The Many Skills of an Orchestra’s Music Director

A recent attendance of a rehearsal of the Minnesota Orchestra highlighted for this amateur music-lover the many skills required of an accomplished music director of  a major symphony orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vanskä is such a music director [1] Below is his photograph while conducting.

First, he or she needs to have a thorough knowledge of the wealth of orchestral works in order to help plan an orchestra’s season.

Second, for a specific concert, the music director needs to be intimately familiar with the works on that concert’s program and retrieve or develop how he or she will interpret and conduct each piece, including facial and body movements.

Third, he or she must be able to communicate verbally (in English, for the Minnesota Orchestra) what he wants from each section of the Orchestra. This should be done with all humility and graciousness. At the rehearsal I attended, Vanskä said,”Thank you,” to the Orchestra at the completion of the rehearsal of one of the pieces for the upcoming concerts.

Fourth, at the performance of the pieces at a concert, he or she must be able to have a “stage presence” and bring all of this together for the audience’s enjoyment. When I have attended this orchestra’s concerts, I always have been amazed at Vanskä’s ability by facial and arm gestures and, I assume, by facial expressions I cannot see from the audience, to lead the orchestra in marvelous performances.

The work I heard for 75 minutes of the rehearsal was Tapiola (19 minutes concert performance time) by Jean Sibelius. This is a tone poem capturing the beauty, mystery and magic of the Scandinavian forest and portraying Tapio, the animating forest spirit mentioned throughout the Kalevala, a Finnish epic poem. In the score Sibelius added this preface: “Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; Within them dwells the forest’s mighty God, And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.” [2]

It must be mentioned that Finnish-born Vanskä is“renowned internationally for his compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires and  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.  In addition, he has led the Orchestra in its award-winning recordings of the complete Sibelius and Beethoven symphonies and the upcoming completion of the recording of the 10 symphonies of Mahler.

As someone who has been on three church mission trips to Cuba and is a close follower and commentator on the U.S. pursuit of normalizing relations with Cuba under President Obama and the unfortunate retreat from those policies by the Trump Administration, I especially was thrilled by the Orchestra’s trip to the island in 2015. [3]   I similarly was thrilled by the Orchestra’s trip to South Africa in 2018, especially after I had seen and heard Mandela at a special program in London’s Westminster Hall in 2001 and by also having visited Cape Town and Robben Island.[4]

Vanskä started his professional musical career as a clarinetist. I fondly recall his beautiful performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at a benefit concert for displaced Syrians that was organized by some of the Orchestra’s musicians.[5]

In December 2018, the Orchestra announced that Vanskä, now 65 years old,  will leave the Orchestra when his current contract expires in 2022. He said, “I feel at this moment, more than ever in my life, that the Minnesota Orchestra is my own orchestra. And that’s a great feeling. What we have achieved, especially since the lockout, is something very special.”[6]

I join the many Orchestra listeners and patrons in saying he will be sorely missed and difficult to replace.

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[1] Suggestions of other skills of music directors are invited from those who know more about orchestras.

[2] Minn. Orchestra, Program (April 25-27, 2019).

[3] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBAMinnesota Orchestra To Go to Cuba (February 13, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week! (May 11, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2016).

[4]  See List of Posts to dwcommentaries—Topical—South Africa & Mandela. See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minnesota Orchestra Celebrates the Life of Nelson Mandela ((July 24, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s “Celebrating Mandela at 100” Concert (July 29, 2018); Inspirations for Minnesota Orchestra’s South African Tour (Aug. 14, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in South Africa (Cape Town), (Aug. 15, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s Other Activities in Cape Town, South Africa (Aug. 16, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Durban), (Aug. 18, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Pretoria), (Aug. 20, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Soweto), (Aug. 24, 2018); Minnesota Singer’s Celebration of Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in Soweto, (Aug. 29, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Johannesburg), (Aug. 25, 2018). See also Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial, (June 21,, 2003); Nelson Mandela Makes Connection with Cecil Rhodes (May 20, 2018). Minnesota Public Television  (tpt) has produced a television program about the Orchestra’s South African tour: Music for Mandela: Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa.The first showing of this program is May 5, 2019, 10:00 p.m. (CDT) on tpt’s Twin Cities station (Channel 2).

[5] Successful Benefit Concert for Displaced Syrians, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 7, 2016).

[6] Ross, Conductor Osmo Vanskä to exit Minnesota Orchestra when contract expires, StarTribune (Dec. 8, 2018).