Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra’s tenth music director, is renowned internationally for his compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires. He has led the Orchestra on five major European tours, as well as an August 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—the culmination of a Music for Mandela 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.
During the 2019-20 season, Vänskä guided the Orchestra’s flagship classical series that featured numerous works new to the Minnesota Orchestra’s repertoire, most written by 21st-century composers; the launch of a Rachmaninoff project with pianist Kirill Gerstein; and the continuation of a multi-year initiative to perform and record all the Mahler symphonies. He led the Orchestra on a January Midwest tour, and was slated to lead a June 2020 tour to South Korea and Vietnam that was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Vänskä’s recording projects with the Orchestra have met with great success, most recently their ongoing project to record all of Mahler’s symphonies. Thus far six discs have been released, most recently Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, issued in summer 2020 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’s earlier recording projects with the Orchestra include a three-disc cycle of the complete Sibelius symphonies, of which the second disc, featuring Sibelius’ First and Fourth Symphonies, won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance. The cycle’s first album, Sibelius’ Second and Fifth Symphonies, received a Grammy nomination in the same category. These albums were recorded by BIS Records, as were numerous earlier CDs: a live in-concert recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo and Finlandia and the world premiere recording of Olli 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, of which two discs—one of the Ninth Symphony and one of the Second and Seventh—drew Grammy and Classic FM Gramophone award nominations, respectively. 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 symphony 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. During the 2019-20 season he conducted American orchestras including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Florida’s New World Symphony, and led a U.S. tour of the Curtis Institute Orchestra. Abroad he appeared with ensembles such as the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lyon, Qingdao Symphony Orchestra, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Taiwan Philharmonic Orchestra.
In January 2020 Vänskä began a new post as music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. He also 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 award-winning Sibelius recordings on the BIS label.
Vänskä has recorded extensively on the BIS and Hyperion labels. His Sibelius albums with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra for BIS have amassed numerous awards, with his disc of 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.
Honors and distinctions awarded to Vänskä include an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow, a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for his outstanding contribution 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 the Minneapolis Star Tribune named him its 2010 Artist of the Year. In September 2016, Vänskä led the Minnesota 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.
Vänskä served as Minnesota Orchestra music director from 2003 to 2013, resigned during the organization’s labor dispute, and accepted reappointment in May 2014. He plans to conclude his tenure as music director at the close of the 2021-22 season.