Osmo Vänskä ends tenure with Minnesota Orchestra in glory

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Before the concert began, the air was full of emotion as all concert goers knew this would be the last time Osmo Vänskä would conduct the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra due to his resignation from the organization this past week. The moment he took stage to great cheers and applause all thoughts of the embattled crisis between the orchestra and its management were dispersed. The following couple hours were all about glorious music making.

The evening began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and the familiar piece was performed as the thunderous evocation of the human spirit Beethoven intended. The play this overture was written for tells the 16th century story of a Dutch nobleman who is condemned to death for taking a valiant stand against oppression. Not surprisingly, Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony had been composed two years previously and this music likewise sings hymns to humankind’s most noble qualities. Then pianist Emanuel Ax took stage to play the Beethoven Piano Concert No. 3.

From the first notes you knew you were listening to a master at his craft. It is a rare privilege to feel like you are listening to an entire career brought to bear on a single performance. Ax’s solo cadenza in the concerto’s first movement was a tempest of sound. You could imagine Beethoven himself improvising at the piano, which is how he often played, much of his greatest work perhaps never set to the page. I don’t know how much of Ax’s performance was unscripted, but it was all magic.

The orchestra’s performances of Beethoven, and the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in the second half of the program, were reminders of why Osmo Vänskä was so good for the orchestra in the last decade of his tenure as artistic director. Vänskä has a way of waking up each member of the orchestra to the present moment, and they play the music as if it is the first time it is heard by anyone in the world. Gone are the days when you could see orchestra members almost seem to nap during a performance of a well known Beethoven symphony. Under Vänskä’s baton, each work they play matters. Last night the orchestra members played as if their lives depended on each note.

The conclusion of the planned program was Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird, his ballet that tells a Russian folk story of magical creatures, including the Firebird that agrees to help a prince save the woman he loves if he spares the magic bird’s life. Rarely has this music ever sounded more thrilling. The many woodwind solos and opportunities to make the brass section shine also make this work a kind of concerto for orchestra.

There was one moment that stood out more than any other during the dazzling performance: near the end of the suite, the strings play a soft pianissimo tremolo. For sustained moments you only hear this whisper of shimmering. It is like a golden sunrise over a calm lake, and all the promise it holds for transformation is made sound. Be sure you take note, because that moment is only here for a brief breath, and it is gone. Soon the main melody rises, introduced by the horn, and the fairy tale ends with all who were captive made free and join in a final dance of celebration, the suite concluding on musical chords of joyous glory. 

Throughout the evening, the audience leapt to its feet to applaud both Vänskä and the orchestra members. At the conclusion of The Firebird Suite the rafters shook with everyone’s appreciation of the wonders we just experienced.

Earlier in the evening the principal trombonist R. Douglas Wright spoke to the audience, and one of the things we learned is that when a third concert was added that weekend, tickets were sold out within a half hour, the website receiving over 40,000 hits from audience members who hoped to attend. “Anyone who thinks classical music is dying is wrong,” he said. And this night’s concert was certain proof of that. 

The concert did not end with the Firebird. Osmo Vänskä took a moment to speak to the audience after giving hugs to each musician in the front row. After extending his appreciation and gratitude to both the musicians and the Minnesota audiences who have welcomed him these past years, he introduced his encore. Appropriately he chose a work by Jean Sibelius, his Finnish countrymen and the composer he is most associated with. The piece was the Valse Triste, a small gem that follows a program.

“It tells a story of a young woman who has a dream where she is welcomed to dance with a young man,” Vänskä explained. “As she dances, the tempo grows faster and faster. Soon she doesn’t want to dance anymore but can’t escape. Then there is this moment when she realizes that it is Death that she dances with and this is not a dream but her very end.”  Vänskä then made a request of the audience. “Please do not applaud at the end. The situation the musicians face feels hopeless. It is not a situation that deserves applause.”

At the end of the beautiful and sad, sad music, everyone left the auditorium in silence. Many tears were shed. It was a grim ending after a night of glorious music making. The same could be said for the end of Vänskä’s career here with the Minnesota Orchestra. 

But there is some hope, perhaps. The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra intend to continue providing community concerts like this. The next one is slated for November 14 and 15. Go to http://www.minnesotaorchestramusicians.org for more information and tickets. Perhaps like the Firebird that leads everyone imprisoned in its land to freedom, this orchestra will escape from its own state of present desolation.