with Sibelius that Finnish orchestras have. How have these and other factors influenced your new interpretations? Has your view of these works changed significantly since the Lahti cycle?
OV: I think that my basic idea is still the same. But I am not the same person as I was when we recorded them the first time.
Regarding the nationality of the orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra has proven that they can understand the music.
RM: Sakari Oramo once said that playing Sibelius in Stockholm is different that playing Sibelius in Helsinki, because in Stockholm they do not have such a strong conception of how the music needs to be. I am wondering if in Minnesota, where they play this music considerably less often than in Finland, they would have a more open mind towards this music?
OV: I agree with Sakari. It takes more work to go to places where there is no tradition, but you also do not need to hit your head against the wall.
In Lahti and Minnesota we started to create our own tradition. Both orchestras were open-minded.
RM: What role do you think Sibelius will have in your continued evolution as a musician?
OV: It is obvious that as long as I am living and as long as I am conducting, Sibelius will always be there.
Photo Credit Osmo Vänskä: Kaapo Kamu