I’m thirteen years old and I’m at Orchestra Hall for the very first time. I’m dressed in a white lace dress that belongs to my mother, and it’s too big for my frame.
I page through a program book, palms sweaty. I have the alarming feeling that, through no fault of my own, I might be falling in love with music.
My mother leans over and points out an ad. “They’re getting a new conductor this fall.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Osmo something.”
The Minnesota Orchestra plays well that night.
But…I can tell it can be so much better.
It’s the week I turn 21. As a birthday present, my mother has taken me to see the Minnesota Orchestra play Beethoven under Osmo in Winona. It is life-changing. A Minnesota Orchestra violist has noticed the blog entry that I wrote about it and has written one of his own praising mine. I know that no one makes a living writing about music, but I dream about doing it anyway.
My mother and I go to dinner at my grandparents’. I may have just turned old enough to drink, but they will go to their graves thinking of me as a sick little girl who will never find her way.
“It’s even possible,” I offer after explaining my news of the week, “that Osmo – the conductor… He might read what I write.”
My grandmother lifts a bowl and announces to the table that the beans aren’t salted. Either she hasn’t heard me, or it’s her German way of letting me and my unlikely fantasies down gently. I glance at my mother for support. She smiles at me sympathetically. We begin to eat. The subject is dropped. The dream isn’t.
I’ve just turned 23 years old, and my birthday present is going to see the Minnesota Orchestra play in Winona. The orchestra has a new concertmaster named Erin Keefe. She plays the Beethoven concerto like a goddess, and she looks like one, too, with her long skirt of lavender pleats. Osmo accompanies her.
The aggression of the Coriolan Overture that opens the program leaves me breathless and a little unnerved. Afterward, the musicians file out of the middle school auditorium into the thick July heat. Everyone seems so grim.
Something isn’t right, I remember telling Mom on the dark drive home.
I’ve started to blog about how the management of the Minnesota Orchestra has locked out its musicians. I’m too sick to go to college, so why not? I can scroll through 990s laying in bed. The proposals that have been made are draconian and threaten to destroy the entire institution, or at least render it unrecognizable, and I want to understand what’s going on.
Something hits me. I open the orchestra’s website. I don’t go to the blog. (I can’t. That has been deleted by upper management without fanfare.) But I do try to find last season’s schedule.
It’s then I realize that the Winona concert was the last time Osmo and the orchestra would perform together. My birthday present meant I’d inadvertently witnessed the end of an era.
It’s so cold outside that it feels as if all of the buildings in the city must be made of ice. My mother and I have just left the orchestra performance at the Convention Center. The lockout is still ongoing, but this was a “neutral” concert brokered by the mayor and a major donor, meant to celebrate the orchestra’s Grammy nomination for their most recent Sibelius recording.
But even so, in an apparent demonstration of their bad faith, the orchestra’s president and his most prominent backers on the board have chosen not to attend.
Afterward, Mom and some orchestra friends and I find our way to a bar, the booths and stools filled and lined by patrons and musicians alike.
A figure enters wearing a coat. Even out of his standard glamorous surroundings, I recognize him.
Someone – I don’t remember who – secures me an introduction. I give the man a hug. I tear up. I don’t know what to say.
“I have read your work,” is what he says to me as the snow swirls.
What do you say to one of the greatest musicians of the age, whose work helped you figure out your own, who is on the brink of having his orchestra destroyed despite your very best efforts? Any words I can think of won’t suffice.
A group gathers around him. “Together we can do miracles,” he says solemnly.
I’m 24 years old, and the lockout has not ended, and Osmo has endured a solid year of being fucked over by three people at the top of Minnesota Orchestra management. It’s clear now they have no desire to see him stay. There is no fair or timely deal offered to musicians, and so, as he promised he would do, he resigns.
I’ve come down with a cold, and I can’t see the final concerts he’s going to play with his orchestra. To soothe my lungs, I take a long bath and fill it with the hottest water I can run, and then I cry. “I tried so fucking hard,” I scream as the water pours.
My mom and I lay down on her bed and tune into Minnesota Public Radio to listen to Osmo’s farewell. After players and conductor perform The Firebird, Osmo’s soft broken voice introduces the encore, Sibelius’s Valse Triste. It’s the musical depiction of a young woman who goes dancing and realizes too late that she is dancing in the arms of death.
