Minnesota Orchestra is back from brink and better than ever

Four years ago, the Minnesota Orchestra was almost wound up. Now, says Ken Walton, critics are in awe of the '˜white heat, white light' of their playing

Under Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra is in superlative form. Picture: Greg Helgeson
Under Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra is in superlative form. Picture: Greg Helgeson

To be snatched from the jaws of death can be a redefining experience. Two years ago, the Minnesota Orchestra all but drew its last breath. Its assets had taken a dive after the 2007/8 US financial crisis. By 2012, with a spiralling debt that year of $6m, extreme action was taken, and its governing body told the musicians that if they didn’t accept cuts in their salaries, the end was nigh.

The musicians refused the draconian cuts, which they feared would be just as much of a death threat to the future of the world-famous orchestra. The board responded by locking the players out of their Minneapolis concert hall, cancelling the entire 2012-13 season, most of the following one, and then four keynote concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which was the final straw for its popular musical director, Finnish conductor Oslo Vänskä, who resigned. Death for the century-old orchestra seemed imminent.

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Thankfully it didn’t happen. The players reached an agreement with the board, Vänskä was invited back, and season concerts resumed in Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall in 2014.

Financially it is viable again. But to what extent has the singularly-focused Vänskä managed to turn the orchestra’s musical fortunes around since its near-death experience? It’s a question that makes the orchestra’s Edinburgh International Festival appearance on 23 August one of the most highly-anticipated highlights of this year’s Usher Hall orchestral programme – a chance to see a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Of course, they’re not the only prestigious international band to look out for this year. Two consecutive EIF appearances by the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia presents an intriguing opening to the orchestral programme, not least with Sir Anthony Pappano on the podium. And what’s not to like in a Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra programme featuring Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and a solo appearance by the unmissable pianist Daniil Trifonov?

What magic will former RSNO principal guest conductor Marin Alsop conjure up with her São Paulo Symphony Orchestra? Or firebrand music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin with his Rotterdam Philharmonic, back with Mahler’s Tenth?

As well as the gravitas of the ancient Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, or the idiosyncratic delights as the lively Australian Chamber Orchestra teaming up with Barry Humphries for some 1920s/30s Weimar cabaret, the home orchestras are there with Schumann’s musical melodrama Manfred (the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir John Eliot Gardiner), Elgar’s The Apostles (The Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Edward Gardner) and Schoenberg’s epic Gurrelieder (Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra).

Even in this stellar company, though, the Minnesota Orchestra’s return after six years is special. By all accounts, the traumas it has faced have not only strengthened its will to survive, but have raised its musical game to a level of performance the New York Times recently described as “white heat, white light”.

Such was the newspaper’s response last March to the one big moment Vänskä had been waiting for, an opportunity at last to showcase his rebuilt orchestra at the Carnegie Hall. “That was a clinching moment,” says Vänskä. “We proved that we were back, and that the orchestra is now playing better than ever.” New York’s discerning critics described their performance of Sibelius’ Third Symphony as “a symbolic victory as well as an artistic one”.

I caught up with the 63-year-pld Finn in Amsterdam earlier this year when he was conducting that same Sibelius symphony in the Concertgebouw with the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra. The performance – an arresting combination of honesty, intelligence, inspiration and insight – brought back welcome memories of Vänskä’s enriching years in Glasgow where, as principal conductor of the BBC SSO, he blew apart most of our preconceived thoughts on Sibelius through a monumental series of his complete symphonies.

“That was a very important time for me,” Vänskä recalls of a period during which he was also music director of the Lahti Orchestra in Finland. His refreshing slant on Sibelius, seems so radical as to verge on being revisionist. Stripped of affectations, the music suddenly became visceral and, yes, Finnish. Vänskä puts it down to simply treating the music as it is on the page. “My simple method is to play it as he wrote it. There’s no need to add many things. You just have to believe that he knew what he was doing, even if you don’t initially understand what that is, and finally, when the orchestra starts to play it, you get something special.”

Surely it can’t be as simple as that? “Sometimes we try to change things so they sound the same as something else. But if you have a truly individual composer like Sibelius, you should just go, take the journey, trust in the composer, and you’ll find he’s right.”

It’s an approach that served him well in Glasgow, and has clearly worked in the 13 years he’s been with his American orchestra, where he has continued to mesmerise audiences with Sibelius interpretations, and also with Beethoven, a composer he first radically readdressed with the SSO, and whose symphonies he has recorded to great acclaim with the Minnesota. Both composers are the focus of his Edinburgh programme, which opens with two of Sibelius’ most familiar works outwith the symphonies – the folk-inspired tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, and the rugged euphoria of the Violin Concerto, with flamboyant Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto as soloist – and ends with Beethoven’s Fifth.

Is it possible to say something fresh about a Beethoven symphony most folk could sing in their sleep? The answer lies in the performing edition by Norman Del Mar which Vänskä first encountered at the BBC SSO. “We played the whole symphonic cycle then, and through the new edition I began to get a whole new understanding of Beethoven. When I started in Minneapolis the recording company wanted me to record a Beethoven cycle. I said why; there are more than 100 already available, and I wasn’t sure I had something new to say.” The enthusiastic reviews that ensued would rather suggest he did.

Vänskä is by nature a conductor who likes to be part of an orchestra’s long-term development. Ask any SSO player who worked under him in Glasgow and they will say he was a stickler for detail whose first instinct was to instil a sense of identity in everything they did. According to many SSO members, regular conductors still ask specifically for a “Vänskä pianissimo”.

For Vänskä, the last couple of years may have been a challenge, but he is confident that the Minnesota Orchestra is now playing better than ever. “The big thing I wanted to change was that they take care of their future, and they now take as much interest in planning the repertoire as they do in playing.”

The orchestra recently toured Cuba and this forthcoming European Tour to Lahti, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Edinburgh is a symbolic return to the European circuit. “There is a new connection with audiences, and not just in Minneapolis,” says Vänskä.

“We experienced that at the Carnegie Hall. After losing our four original concerts there, we went back and it was sold out. It said very strongly that we are back and we are going to stay here.”

• The Minnesota Orchestra, Usher Hall, 23 August, 0131-473 2000 / www.eif.co.uk