Conductor Osmo Vänskä prepares for the next chapter of his artistic life

Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä ended 2022 in an unexpected manner.

While visiting family in Finland, he fell off a ladder, forcing him to cancel December concerts with the Seoul Philharmonic, where he is finishing his tenure as music director this season. “It was quite a serious accident,” he said. “I shattered my pelvis very badly and broke my shoulder, too.”

But Vänskä is back at the podium and will fulfill his guest conducting engagement March 16-18 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, although he will likely conduct while sitting on a stool. He returned to his home in Minneapolis in early February, and he has been undergoing physical therapy after earlier surgery.

“It gets a little bit better every week,” he said in late February. “My wish is to get out from the wheelchair, hopefully next week.”

In June 2022, Vänskä, 69, ended his run as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, after a much-lauded 19-year tenure that included historic tours to Cuba (2015) and South Africa (2018) and recordings of the complete symphonies of Sibelius and Beethoven. He acknowledged that it was tough to leave.

“In a way, it’s still my orchestra,” he said. “And I try to tell myself that, yeah, I can be proud of all those years and the orchestra is playing very well, and now I can enjoy my time, not getting hundreds of emails per week and all the questions. It’s a process.”

Because he is married to Erin Keefe, the concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, he still has an inside track on the ensemble’s activities and makes a point of attending some of its concerts. “I have been there several times with my wheelchair, and it’s nice to see all the players,” he said. In addition, he will lead one set of concerts with the orchestra each season going forward as its conductor laureate.

Helping Vänskä come to terms with his departure was the appointment in July 2022 of Thomas Søndergård as his successor. The 53-year-old Danish conductor is also as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and he has served as artistic leader of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and BBC National Orchestra of Wales. “He is a really nice person and an excellent conductor,” Vänskä said. “And that helps. The orchestra is going to stay in good hands, so I can relax.”

Once he is done in Seoul, Vänskä plans to concentrate solely on guest conducting, taking advantage of the relationships he has with many of the world’s top orchestras, like the CSO, with which he has appeared several times previously. “I’m understanding more and more about the lifestyle of a guest conductor, how it’s a great way to be involved but without the headaches,” he said.

He had begun thinking about his future before he left the Minnesota Orchestra, and his recent accident solidified his intention not to pursue another music directorship. “I feel like it is a new start,” he said. “Do I want to do anything else than be a guest conductor? I think I am not interested.” But he acknowledged that if an offer came along for some extraordinary post, he would be tempted. “It depends who is asking,” he said. “That is the biggest thing.”

Anchoring Vänskä’s March program is Carmina burana, a popular staple of the symphonic repertoire. Carl Orff wrote the viscerally thrilling cantata in 1935-36, setting 24 medieval poems from a collection known as Carmina Burana. At the suggestion of the CSO’s artistic team, the conductor is preceding that massive work with the orchestra’s first-ever subscription-series performances of Cantus Arcticus by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, the 1972 work includes a soundtrack with recordings of birds collected near the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. Vänskä included the piece on an all-Rautavaara recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra that was released in 1999.

The composer’s early music used 12-tone serial techniques, but he later switched to a more tonal style. Although composer’s music has been regularly performed in Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, it had only infrequently been heard in the United States. But Rautavaara’s death in 2016 sparked a reconsideration of his output, and his works have been more often performed in this country since. 

Opening the concert will the CSO’s first performances of Banner for string quartet and chamber orchestra (2017) by Jessie Montgomery, the orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence. “It’s a great piece,” Vänskä said. “It’s something that the audience is going to enjoy very much.”  A rhapsody on The Star Spangled Banner, it was written to mark the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem. 

“It’s an interesting program,” Vänskä said. “We have something very modern, something which is already 50 years old and a totally different sound world by Rautavaara and Carmina burana, which is always a favorite with the audience.”