It breaks me. “How could they do this?” I demand of my mother.
It’s one of the few times I remember her not having anything comforting to offer.
“I don’t know,” she says.
Audiences, patrons, musicians, board members…somehow, finally, with scores of people working behind-the-scenes and in-front-of-the-scenes, the lockout has finally ended, and nobody can really believe it. The terms are concessionary, but within reason. Now the audience has been left with an orchestra president we don’t like and no long-term conductor.
Osmo, however, is still present in Minneapolis, like some kind of baton-wielding ghost. Schrödinger’s music director.
It seems a difficult, if not impossible, situation to orchestrate a successful conclusion to. Egos have been bruised, and badly. These things have to be finessed. Surely an understated Scandinavian man will understand how carefully we as a community are going to have to strategize to –
My thoughts are interrupted when I open a link and see the blazing headline “Osmo Vanska says MN Orchestra President Michael Henson ‘must go’”.
“It has been said about Finnish people that no one can control those stubborn people! And I am very proud of that.” – Osmo Vänskä during the 22 September 2017 MPR broadcast
I’m with my mother at the greatest concert I’ve ever been to, and the greatest one I ever will go to. Osmo has been hired for a weekend – just a weekend – to conduct another Sibelius concert to celebrate another Grammy nomination. But the audience wants more, and we only have one concert to drive the point home. So we’ve desperately banded together to dress in blue and white, the colors of the Finnish flag, in a visual attempt to convince the board to hire Osmo back. We bring flags and we bring banners. We Euro-clap in unison before the stage doors open and the musicians pour out to piercing screams of adoration. The poor staff is so frazzled, they never ordered a bouquet for the podium, so my patron activist friends order one and have it delivered to the stage door.
On March 21st, the orchestra president announces he is stepping down, and a few weeks later, the board votes to rehire Osmo.
“It will be a comeback story like no other. The enthusiasm of the audience will blow the roof off Orchestra Hall…and isn’t audience enthusiasm desperately needed right about now? If anyone took Osmo or the Orchestra for granted before, they sure as heck won’t anymore. Chapter two of his tenure could be completely electrifying for everyone. And everyone loves a good comeback story. With hard work, this could become the king of all comeback stories. One for the history books, for all the right reasons.” – Me writing about whether Osmo should be hired back, 11 February 2014
I’m 25 years old, and I’ve spent the last couple of years taking a real-world crash course in arts journalism, activism, and non-profit governance, with the help of the greatest group of people I’ll ever know. And somehow…we got what we wanted. We took on powerful interests, and we made ourselves so persistently annoying that we won.
I haven’t had much time to celebrate, though. My mom’s not feeling well. She has a back injury, and it keeps getting worse and worse.
We look at the upcoming season to distract ourselves, trying to prioritize what concerts to attend. We have to see Erin Keefe and Osmo perform The Lark Ascending, we decide, and on Black Friday, we buy two tickets. We both have a weakness for it. It’s actually the piece Mom wants played at her funeral.
“There is something very, very, very special right now going on in this community, thinking about the Minnesota Orchestra and classical music. And I think that those terrible things which have been here during last two years, they just gave us a great idea about how much we love music, and how much we need it. And right now, that’s the new normal, that the audience obviously would like to show, that we love you, that we are happy that you are back, and we are happy that you are giving music to us. And if that’s the new normal, then I’m – I’m – I’m clapping my hands for this. It’s great.” – Osmo Vänskä during an October 2014 Minnesota Orchestra broadcast
My mother has started regularly weeping in pain. She begs me to rub her back at night. The doctors are no use. Hematoma on the adrenal gland, we’re told. Wait it out. Exhausted, I tune into Minnesota Public Radio and listen to Osmo conducting an evening of new works by young composers. I email a review of every piece to an orchestra musician, too tired and timid to actually post my thoughts in public, but relieved to get to write them out for a friend. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever written about new music, and I really enjoy it.
