Osmo Vänskä, In Job Limbo, Wields Traveling Baton

Osmo Vänskä made another commanding appearance with the San Francisco Symphony.  (Photo by Greg Hegelson)
Osmo Vänskä, waiting for a call from Minnesota, made another potent appearance with the San Francisco Symphony.
(Photo by Greg Hegelson)
By Robert P. Commanday

COMMENTARY – Osmo Vänskä, who was the beating heart of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians during their year-and-a-half lockout ordeal, was on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony this past week at Davies Symphony Hall. In the course of the concert, it became entirely clear why the Minnesota musicians love and need him. He’s a special conductor with his own highly functional style. He flashes cues milliseconds before the attack. He holds his arms relatively inwards, with no showiness, but releases fast hammer-strokes for the big shots and encourages interpretive nuances his own way, like extending a trembling vertical hand for espressivo passages.

Jean Sibelius in 1918, five years before writing the Sixth Symphony.
Jean Sibelius in 1918, five years before writing the Sixth Symphony.

The San Francisco musicians played their best for him in the first of a three-concert set on Jan. 30, as if he’d been on their podium regularly rather than five times since 2002.  And while Sibelius is rarely played here, performances of the infrequently heard gem Night Ride and Sunrise and the Sixth Symphony, which bracketed the program, sounded as if Sibelius were this orchestra’s specialty – but it is Vänskä’s, of course.

After a startling smash in the winds, Night Ride and Sunrise goes into the long-string Sibelian gallop on slow-changing harmonies, the familiar tread sounding like a distant inspiration for Philip Glass and John Adams. But then it turns to shifting colors and textures and wonderful contrasts of mood. The Sixth Symphony, this concert’s finale, may be his most original work – in form, in mysterious turns (surprising closing measures), in the unexpected atmospheres, the course of each movement, the richness of ideas, and the step-back endings of the first and last movements.

Pianist Daniil Trifonov dazzled in Rachmaninoff's Paganini rhapsody.
Pianist Daniil Trifonov dazzled in Rachmaninoff’s Paganini rhapsody.

Between came Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with a brilliant performance of the 21 variations at the piano by Daniil Trifonov and the orchestra under Vänskä. Trifonov, huddled close to the keyboard, his long chin not ten inches away, produced the fireworks and dazzling contrasts the work is famous for. He ruled the work. Only 22, he looks to be 18. Vänskä, with his swift command, was on top of sharp attacks and changes that move the continuity along. (Afterwards, a veteran violist in the audience recalled playing it in the San Francisco Symphony with Rachmaninoff at the keyboard. That was in 1941, with Pierre Monteux conducting, at which the composer played his Concerto No. 1 and, in a succeeding set, his Concerto No. 3.)

Then, prior to the Sibelius Sixth, the Symphony’s 23 winds took on Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and played up a storm. The tight, bright attacks of the wind sections matched off against each other in rapid, staccato alternations of chords, as if played crisply and emphatically by a pianist’s two hands. The difference, of course, is the flash of the color changes. Then Vänskä did something I don’t recall ever seeing a conductor do: Before turning to the audience, he stood applauding the players for a significant couple of minutes.

The San Francisco Symphony at home at Davies Symphony Hall.
The San Francisco Symphony at home at Davies Symphony Hall.

After the concert came the kicker and a bit of a shock. A colleague who went backstage to see Vänskä eventually asked if he would be returning to the podium of the Minnesota Orchestra. “First, I would have to be invited,” Vänskä said. “It’s up to the management.”

What happened? Is the 55-person board of the Minnesota Orchestra Association playing hard ball, waiting him out to see if he’ll take a 15-percent pay cut like the musicians? Is it revenge for Vänskä’s sympathy for the musicians, conducting them in one of their independent concerts?

Apparently the board did not direct its new chairman, Gordon Sprenger, to immediately rehire Vänskä as music director. (He resigned on Oct. 1.  in the continued absence of a settlement.) Sprenger’s initial statement was simply and sweetly, “Our collective work is now to restore trusting, respectful relationships.” But to help accomplish that, reuniting Vänskä with his musicians and audience would obviously be the first, immediate step and the most important one for him to take.

On Jan. 31, an article by Lee Henderson on an opinion page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, stated: “Vänskä’s status was not resolved by the agreement between the musicians and the MOA, which has been eerily quiet over the last couple of weeks on that subject. Why not? Can the MOA seriously think that it is in the best interests of the orchestra not to rehire Vänskä? In the last 10 years, Vänskä did more than anyone to raise the worldwide reputation of his organization and our state.” Emphasizing that was the award last week of a Grammy to his Minnesota Symphony for its recording of Sibelius’ symphonies nos. 1 and 4.  As the Star Tribune pointedly noted: “Neither conductor Osmo Vänskä nor any orchestra representative was in Los Angeles to pick up the prize.”  

For his part, Vänskä “has indicated informally that he might entertain a return to Minnesota if he were asked,” according to the Star Tribune. So what are they waiting for? Do things move slowly, deviously and inexplicably in Minneapolis? — You betcha.

Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was The San Francisco Chronicle’s Music Critic from 1965-93 and previously conductor and lecturer at the University of California – Berkeley.