Osmo Vänskä — Image via harrisonparrott.com

Vänskä Says Goodbye

Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra
With Emanuel Ax

This weekend’s concerts by the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Osmo Vänskä represented both the first time the musicians have played with their now-former music director since February and, potentially, the last time they will have the opportunity to work with him. The result was an emotionally turbulent experience, simultaneously thrilling and sorrowful, for both the players and their audience.

Saturday evening’s concert began with Beethoven’s dramatic Egmont overture, which was added to the program after it was decided that Vänskä would conduct. He and the orchestra have made the piece somewhat of a calling card over the past few years, and on this occasion they turned in a committed and intense performance.

Emanuel Ax — Image via emanuelax.comBefore anyone knew that these would be Vänskä’s farewell concerts, pianist Emanuel Ax, who had been scheduled to appear with the orchestra for their season-opening concerts, agreed to play two concertos with the locked-out musicians: Beethoven’s No. 3 and Mozart’s No. 27. The juxtaposition of these pieces, despite the intermission between then, brought out their similarities. Both performances were characterized by Ax’s powerful, assertive playing and the orchestra’s lush and energetic accompaniment. Ax particularly shone in his contemplative renditions of both slow movements, while the infectious finale of the Beethoven was a high point for the orchestra.

The final piece on the official program, the 1919 concert suite from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, was dedicated by the musicians to long-time stage manager Tim Eickholt, who retired from the orchestra last month. Stravinsky’s piece provided Vänskä and the orchestra with an opportunity to demonstrate their extraordinary dynamic range, giving equally expressive and sophisticated performances of the suite’s quiet, nervous introduction and its pounding, aggressive Danse infernale.

Up to this point, the mood of the concert was both celebratory and defiant, paying tribute to Vänskä’s partnership with the musicians and expressing the musicians’ commitment to making great music regardless of the actions of certain bean-counting philistines who seem to genuinely believe that the community neither wants nor deserves it. When Vänskä stepped up to speak after the Stravinsky, all of that changed.

In his brief, emotional remarks, Vänskä made clear the extent to which he feels robbed of the orchestra that he helped to raise to such a high level of artistry and prestige. He related the story behind the encore piece, Sibelius’s Valse triste, in which a woman believes she has been invited to dance, only to learn that she is dancing with death. He then asked that the audience — which had risen to its feet for multiple standing ovations over the course of the concert — not applaud at the end of the piece, asserting that the circumstances of his departure are no cause for applause. After the orchestra’s dark and ominous performance of the piece, the audience gave Vänskä his wish, and the subsequent dispersal of the musicians and their audience was a quiet testament to the devastating consequences of the yearlong lockout.

Archival Osmo Vänskä photo by Greg Helgeson
Emanuel Ax photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.