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Wherever Osmo Vänskä travels, the Finnish conductor is almost inevitably asked to lead at least one work by his fellow countryman, Jean Sibelius. He has long championed the composer, who was active from the early 1880s to the late 1920s, and helped define Finland’s cultural identity with works such as Finlandia.
“It’s a positive thing,” he said. “I love to conduct music by Sibelius. I just have to be careful that I am having some other chances, too. I can always say no if I don’t like to do something, but it’s great music, and I feel still that it’s one part of my job to try to introduce that music to people. And even if they know about Sibelius, then they have a chance to listen to it again.”
Given this intense association with Sibelius, it’s hardly surprising that one of the composer’s works will open that Chicago Symphony Orchestra program that Vänskä will conduct on March 21 and 23. Featured will be Night Ride and Sunrise (1908), a lesser-known tone poem that premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, to less than favorable reviews. The composer told his English biographer, Rosa Newmarch, that the 14-minute work evokes “the inner experiences of an average man riding alone through the forest gloom, sometimes glad to be alone with nature, sometimes awe-struck by the stillness or the strange sounds which break it, but thankful and rejoicing in the daybreak.”
The rest of the program, which was decided in discussions between Vänskä and the orchestra’s artistic staff, will feature Northbrook-based violinist Vadim Gluzman in Bruch’s well-known Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (Scottish).
Regardless of whether he is leading the Minnesota Orchestra, where he has served as music director since 2003, or the CSO as a guest, Vänskä brings the same conducting approach to every engagement.
“There are some orchestras who cannot take it, and there are some orchestras who can take it,” he said with a laugh. “But I cannot guess. The orchestra is a conductor’s instrument, and I have to play my instrument the same way. I have my style, I have my way. It feels strange to think about being a different person with different orchestras.”