“This is absolutely what we want to do. We want to give a connection to everyone who is going to listen to this which is written today, and we can learn something about our own future from these pieces.” – Osmo Vänskä during an MPR broadcast, 18 January 2019
When my mother is diagnosed with cancer and goes to see one of the world’s best oncologists in Rochester, Minnesota, I don’t go in to the appointment where I’m assuming they’re going to discuss how long she might have left to live. I’d like to know everything else, but I don’t want to know that. I don’t know if this is selfish, but I know it’s very human. I plug in my earbuds and I sit in the waiting room, and I listen to a bootleg live performance of Sibelius 2 that I recorded off of MPR. I don’t allow myself to feel anything more beyond what the music makes me feel. But that something is enough to get through the day.
In early March, when it becomes clear that my mother only has a few days left to live, I blurt out to her before the last doses of morphine send her to sleep, that the orchestra and Osmo will play The Lark Ascending in her honor. The idea seems to bring her comfort.
I remember so little from those months, but I do remember being approached and asked if they could play it for her. I said yes, and they do.
I find Osmo and Erin after the concert. (They’ve just played an ethereal post-concert Quartet for the End of Time with their colleagues. I will never understand how or why the repertoire they and their orchestra choose always speaks to what I need to hear at any given moment.) We hug. I tear up.
It’s strange. I feel like I’ve lived some of the most important moments of my life with both of them, and yet over the years we’ve barely spoken. And I don’t even feel like I need to. The music speaks on our behalf.
It’s Easter weekend, and they’ve fallen in love, and they’re getting married. Life, death, love, resurrection, endings and new beginnings all intertwined. We’ve lived it all, and we’ve lived it all to the biggest, most beautiful, most achingly gorgeous soundtrack ever composed. Amid all the heartbreak, I feel a sense of gratitude for life, and the way the two of them seize it, that I can barely speak.
“It is cleaning something inside of our mind. I’m not shy if I have tears in my eyes. It’s part of the process.” – Osmo Vänskä during the 2 October 2020 MPR broadcast
It comes to my attention that a local company is selling a paper doll of Osmo. I order it, and it arrives at my new St. Paul apartment. I cut it down and prop it up and take a picture of it in the windowsill.
“Leaving the show one of the audience members pointed at the poster of Osmo and said, “There’s the hyper little man!!” I about died” – Me writing to my friends in our patron Facebook group, 18 June 2017
I sit next to a new friend – a reader who I’ve recently met for the first time, who I feel like I’ve known for all my life. I’m in the front row at Orchestra Hall, and it’s after intermission, and there’s an empty seat beside me, and I want her to sit next to me. So I say “Sit with me,” and she does.
I invite this stranger, this sudden friend, back to my home for late-night tea. We trade stories about the orchestra, the music, Osmo. Our lives. I tell her to message me when she gets home.
When I close the door behind her, I’m reminded of how I don’t believe I will ever have a soulmate; I believe I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with soulmates. She’s one of mine. (How did music end up being the thing to teach me that?) If I don’t want to be alone in life, I never have to be.
I finish the week having seen my first Beethoven symphony cycle. When Osmo finishes the Fifth, the final dash of the marathon, he lifts the score above his head to thunderous applause.
“You can always tell when Osmo’s happy with a performance… He takes his right hand and quickly sticks it under the back cover of the score and slaps it shut, as if to say, THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how you play Tchaikovsky four.” – Brian Newhouse, hosting the MPR broadcast on 5 January 2018
I am 26 years old, and my first glimpse of the auditorium of Carnegie Hall is from the stage, when I arrive for an open rehearsal and sneak in backstage with a violist. The orchestra is playing Sibelius 3 and 1, with Hilary Hahn soloing in the violin concerto.
I take my seat in the hall. The rehearsal begins.
To my ears, they sound like the greatest orchestra in the world.
But – they could still be better.
That’s when Osmo sets down his baton – and begins to clap his hands to keep time. I laugh in wonder, and suddenly, everything comes together.
“‘I just been thinking more and more about Oprah’ – what I thought Osmo was saying before realizing ‘opera’ in a Finnish accent sounds like Oprah” – Me on Twitter, 5 January 2018
I’ve just turned 27, and I’ve traveled to Europe with the Minnesota Orchestra to document a tour. I’m standing at the grave of Jean Sibelius and his wife. I’ve toured their home, seen their collection of tea kettles on the shelf on their kitchen wall, photographed the phlox in their garden. I’ve witnessed the golden quality of late summer light stretch across the fields.
