For the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, the Finnish conductor who will lead them in three performances this week, is a welcome returnee, a once-frequent visitor to the Kennedy Center podium coming back for the first time since 2007.
For the rest of the music world, Vänskä is the public face of the longest and most acrimonious labor dispute in American orchestral history — a lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians that dragged on for 15 months and ended up costing him his job as music director.
All over the country today, artistic achievement is coming into stark conflict with economic reality. The problem with classical music is not the music; it’s that the organizations presenting it are struggling with declining ticket sales and donor bases, and rising fixed costs. Some organizations are adapting; others, such as the San Diego Opera, are citing these problems as a reason to close up shop altogether. For these organizations, business as usual — or as it has been — is no longer an option. The question is what becomes of the artists who have achieved significant achievements within their embrace.
Vänskä, 61, is a perfect example. He’s a musician’s musician whose main legacy, according to those who have played under him, is hard work. While some of his compatriots were embarking on big international careers — Esa-Pekka Salonen comes to mind — he spent 15 years leading the orchestra in Lahti, Finland, hardly on many people’s radar until he honed it. He brought the same work ethic to Minnesota, where he took over in 2003. And if he’s become something of a rock star there — at recent concerts, audience members have painted their faces white and blue, waved Finnish flags, and cheered themselves hoarse — it wasn’t because he aimed at a public profile, but rather, because his hard work paid off in national recognition. (He and the orchestra and received a Grammy this year for a recording of two symphonies by Sibelius.)
“He’s very demanding and very particular,” said Doug Wright, the principal trombonist of the Minnesota Orchestra. “This orchestra is very willing to go with him there. . . . His way of working doesn’t work with every orchestra, but with us it’s a good fit.”
There’s no question that the Minnesota Orchestra’s labor troubles, when they arrived, deeply saddened him. Faced with the same problems as so many other large performing-arts institutions these days, and running a deficit after several years of a balanced budget, the orchestra administration, when negotiating a new contract with the musicians’ union, demanded pay cuts to players’ salaries of more than 30 percent. The players refused. The orchestra shut the doors in October 2012, and — despite increasingly high-profile attempts to get everyone talking — the doors remained shut. George Mitchell, who brokered peace in Northern Ireland, tried his hand here, but to no avail. At the same time, the orchestra was executing a $52 million renovation to its hall, paid for by a separate fundraising campaign but still widely seen as sending a questionable signal about the administration’s financial priorities.
“I think [Vänskä] felt awful that this was happening to his orchestra,” Wright said. “I don’t want to say that there was a sense he was on either side, but he was grieving that this was happening at all.” He made an open appeal to both sides only a few weeks into the lockout, imploring them to “do what it takes, find a way, talk together, listen to each other and come to a resolution of this dreadful situation.” When that yielded no results, he tried again in April, saying that if the orchestra couldn’t reach an agreement by the time they needed to start rehearsals for their scheduled Carnegie Hall appearance in November 2013, he would resign.
He didn’t think things would go that far. “When I wrote those letters,” he said last week, speaking by phone from a hotel in the Netherlands, “I wanted to give a pressure so that they could make an agreement.” He added, “I was very surprised that they, that the board allowed [the resignation] to happen.”
And hurt? “Oh, yeah,” he said quietly. “Of course.”
The Minnesota Orchestra lockout ended in January. Vänskä, who has a home in Minnesota, has led the orchestra a few times since the resignation, both during the lockout and after it, most recently this week. He is reportedly in talks about returning to his former position — a significant obstacle having been cleared since Michael Henson, the president and CEO who oversaw the lockout, will leave the orchestra in August.
At the same time, for someone who had spent his whole career focusing on music, having less music to focus on offered a new perspective, as well as new existential considerations. He had guest conducting gigs, such as the NSO appearance, already on his calendar. But his resignation left him free to take last-minute substitutions — in January, he conducted the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Israel Philharmonic and the orchestra in Lyon, France, in quick succession. And he’s also been able to devote more time and concentration to the clarinet.
“I have always had an orchestra, let’s call it my own orchestra, since ’85,” he said. “There is a temptation to think about doing only guest conducting, because you don’t need to take all the headaches that the music director has to.”
“It’s obvious that I am still living with many question marks,” he added. “I need to get more answers to those questions. When I get those answers, then it’s time to make decisions.”
Certainly the musicians and administration want him back. Indeed, it’s not clear what the orchestra plans to do if he doesn’t return. “From my vantage point, this organization has lacked a Plan B for quite a while,” Wright said. “Obviously, if he doesn’t come back, we will go find a new music director. I don’t think that’s a quick process, or an easy process. Him coming back would just make life easier and better all around.”
If he does return, it will hardly be to the same orchestra that he left. A number of key players have departed during the lockout, and part of the agreement that was finally reached involves a decrease in the size of the orchestra. A long period of rebuilding lies ahead: reestablishing trust between players, administration and audiences. “I have to perform with those players who are there,” Vänskä says of the departures, “not with those who are not there. . . . I try to take that challenge and work harder.”
“I think we can all learn something,” he said, “[from] these obvious hard times which are around us. I think that classical music is always going to be here, as long as there are human beings. But I think that everyone has to think about what is the right way to take care of classical music. It is not the first time when there are problems. I don’t know if there has ever been something which is not called difficult time, in history. I think it’s always time to try to adjust.”
Plenty of attention has been focused, in recent years, on the ongoing struggles of this particular “difficult time” in the history of classical music organizations and to questions of whether any given case study is representative of the problems of the field in general, or an anomaly resulting from a particular constellation of leadership and challenges. Less attention is paid to an attendant phenomenon: the idea that struggle can help vitalize artistic achievement. That idea is a 20th-century trope, a popular myth grown up around, for instance, many Soviet artists who managed to get their work out regardless of official sanctions. But there are certainly examples to be found today: the Detroit Symphony, enjoying a notably energetic period after a long and potentially damaging strike, or the Milwaukee Symphony, which recently staved off imminent closure with a successful fund-raising campaign. Certainly the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians, playing under their own name during the lockout, gave what were, by all accounts, some memorable concerts.
It remains to be seen whether Vänskä and “his” ensemble will be able to forge a new and dynamic partnership on the shoulders of the old. In the meantime, he’s coming to the NSO, which, in the protective embrace of the Kennedy Center, has managed to remain relatively untouched by labor woes, protected to some extent from the consequences of box-office and donor fatigue.
For Vänskä, it may also represent continuity. In 2003, one of the programs he conducted at the NSO included the music of Sibelius and Kalevi Aho. In 2007, the last time he was here, he conducted Sibelius and Aho. When he comes back this week, it will be with Sibelius and Aho.
“It’s a little bit boring,” he laughed. But his voice brightens when he talks about the music he loves — the whole point of the exercise.
“I’m really happy to do the clarinet concerto once again with Martin Fröst,” he said, “who is one of the best clarinet virtuosos of our time. And the concerto is really, really good. I premiered the piece with Martin and the BBC Symphony several years ago in London, and since then [I’ve played it] I don’t know how many times. It’s a great, great piece, maybe the most important clarinet piece for today.”
“I get so frustrated,” he added, “because it’s so difficult that I can never play that piece, and it looks so easy when Martin is doing it.”
Osmo Vänskä will lead the NSO in Sibelius’s Third Symphony, Aho’s Clarinet Concerto, featuring the NSO debut of Martin Fröst, and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.