Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony
Thousands of good orchestras together with thousands of outstanding conductors make good music. Recordings are flooding out into the world at a pace that no one could even have dreamed of just a few decades ago. Philharmonics in the great music metropolises from Vienna and Berlin to New York are in a league all their own on the pedestal of their traditional reputation. How can an orchestra from a small city in a small country create a profile for itself, stand out from the crowd with such a cornucopia on offer? It takes an astonishing feat, one that the Lahti Symphony has pulled off under the baton of its maestro Osmo Vänskä.
Vänskä has conducted the Lahti Symphony since 1988. The orchestra's recordings of music by Jean Sibelius have been winning international prizes for a decade: the most prestigious include the British magazine Gramophone award in 1991 (Both versions of the Violin Concerto with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist) and again in 1996 (the original version of the V Symphony and En Saga), a Prix Academie Charles Cros (for the Tempest) in 1993 and two firsts in the orchestra recordings class at the Cannes Classical Award in 1997 (V Symphony, En Saga, the Wood Nymph).
For a famous conductor, Osmo Vänskä is still a young man (born in 1953) and his orchestra (founded 1949) is likewise young. His international career took off after he won the Besancon conductors' competition in France in 1982. Since then he has conducted important orchestras in Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan.
Recordings the only route to the world
During a break in recording at the new Sibelius Hall in Lahti, Osmo Vänskä's expression seemed worried. He is known to be a perfectionist and the recording (of items for release in 2001) seemingly had not gone exactly the way he wanted. "We had quite an awkward session here, as you can probably see from my face." He seeks a metaphor in skiing, appropriately enough in a city so famous for competitions in this sport. "Now there is grip wax in the music: the skis don't slip backwards, but they don't glide forwards either. Not to worry, though. This orchestra has enough ambition to produce quality always."
The Lahti Symphony and Osmo Vänskä have soared to the height of international acclaim as fast as a rocket. What explains this success in getting so far ahead of the posse?
"Fame nowadays is always connected with recordings, in one way or another. No matter where it is held, a concert is always just a local event. Orchestras whose recordings are known are the ones that get invited to do tours. It was a great thing for us to get into the BIS company's series of recordings of all of Sibelius' music. That is a task in life that the company's boss and owner Robert von Bahr has set for himself. First-time recordings of forgotten rarities naturally attract attention. It got the door ajar for us."
Why exactly Vänskä and Lahti?
"You need a little luck as well, to be able to be in the right place at the right time. BIS began producing the series by cooperating with the Gothenburg Symphony. The recordings proved so popular that the huge company Deutsche Grammophon wanted them in its stall. They were no longer interested in continuing with the Sibelius project. We had already done a few really good recordings," says Vänskä, with no attempt at false modesty. "They were enough to show what we could do and we set about continuing the work in 1988."
Robert von Bahr's unyielding resolve to record every single note that Sibelius ever wrote has led to exciting, even sensational discoveries. When a mention of some work or other is found in a catalogue, no effort is spared to track it down. That was how the long-forgotten Wood Nymph was discovered. Two versions of it exist: a shorter one featuring a narrator and a longer one the existence of which was not even known. The Sibelius researcher Professor Fabian Dahlström guessed that the longer version might also be found in the library of the University of Finland. He proved to be right. Vänskä's eyes still flash with enthusiasm, because "the bigger one really is something else again!"
The recognition that the orchestra has gained, and of course the increased sales that have followed, have pleased BIS so much that Lahti is now the ensemble to record the whole of Sibelius' orchestral music output from beginning to end. In a departure from the company's earlier policy, the Lahti Symphony has re-performed also compositions that had been recorded earlier.
Orchestra also in Scotland
Lahti is not the only place where Osmo Vänskä has honed an orchestra's skills. He was the Icelandic Symphony's head conductor from 1993 to 1996 and performances in that period included one at New York's Carnegie Hall. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra invited him to Glasgow as head conductor in 1996. His recent work together with the Scots includes recording the Danish composer Carl Nielsen's symphonies. The main items on Vänskä's guest performances list for the 2000-2001 season include Amsterdam's Concertgebow, Chicago, Cleveland, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig and the National Orchestra of France.
Osmo Vänskä understands why he has been labelled the "Sibelius conductor", but it doesn't bother him in the least. He only has to make sure that he conducts also other music on the international scene. The Lahti Symphony has recorded a good deal of contemporary Finnish music by such composers as Joonas Kokkonen, Kalevi Aho and Uuno Klami.
Nevertheless, Sibelius is Vänskä's trade mark. "For practical reasons, no one other than myself conducts Sibelius' symphonies in Lahti. There is always so little time to practice during tours. Now certain matters have been honed to perfection in a certain way and no one tries to twist them in a different direction. This agreement does not apply to any other music; after all, there is no need for everyone here to do the same as Vänskä does."
Special instructions only from the composer
Under its maestro's baton, the Lahti Symphony has performed in the USA, Japan, the UK, Spain, Germany, France, Sweden, Estonia and Russia. Naturally, Sibelius is the cornerstone of the repertoire.
"Japan has a Sibelius Society, which regularly publishes two magazines. It's a country where Sibelius always fills the house. The two most difficult countries are probably still France and especially Germany. German music is - to try to sum it up briefly - clearer and more systematic than Sibelius' in structure: these guys play melody, these harmonies, these rhythms. With Sibelius the same theme circulates through the orchestra; the division of tasks is not so clear. It is extraordinary delicate and precise work. When Beethoven is played badly, you still know what it is all about. When Sibelius is played badly, however, the main theme can easily be buried under peripheral ones."
In his work, Osmo Vänskä goes his own way - or perhaps it is better to say he follows the trail that the composer has blazed. "I have declined the guidelines that traditions offer. I follow only the composer's own marks, exactly. It may be that understanding grows and some of the corners are rounded a little as the hair thins. But in music there can never be any compromise on harmony and precision of rhythm; they cannot be rounded off."