I’m wandering the empty corridors of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, waiting for the night’s concert to begin. I walk around and around and around, dazzled, losing track of time and space. Suddenly I hear a deep voice behind a door. I’ve accidentally wandered past Osmo’s dressing room, where he is consulting with soloist Pekka Kuusisto. I turn around.
I’m sitting in the auditorium in Copenhagen. It’s the final performance of a triumphant tour, and I am exhausted and exhilarated to my core. I have never experienced anything like this. Osmo begins the rehearsal speaking to the orchestra. I’m so far away, I cannot hear what he says to his players. It feels right, that whatever it was he shared with them, they shared it up there together, and alone.
I’ve gotten the heads-up from the orchestra that there will be an announcement at the annual meeting. I’m already planning to attend. I know what the announcement is going to be. I am 29 years old, and I understand how time works.
And yet when I get home that night and see the signed Mahler disc propped up on my bookcase, with the For Emily written on it, I break into tears.
“I have no plans right now. No one knows what the future will bring. I’m just happy being here right now.” – Osmo Vänskä to MinnPost, 6 December 2018
I’m 32 years old, and Osmo’s final season has begun. For several years now, my notes have appeared intermittently in the Orchestra’s program books. I write a note for the first concert of Osmo Vänskä’s last season here.
Whenever I attend a concert, and I know a room of 2000 people is reading what I write, and I look around and remember how unassumingly it started all those years ago, and how sure I was that I’d never make a life in music, I feel as if I can do anything. I remember the exhortation to an ad hoc group of people gathered in a bar: “Together we can do miracles.”
I always smile at the teenagers when I’m at the hall. I always wonder what their next twenty years will look like. I wonder how many moons they’ll return to this place under, how many clouds. I wonder if they’ll be lucky enough to live through a golden age, too.
“Osmo describing the mindset of a 60-year-old Sibelius composing the 6th: ‘I have done something well but could I have done it better? … Happy, and maybe sad at the same time… It gives you more question marks than answers.’ Ooof.” – Me on Twitter, 7 January 2022
I’m almost 33 years old, and I’m sick. I’ve been very sick for a long time, the sickest I’ve been since I was in my late teens and early twenties. I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with me, although I’ve had tests run, and I think I have a better idea than I did even a few weeks ago.
But it is very difficult to think, and (it hurts to say) it is very difficult to read, and (it hurts even more to say) it is very difficult to write. Maybe the doctors have finally found a reason why. Maybe they haven’t. But for a blessed couple of hours, I don’t have to think about it.
I go to MPR’s website and open the livestream. I try not to think about how it’s the last time I will do so when Osmo is music director. But I’ve imagined this moment for so many years, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the moment now that it’s here.
(I don’t remember what it was like before Osmo.)
I pick up a Kleenex.
(This is the end of an era, and it’s the only era I remember.)
I take a sip of water.
(Remember that moment in Sibelius 5 when it sounds like the swans are taking off into the sky? And remember how unspeakably beautiful it is when they do?)
Then – I listen.
Everyone associated with the Minnesota Orchestra – listeners, patrons, big donors, small donors, current musicians, former musicians, board, management; everyone – has watched their life intertwine with that of the orchestra’s over the course of Osmo’s tenure. We’ve had the privilege of growing into each other in a wild, untrammeled, unpredictable kind of way, over the course of one of the most striking, most dramatic music directorships in American history. And as we’ve grown, we’ve all learned.
I’ve learned faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these has been love. Love for a group of musicians, love for a community, love for friends, and love for music. Love for the work that brought us all together.
All of us who were lucky enough to be a part of this work have borne witness to something. Every one of us comes away from the past nineteen years transformed. It wouldn’t have happened in this specific way with any other man. It couldn’t have.
As the penultimate sentiment of the text of Mahler’s eighth says:
The ineffable /
Here is accomplished.
“The most important guy on stage is the composer, not the conductor.” – Osmo Vänskä