Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra’s tenth music director, is renowned internationally for his compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires.
His 19-year tenure comes to a close at the end of the 2021-22 season, a year in which the Orchestra will celebrate his lasting impact through performances of Sibelius symphonies and other signature repertoire, reconnections with favorite guest soloists and the continuation of a project to perform and record all ten Mahler symphonies. Alongside a full slate of concerts for in-person audiences at Orchestra Hall, Vänskä and the Orchestra will continue This Is Minnesota Orchestra, an Emmy Award-nominated series of performances for television, radio and online audiences launched during the 2020-21 season that was reimagined as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vänskä has led the Orchestra on five major European tours, as well as a 2018 visit to London’s BBC Proms, and on historic tours to Cuba in 2015 and South Africa in 2018. The Cuba tour was the first by an American orchestra since the thaw in Cuban-American diplomatic relations, while the five-city South Africa tour—part of a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s centennial—was the first-ever visit to the country by a professional U.S. orchestra. He has also led the Orchestra in appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Symphony Center and community venues across Minnesota.
Vänskä’s recording projects with the Orchestra have met with great success, including their ongoing initiative to record all ten of Mahler’s symphonies. Thus far seven discs have been released, most recently the Tenth Symphony, issued in February 2021 on the BIS Records label. The first release in the series, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, earned a 2017 Grammy Award nomination for Best Orchestral Performance. Vänskä and the Orchestra will continue the series during the 2021-22 season with the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies and will conclude the set with the Third Symphony in a future season. His earlier recording projects with the Orchestra include a three-disc cycle of the complete Sibelius symphonies, of which one disc won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance. Other projects for BIS include a live in-concert recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo and Finlandia and the world premiere recording of Kortekangas’ Migrations; Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos featuring soloist Yevgeny Sudbin; a disc of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony; the oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, composed by Stephen Paulus with libretto by Michael Dennis Browne; and a particularly widely-praised cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies. Also acclaimed was a two-CD set featuring pianist Stephen Hough in live, in-concert recordings of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos and Concert Fantasia on the Hyperion label.
As a guest conductor, Vänskä has led all the major American and European orchestras. He has appeared with the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., in this country. Abroad he has led the Berlin Philharmonic, London’s BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Vienna Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Czech Philharmonic, Helsinki Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra in Taipei and other major ensembles. His guest conducting schedule for the 2021-22 season includes engagements with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he will be in residence at the Curtis Institute, where he will work with conducting fellows across a four-month span.
In January 2020 Vänskä became music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he will lead numerous concerts during the 2021-22 season. In addition, Vänskä holds positions as honorary conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Lahti Symphony, which he served as music director from 1988 to 2008, transforming it into one of Finland’s flagship orchestras during his tenure. Under his leadership, the Lahti Symphony received international attention for performances in London, Birmingham and New York, and for its Sibelius recordings on the BIS label that amassed numerous awards, with the original version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto featuring Leonidas Kavakos winning 1991 Gramophone Awards for Record of the Year and Best Concerto Recording.
Vänskä, who began his music career as a clarinetist, held the co-principal chair of the Helsinki Philharmonic (1977-82) and the principal chair of the Turku Philharmonic (1971-76). Following conducting studies under Jorma Panula at Finland’s Sibelius Academy, he was awarded first prize in the 1982 Besançon International Young Conductor’s Competition. Three years later he began his tenure with the Lahti Symphony as principal guest conductor, while also serving as music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Tapiola Sinfonietta. In addition, Vänskä served as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Glasgow (1997-2002).
Since returning to the clarinet at the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2005 Sommerfest, Vänskä has performed in chamber ensembles at Orchestra Hall, Napa Valley’s Music in the Vineyards, the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming and the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. He has recorded Bernhard Henrik Crusell’s three Clarinet Quartets and Kalevi Aho’s Clarinet Quintet for the BIS label and is in the process of recording several duos for clarinet and violin which he has commissioned with his wife, violinist Erin Keefe. During his time in Minnesota he has also explored an interest in composition. The Orchestra has performed three of his works, most recently Overture, which was premiered by the Orchestra in June 2021 and was conceived a companion piece to the Weill Violin Concerto.
In 2016, Vänskä led the Orchestra in a halftime show to inaugurate U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home of the Minnesota Vikings, performing selections by Beethoven and Prince for an audience of more than 66,000. A second collaboration with the Vikings took place in summer 2021, when Vänskä and the Orchestra recorded Symphony of the North, a new composition by Tommy Barbarella that will be featured before each Vikings home game in the 2021 football season.
Honors and distinctions awarded to Vänskä include an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow, a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for his outstanding contributions to classical music; and the Ditson Award from Columbia University for his support of American music. Musical America named Vänskä 2005 Conductor of the Year; in 2008 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota as well as a Champion of New Music Award from the American Composers Forum; and in 2010 the Minneapolis Star Tribune named him its Artist of the Year.
Vänskä served as Minnesota Orchestra music director from 2003 to 2013, resigned during the organization’s labor dispute, and accepted reappointment in May 2014.