The Grammy Award-winning Minnesota Orchestra, now in its second century and led by Music Director Osmo Vänskä, has long ranked among America’s top symphonic ensembles, with a distinguished history of acclaimed performances in its home state and around the world; award-winning recordings, radio broadcasts and educational outreach programs; and a visionary commitment to building the orchestral repertoire of tomorrow.
Founded as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble gave its inaugural performance on November 5, 1903, shortly after baseball’s first World Series and six weeks before the Wright brothers made their unprecedented airplane flight. The Orchestra played its first regional tour in 1907 and made its New York City debut in 1912 at Carnegie Hall, where it has performed regularly ever since. Outside the United States, the Orchestra has played concerts in Australia, Canada, Europe, the Far East, Latin America and the Middle East. Since 1968 it has been known as the Minnesota Orchestra. The ensemble now presents nearly 175 programs in a typical year, primarily at its recently renovated home venue of Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, and its concerts are heard by live audiences of 350,000.
The Orchestra’s international tours have reaped significant praise, including a critically lauded 2010 tour of European festivals. During this tour the Orchestra performed at the Edinburgh International Festival, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the BBC Proms in London—before cheering crowds totaling 12,000 for two concerts at Royal Albert Hall, one of which culminated in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Under Vänskä, the ensemble has undertaken four European tours, appeared often at New York’s Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, and toured to Greater Minnesota in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2014. In May 2015 Vänskä and the Orchestra performed two historic concerts and collaborated in educational projects in Havana, Cuba, becoming the first major American orchestra to perform in the island nation since the U.S. and Cuban governments announced steps to normalize relations between the two countries. The trip drew widespread international attention and prompted The New York Times to hail the Orchestra’s new place “at the cultural vanguard.”
The Orchestra’s recordings and broadcasts have drawn acclaim since the early 1920s, when the ensemble became one of the first to be heard via these media—notably making its radio debut in 1923 by playing a nationally broadcast concert under guest conductor Bruno Walter. Its landmark Mercury Living Presence LP recordings of the 1950s and 1960s, under Music Directors Antal Dorati and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, have been reissued on CD to great acclaim. Under Osmo Vänskä, the Orchestra has undertaken several acclaimed recording projects, primarily for BIS Records. In 2014 the Orchestra and Vänskä won their first Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance for a disc of Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 1 and 4.
Earlier recordings by the Orchestra and Vänskä include a five-disc cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies that The New York Times wrote “may be the definitive [cycle] of our time.” The recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony received a 2008 Grammy nomination for Best Orchestral Performance, and the album featuring the Second and Seventh Symphonies was nominated for a 2009 Classic FM Gramophone Award. The Orchestra and Vänskä also recorded a two-CD set of Tchaikovsky’s piano-and-orchestra works with soloist Stephen Hough; a disc featuring Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony; two albums of piano concertos with Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, the most recent of which includes Beethoven’s Third and Mozart’s 24th; and two recent albums of Sibelius symphonies, including the Grammy-winning disc of Symphonies No. 1 and 4 and a Grammy-nominated album of the Second and Fifth Symphonies. In late spring of 2015 Vänskä and the Orchestra will complete their cycle of Sibelius symphonies by recording the Third, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. Future recording projects include the Orchestra’s first Mahler recording under Vänskä’s direction—the Fifth Symphony—as well as a live-in-concert recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo.
The Orchestra’s Friday night performances are broadcast live regionally by Minnesota Public Radio, a weekly tradition for more than 40 years. Over the years, many programs have been subsequently featured on American Public Media’s national programs, SymphonyCast and Performance Today.
In addition to offering traditional concerts, the Minnesota Orchestra connects with more than 85,000 music lovers annually through family concerts and educational programs including Young People’s Concerts, a series that marked its centennial in 2011. In the last decade nearly half a million students have experienced a Young People’s Concert. Musicians also engage students via such Orchestra-sponsored initiatives as side-by-side rehearsals and concerts with young area musicians, the Symphonic Adventures series of in-school performances by the entire Orchestra, and the UPbeat program, which establishes multi-year relationships with communities throughout the Twin Cities and around the state.
In 2011, extending a long tradition of performances throughout the state of Minnesota, the Orchestra launched Common Chords. This multi-year initiative creates partnerships between the Orchestra and participating Minnesota cities, culminating in a celebratory festival week that features performances and dozens of activities that reflect the interests, diversity and heritage of each community. Launched with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Common Chords presented its first festival week in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 2011; subsequent partnerships have taken the Orchestra to the Minnesota cities of Willmar, Hibbing and Bemidji. The next festival, to be held in September 2015, will take the ensemble to the northwestern Minnesota city of Detroit Lakes.
Along with its core series of classical concerts, the Minnesota Orchestra presents Live at Orchestra Hall, a lineup of concerts by a broad spectrum of artists; conductor Sarah Hicks leads the series. Many Live at Orchestra Hall programs feature the full Minnesota Orchestra, while some include solo artists and guest ensembles. The genres represented also range widely, from popular music, jazz and world music to Broadway, film music and comedy. American conductor Andrew Litton serves as artistic director for Sommerfest, the Orchestra’s beloved urban summer music festival, which marks its 35th anniversary in summer 2015. The Orchestra also offers a lineup of Holiday concerts each December. Jazz in the Target Atrium, a new series of concerts featuring regional and national jazz musicians performing together in Orchestra Hall’s new Target Atrium, was launched in December 2014 under the direction of Jeremy Walker.
With a long history of commissioning and performing new music, the Minnesota Orchestra nourishes a strong commitment to contemporary composers. Its annual Composer Institute offers up to seven emerging composers from around the nation an intense immersion into the orchestral world, culminating in a Future Classics concert led by Osmo Vänskä. Since 1903 the Orchestra has premiered and/or commissioned more than 300 compositions, including works by John Adams, Kalevi Aho, Dominick Argento (the Orchestra’s composer laureate), Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Charles Ives, Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Kevin Puts (director of the Orchestra’s Composer Institute) and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (the Orchestra’s conductor laureate). During the 2014-15 season the Orchestra premiered major new works of Steve Heitzeg and Eric Whitacre. In 2012 the Orchestra completed the innovative Musical MicroCommission Project, through which hundreds of music fans made “micro” donations that funded the creation of a major new orchestral work, Judd Greenstein’s Acadia, a work which was performed again by the Orchestra in spring 2015.
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has bestowed upon the Orchestra 20 awards for adventuresome programming, including five Leonard Bernstein Awards for Education Programming between 2005 and 2012 and, in 2008, the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music.
Music directors of the Orchestra have included Emil Oberhoffer (1903-1922), Henri Verbrugghen (1923-1931), Eugene Ormandy (1931-1936), Dimitri Mitropoulos (1937-1949), Antal Dorati (1949-1960), Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (1960-1979), Neville Marriner (1979-1986), Edo de Waart (1986-1995), Eiji Oue (1995-2002) and Osmo Vänskä (2003-present).