Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Osmo Vanska, guest conductor for the San Francisco Symphony, October 22-31, 2009

Material from the Classical Music Column for the October 16, 2009 Preview Section, Bay Area News Group, under the headline, "Osmo Vanska to bring music from his native Finland to Davies Hall."

By Cheryl North

THE BAY AREA is about to experience some bracing energy from the north when Finnish-born Osmo Vanska assumes the podium to pilot the San Francisco Symphony through two weeks of concerts from Oct. 22 to Oct. 31 at Davies Symphony Hall.

Vanska is navigating some high classical music seas these days. He already has traversed the orchestral works of fellow Finn Jean Sibelius with recordings of the complete set of the Sibelius symphonies with the Lahti Orchestra for the BIS (Swedish) label, as well as all of Denmark's Carl Nielsen symphonies with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, also for BIS. In addition, he has served at the helm of the Iceland Symphony, and since 2003, as music director of the acclaimed Minnesota Orchestra, with whom he has just completed performances and recordings of the complete Beethoven symphonies. Critics have lauded his interpretations of Prokofiev, Beethoven and other composers as "blazing," "bold" "audacious" and "risk-taking."

It's not surprising that his contract with Minnesota has been extended through the 2014-2015 season.

I was struck by the deep resonance of his hearty speaking voice when he answered the phone from his offices at the Minnesota Orchestra headquarters for our scheduled interview. His enthusiasm, ready sense of humor and congeniality punctuated our chat with warmth and humor.

He loves the Minnesota landscape as well as his Minnesota Orchestra. One of his great joys lately has been switching from riding his Yamaha V Star motorcycle ("It looks like a Harley," he said) to a pedal bike. "I've ridden many, many miles through the beautiful countryside this past summer," he said. "I love both the exercise and the beauty."

Osmo Vanska was born in a small town called Saaminki on Feb. 28, 1953. His music-loving parents took their three sons (Osmo is the youngest) to concerts at least once a month and sent them to participate in the local music institute when Osmo was 9. One brother took up the trumpet, while Osmo and the other brother played violin.

"But then I heard the wonderful sound of the clarinet," he said. "Then and there I thought how marvelous it would be if I could play that beautiful instrument in a symphony orchestra."

Something happened that changed him. When his parents purchased the family's first stereo when he was 12, he heard a recording of Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic in Brahms' monumental Symphony No. 2.

"I decided that it would be even more marvelous if I were to have the whole orchestra as my 'instrument,' he said.

He proceeded to study conducting with Jorma Panula at the Sibelius Academy and, in 1982, won the Besancon Young Conductor's Competition. As it turns out, both great expectations of his youth have come about. He has played clarinet with the Turku Philharmonic, served as principal clarinet with the Helsinki Philharmonic and now wields his baton before orchestras the world over. However, I'm told that every now and again, he sits in with the clarinet section with his Minnesota colleagues.

The program for Vanska's Oct. 22, 23 and 24 concerts will include John Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox; Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with fellow Finn Antti Sirala as soloist, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7.

Fortunately, as critics have singled out Vanska as one of the world's foremost interpreters of the enigmatic music of Sibelius, he will conduct that composer's incomparable Violin Concerto, with Russian Vadim Repin as soloist for the concerts scheduled from Oct. 28 through 31. Other works on the program will be Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen's Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and his lighthearted Symphony No. 8. Sallinen's Symphony will not be performed at the shorter Oct. 30 6:30 program.

Photo by Warner North, backstage at
Davies Hall after San Francisco Symphony performance, October 31, 2009

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