Why Osmo is now a no-no in parts of the MO

Why Osmo is now a no-no in parts of the MO


norman lebrecht

March 21, 2014

It is widely assumed in the media that the departure of Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson paves the way for the return of Osmo Vänskä as music director. Not so. Here are a number of reasons we are hearing from within the MO and across the music industry as to why this might not be such a great idea:

osmo vanska motorbike



1 Before the lockout, the orchestra was divided over Osmo. He had a  number of very close friends among the players. Others said they’d had enough and called for him to go. The lockout enforced an outward show of solidarity from the musicians. If Osmo came back as MD, the old cracks would reopen. Best to have him back as principal guest.

2 Several wealthy and powerful board members are angry – no, furious – at Osmo’s alignment with the players during the lockout and at his demand for Henson’s dismissal when it was over. They will give him a cold welcome and a hard time if he comes back.

3 The orch is not what it was. More than a dozen key players have gone to better jobs elsewhere. Better for newcomers to face a fresh face in the rostrum.

4 Osmo is not what he was. He has been in Minnesota since 2003. Now 61, he’s starting to wear the air of elder statesmen and is getting good engagements with bigger orchestras. He’d be well advised to trade on past MO laurels than to start again from scratch.

5 Sentiment aside, Osmo has acted well during the dispute. He can now do better for himself elsewhere.

6 Osmo was a cheap hire in 2003, with past jobs in Finland, Iceland and Scotland. He’s higher maintenance now.

7 ‘The public love Osmo’? True. He recharged the orch’s batteries more than anyone since, perhaps, Stanislaw Skrowacewski in the 60s. But the public is punchdrunk from the prolonged lockout and will be ready to warm to someone new.

8 There are lots of brilliant young sticks around.

9 Every single part of the damaged organisation needs to get over its past.

10 Osmo’s withdrawal would draw a thick black line beneath the recent talent drain and allow an opening for renewal.



  • Terry says:

    Not sure where you’re hearing all of this (simply a few disgruntled elites who are angry that their all-powerful position has been challenged by, gasp!, the riff-raff music-loving audience?), but it is most certainly NOT the consensus opinion. Next week, when Osmo conducts three concerts at Orchestra Hall, take a look at the sold-out crowds: many (most?) will be wearing blue and white in honor of Osmo’s Finnish origins. They will be waving Finnish flags. They will be demanding his return as Music Director. The board will be wise to listen to them.

    “Osmo is not what he was”? Your reporter is way out of touch.

    There will be no renewal until Osmo is rehired.

    • Amy says:

      Osmo’s been receiving stellar reviews for a conductor who isn’t what he was, as you say.

      And those ‘wealthy and powerful board members’ were likely the ones obstructing negotiations and healing.

      Perhaps they’re the ones who need to go.

  • Modicum says:

    Brilliant analysis of the situation. Excellent strategic advice. Henson became damaged goods internally and externally. Osmo is damaged goods internally. I suggest they bring Osmo back for a final 2 year contract, then MD emeritus, etc. this will give the board time to find a new manager and begin a music director search in due course. The audience needs some reason to have faith in the organization again.

  • Malcolm James says:

    A situation like this could be perfect for a young conductor. S/he would have everything to gain if it works and little to lose if it didn’t.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    Interesting points.

    I can almost see the MOA board with ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ looks on their faces as they envision the possibility of another ‘insurgence’, should the players and Mr. Vanska formally get together again. (Not that this would in actuality be the case, just PTSD from the prolonged lockout). :-0

  • R James Tobin says:

    “Elder statesman” at 61? Hardly. Jut take another look at that photo of Osmo on the motorcycle.

  • Margaret says:

    I’m not sure where your getting your info, but your sources are obviously out of touch with the current climate in Minneapolis. The best thing that could happen to the Minnesota Orchestra would be the reinstatement of Osmo Vanska as music director. If the haters on the board can’t swallow their pride for the good of the organization, they should really move on already.

  • Tom Foley says:

    A point by point response to Norman’s ten points.

    Point 1. Most if not all orchestras have some division within there ranks. This is quite normal, and there is no reason to believe it would return beyond what is normal.

    Point 2. It may well be true that some of them are angry–it’s hard to know for sure, as they continue to operate behind an opaque veil–but many of us are angry, and in time we will all have to take a deep breath and get over it.

    Point 3. Norman writes, “Better for newcomers to face a fresh face.” But why should this be so. The truth of this statement is not obvious.

    Point 4. Osmo is not the type to “trade on his laurels,” and go globe trotting. His forte is to reinvigorate already fine orchestras, and make them great. This takes time and commitment, something that Osma has already demonstrated, and clearly wants the opportunity to demonstrate again. The MOA should jump at such an opportunity. Where else will they find the commitment and the experience?

