The moment just seemed right. In December, Osmo Vänskä announced that he would step down as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra after the 2021-22 season, which will mark his 19th year in that position. “This has been a really good place for me — a very good time, and I love the orchestra,” he said. “I feel that it is my orchestra more today than ever before. But I would like to be the first one to say, ‘I would like to go.’ Rather than some other people saying, ‘Actually, you should have gone like five years ago.’ ”
Last season, Vänskä brought the Minnesota Orchestra to Orchestra Hall for its first concert there in more than 50 years, and this month, he will return to guest-conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for concerts March 21 and 23. In addition to familiar works by Max Bruch and Felix Mendelssohn, the program will include Night Ride and Sunrise (1908), a lesser-known tone poem by the Finnish maestro’s countryman, Jean Sibelius, a composer he has long championed.
Successful music director tenures are not always predictable. What might look like a good match between a conductor and ensemble sometimes doesn’t work out after a season or two. “For me, I’m really lucky and really happy that this has been working so well,” he said. “It’s the orchestra, and it’s me. The motivation is there. We just want to make this orchestra better, this organization is better. We try to do every single concert better than the last one, and we try to build up that way the future of the organization.”
Vänskä, 66, can claim many accomplishments during his tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra, none more important than raising its already impressive performance standard. “You have to ask outsiders,” he said. “I’m too much involved, but I think, honestly, it’s playing at a very high level right now, and that makes me happy.”
One way to judge the orchestra’s success under the maestro are the 16 albums that the two have released together. The ensemble’s recordings of the nine Beethoven symphonies, released as a boxed set in time for the holiday season in 2008, generated favorable reviews. And the second album in its collection of Sibelius symphonies won the Grammy Award for best orchestra performance in 2014. Other achievements under Vänskä include five major European tours as well as two milestone trips to South Africa (2014) and Cuba (2015) — both firsts for an American orchestra. “I’m really proud of the whole organization — every player and everybody who is involved with this institution,” he said.
Vänskä announced his departure last year so that the orchestra would have adequate time to find his replacement. “I just wanted everyone to be aware of what was happening, so things could go on as smoothly as possible,” he said. A search already is under way to find his successor.
He will continue living in Minneapolis. “I like the city — no doubt about that,” he said. He plans to return to the Minnesota Orchestra for what a recent press release described as “ongoing concert engagements.” At the same time, he will continue to gues- conduct elsewhere, narrowing such engagements to the orchestras he enjoys collaborating with. But there are no other music-director posts in the works — at least at this time.
“The whole decision about leaving is not based on anything else,” Vänskä said. “There are no hidden plans. If something comes, and we know when someone is saying that he or she is leaving, then hopefully, some other parties are active, too, because it’s an opportunity, but [there is] no news.”