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Minnesota Orchestra hoping to learn from its mistakes
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The Minnesota Orchestra's new music director, Osmo Vänskä, is quite different from his predecessor, the outgoing and energetic Eiji Oue. But observers hope he'll bring attention back to the quality of the music. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Orchestra)
The Minnesota Orchestra is celebrating its centennial year with its new music director, Osmo Vänskä, finally in place. He is the orchestra's 10th music director and like others, he will be compared with his predecessors. Some critics say they hope the orchestra doesn't repeat mistakes made when it appointed Eiji Oue as music director.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Eiji Oue's tenure in Minneapolis began with a joyful and frenetic inauguration. It set the tone for seven years with a vivacious music director, who was encouraged to maintain such a furious pace that critics say his talent was stretched thin.

Oue was in marked contrast to the stern Dutchman who preceded him. When Edo de Waart left Minneapolis in 1995, he was credited with having transformed the Minnesota Orchestra into a world-class organization. But the maestro himself admitted he and his musicians never quite connected on a personal level.

"I felt some sort of initial rejection and so I stepped back, and they probably thought I was cold. I think it was a theater of misunderstandings in the beginning," de Waart says.

The fact that de Waart felt he needed to replace some key players probably didn't help his relations with the musicians, either. Musicologist Michael Steinberg says that the time under de Waart was fruitful, but hard for the musicians.

"He is a sort of micromanager among conductors. He is the typical case of the rider who forgets that it's the horse that has to take the fence," says Steinberg.

So when De Waart announced he was stepping down, the musicians' desire for a radical change in the temperament of their leader drove the search process.

"I have this theory that orchestras seek out the opposite of what they have for the next time around," says Michael Anthony, music critic for the Star Tribune. "They viewed Edo de Waart as tough and dour. They wanted someone lighter and more cheerful, and they certainly got it with Mr. Oue."

It appears to be more sober. Emphasis is on this gentleman as a heavyweight conductor. There's less smiling going on.
- Michael Anthony, music critic

Eiji Oue was the little-known conductor of the Erie Philharmonic, a part-time, semi-profressional orchestra. This wasn't the first time that the Minnesota Orchestra had picked someone obscure as music director.

In 1931, they plucked Eugene Ormandy from a movie theater orchestra pit in New York. He became a towering figure in 20th century classical music. The orchestra board thought Eiji Oue had similar potential, and took a calculated risk.

The choice surprised many people, but according to Michael Steinberg, Oue was just what the musicians wanted.

"Somebody who was totally uninhibited, and just out there and vigorous and dancey and all of that. He gave the orchestra a kind of freedom to loosen up there, get out there and play," says Steinberg.

Oue's introduction to the Twin Cities reflected his outgoing personality. Michael Anthony says it seemed like everyone at Orchestra Hall was smiling.

"They were so cheerful, and the publicity campaign reflected that. He was willing to do anything," says Anthony. "There was the Wheaties box. And he went around to nursing homes and told stories, and went to children's hospitals. He was very accommodating in that regard."

Oue even threw out the first pitch at a Minnesota Twins baseball game. Something that "no one would have dreamed to ask Eugene Ormandy" to do, says Michael Steinberg.

Steinberg says nowadays, it seems when a search committee goes looking for a music director, it's not just looking for a musician.

"They want somebody that will be a powerful figure in the community, and is going to relate to the people in senior residences, and be everything to all people. And if he is good conductor and a good musician, too, that's nice," says Steinberg.

The rumblings of discontent began early. Steinberg feels that Oue's constant stream of public appearances throughout his tenure in Minnesota detracted from his growth as a conductor. While he continued to give the musicians the freedom that they never had under de Waart, that itself became the problem.

"He didn't rehearse. He used all the hours he had, but it was so often just a question of having them play something again, and not saying why or what he wanted. To put it bluntly, he wasn't really working," says Steinberg of Oue.

The Star Tribune's Michael Anthony saw similar problems.

"He never paid close enough attention to the details of a big orchestral score. For instance, asking for things like a pianissimo. You have to really work at that, get the musicians to work at playing softly. He never seemed to do that. He seemed to be out of his depth," says Anthony.

So when the time came for a new director, what did the Minnesota Orchestra look for? Following Michael Anthony's theory, the pendulum swung the other way. The musicians said they needed a firmer hand on the baton.

Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä made a name for himself by working for years to build the provincial Lahti Symphony Orchestra into an international success. During his time at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, he gained a reputation among the musicians as a taskmaster.

Unlike Oue, who was essentially introduced to the world when introduced to Minnesota, Vänskä already enjoyed an international reputation. He's considered quite a catch. His inaugural festivities mirror his stature, according to critic Michael Anthony.

"It appears to be more sober. Emphasis is on this gentleman as a heavyweight conductor. There's less smiling going on," says Anthony. Michael Steinberg acted a consultant for the search committee. He believes Vänskä can connect with the public. He was struck by the audience reaction to Vänskä's handling of Sibelius' 6th Symphony.

"It didn't have them standing up and yelling, because it is not that kind of piece. It would be really weird if that were the response to the Sibelius 6th. But the focus and the quiet, and then after that, the depth of the applause. That was very impressive," says Steinberg.

The musicians are anticipating hard work under their new leader. Violist Sam Bergman says they are ready.

"We sense that this is a man of great artistic force, who chooses to operate without a shred of the ego that you usually get from people who tend to go into the conducting profession. We feel there is no limit to the direction in which he can take us," says Bergman.

So Vänskä's picture is not on a Wheaties box. He probably won't throw out the first pitch at a Twins game. But the Star Tribune's Michael Anthony says there will be a little frivolity.

"I'm told that they do have an action figure -- a Vänskä action figure that will be a collector's item very soon," Anthony says.

Actually, it is a bobble-head -- or perhaps more appropriately, a bobble-arm -- doll. They're a limited edition. So if you want to place one on the mantle next to an Eji Oue Wheaties box, act fast.

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