    Point 5. As I wrote above, to take the helm at an already great orchestra, or to go hopping around the world guest conducting for giant fees just doesn’t seem to be his personality. He is not like other great conductors who, for good or for bad, live that sort of life. He wants to take on the challenge here in MInnesota. And where else can the MOA board possibly find another conductor who understands the depth and complexities of the challenge, and wants to meet them. Further, he actually wants to stay and live in this far off and cold midwestern city, seemingly so anathama to other great conductors. It suits him, but not them. Why shouldn’t the MOA take advantage of this?

    Point 6. True. Tried and proven conductors cost more. But now is not the time to be going “cheap” with a conductor.

    Point 7. It’s certainly true that he succeeded here, and the public does indeed love him. It’s also true that everyone, including the public, the orchestra and the board are tired of the lock out. But I see no reason to believe that the public, the board or the orchestra will “warm to someone new” just because they’re new.

    Point 8. “Brilliant young sticks” are an untried commodity. Oh, they may come cheap, but now is not the time for cheap.

    Point 9. When Osmo becomes a part of the organization, all will agree, it’s time to get over the past.

    Point 10. I would rewrite point 10 this way: “Osmos’s rehiring will create an opening for renewal and greatness.” The MOA board must send a clear message to the ticket buying public that they will support the historic legacy of the Minnesota Orchestra as one of the finest in the land. The message sent must clearly reject the ideas put forth by the previous board leadership, the idea of reducing the Minnesota to a mediocre pops orchestra. You may have to be part of the ticket buying public to know this, but Minnesota will not accept a second rate orchestra. It’s a new day, the audience counts, we’re in the game, and Osmo’s the one.

    • Sarah says:

      Tom, awesome as usual. And may I add for Point 2: Osmo did not “demand” Henson’s resignation, he simply spoke the truth about healing being impossible with Henson still around. But then, a lot of Board members are extremely high-maintenance and aren’t used to such plain speaking.

  • MWnyc says:

    I don’t buy it …

    Yes, I’m sure that there are some Board members who are furious at Osmo – but that would be nothing compared to the fury that lots of other stakeholders would feel if the Board were to give Osmo such an obvious insult as asking him to be a guest conductor or an emeritus.

    And I’m sure that there are some observers – artist managers, most likely, since they make their livelihoods as percentages of their clients’ fees – who think Osmo can and should “do better” for himself with a more illustrious and better-paid post.

    But I agree with Tom Foley. If Osmo wanted such a job, he’d have taken it by now; he must have been getting good offers, or at least overtures, even before the lockout started. But he’s been clear from the beginning that he’s committed to the Twin Cities and that orchestra, and if he wanted to move on, he’d surely have put his Minneapolis home on the market by now, and he hasn’t.

  • Performing Artist52 says:

    Well said Mr. Foley! Osmo would have one year left on his contract if he was asked back as his contract was to expire after the 2014-2015 season. Bringing Osmo back for that one year will make a difference in a bridge to a new music director if a new contract was not offered.

    The board still has a lot of work to do in gaining the music lovers trust in order to raise money. Yes, raising money will need to continue. But do remember the $100 million was raised for the Building for the Future Campaign and $52 million was spent on the hall. Where is the other $48 million now? There is a lot of work left to be done to fix the problems that have been happening within the organization. Can you say box office disasters? Marketing will have to do a bang up job in the future as well.

    • Sarah says:

      Wasn’t $13 million spent in the last fiscal year with no concerts to bring in revenue? And I wonder if more $$$ is being spent to fix the many problems with the rebuild. As for box office disasters – the popular concerts are the ones which the musicians organized for the spring before the lockout ended. Sad.

  • PK Miller says:

    Interesting… The opinions seem to be all over the map. Does Osmo WANT to return as Music Director? Shouldn’t it be his call? Yes, there’s always disgruntled people in any organization. But maybe if he returns as Music Director it will be a triumphant return and unify all the forces.

    There are always up and comers. There’s a local young man now working on his Masters in Conducting at Yale, an extraordinary talent who also plays piano and sings. He’s student conductor of Yale’s orchestra, spent time last month as a conducting fellow with Maazel. His name is Louis Lohraseb–watch for him. In a few years he’d be the ideal candidate for such a position. For now, it should be Osmo’s decision to return or not. He was treated very shabbily by management–as were the MNO orchestra members. The Board needs to make amends to all including the patrons. And that means we do NOT allow rich people to make those decisions. Let the PEOPLE decide. They also serve who stand and applaud!

    • Amy says:

      Wouldn’t that be refreshing. Perhaps the wealthy and powerful will let “the people” re-write their bylaws so that they may share in governance of their orchestra.

      I won’t be holding my breath, however.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    It is likely from MOA’s standpoint that they are spending a great deal of time trying to figure out how to keep a conductor from bonding with the players to the extent that they could have enough courage to withstand another long lockout. In their eyes it may appear that Mr. Vanska was a total failure in helping to bring them to their knees.

    • R James Tobin says:

      Why on earth would they want even to think of something as suicidal as another lockout?

      • Pamela Brown says:

        MOA decided on the lockout. They must have thought it was a ‘good idea’ at the time. The objective was to get the players to crawl back and save some money while the hall was being remodeled.

        The MO players of old (SS days on) probably would have done that. But Mr. Vanska not only inspired them, he took unprecedented steps to make clear his support for them. In the eyes of MOA, this was probably looked at as ‘rebellion’. Both players and director were, to their minds, disrespectful. No matter how much MOA tries to sugarcoat their decisions from now on, I have no doubt they want to make sure to maintain control of the organization. I think they’ll take whatever steps they feel are necessary to that end.

    • Amy says:

      Yyyyeeeah….okay, Pamela.

  • Neil says:

    Well let’s hope the LSO have Osmo is their sights once they are finally shot of Gergiev next year. We love Osmo in London (and he’s wildly popular in Glasgow thanks to an amazing stint with the BBCSSO).

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    Plausible arguments against Osmo returning to the MO, I agree.. With Henson’s resignation announced for the end of the season, it is time for the entire board to go as well. The remaining musicians currently making up the MO might consider going for a new structure under a different name (Minnesota Symphony, whatever). In my opinion – apologies to anyone who finds this rude – there needs to be a very radical surgical intervention: cut away everything tied to the past, i.e. dissolve the entire Minnesota Orchestra organization completely. Period. Maybe Minnesotans need to go to Chicago for a while. And after things have calmed down, build a new orchestra, one step at the time, hopefully having learned from the terrible savagery of the recent months. One thing is certain, at least for me: there is no future for a serious performing arts organization with contracts pertaining only to pay and retirement and health care benefits. I think there needs to be an entirely new approach, with a boldness that, to some, might border on insanity. There is nothing to lose anyway. Minnesota could play a very important role in taking steps to figure out how a sustainable organization, 21st century style, can look like. If the Minnesota tragedy is good for anything, then it would have to be the radical re-imagining of role and purpose of a performing arts institution today. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the magnificent recordings by the MO under Osmo, and treasure them as the valuable and important legacy they are (that said, Stan Skrowaczewski also deserves to be held in most respectful esteem). The situation is so bad that the only way to move ahead is by radical new beginning instead of trying to somehow establish continuation. Whatever happens in Minnesota will be very closely watched everywhere in the US, and likely beyond.

    • Sarah says:

      Hey, if you want to charter a plane for us, go ahead! But we are NOT interested in throwing away what we had left when we worked so hard to keep it. BTW, the entire world has been watching what is going on for the past two years.

      • Edgar Brenn says:

        Yes, the world has been watching. And is happy for MO thar the lockout is over and Henson gone. But the weariness remains, and it is by no means certain how MO will fare.

    • Pamela Brown says:

      It has become profoundly evident that once the esteemed Minneapolis Symphony changed its name to the Minnesota Orchestra its course and destiny have been forever changed. SS in his bio STI talked about how negative the reaction was of many players to this change. One would hope that after everything settles down MOA might seriously consider returning to their original name. In the meantime, they seem obsessed with ‘rebranding’ what they have.

  • Samuel says:

    Fascinating thread, and of course an interesting topic. If I may, Mr. Lebrecht: I find myself curious, however, as to why you seem to have changed your stance both on Michael Henson and Osmo Vanska. In previous entries here you clearly shared the opinion that Mr. Henson was “bad news”. Now, after it has been made public that Mr. Henson will resign from the position as CEO of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, your posts have appeared at best “diplomatic”.

  • Bernt says:

    Thanks to Tom Foley for an excellent comment … thoughtful, clear, and well-reasoned, unlike the piece to which it responded.

    Mr. Lebrecht, I suggest that you consider assisting Mr. Henson in finding a suitable position, preferably with a start date well before August 31 of this year. Remember Mr. Henson’s experience prior to being hired by the MOA’s board: he ran the Ulster Orchestra and the Bournemouth Symphony. Surely, there’s some orchestra in the UK that could use a leader with such stellar qualifications.