Thursday, July 18, 2019


Osmo Vanska returns to the clarinet
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Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska plays the clarinet in rehearsal at Orchestra Hall. (MPR photo/Karl Gehrke)
For many conductors it's not enough to just wave their arms in front of an orchestra. They also need to play an instrument. Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska played the clarinet for many years, until a busy life as a conductor made it difficult for him to continue. Now, after several years away from the instrument, Vanska makes his Orchestra Hall debut as a clarinetist this weekend.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Osmo Vanska began his professional career as a clarinetist in his native Finland. While still a teenager, he was principal clarinet of the Turku Philharmonic, and a few years later, he became co-principal clarinet of the Helsinki Philharmonic. At the same time, Vanska was also studying conducting.

Eventually he became music director of the Lahti Symphony, and had little time for the clarinet. In 2001 he stopped playing completely, and didn't pick up the instrument for three years.

"I just got too tired," Vanska says. "It was too much extra energy for the clarinet."

Then last November he played a few measures of "Mack the Knife" at a Minnesota Orchestra symphony ball.

"When I didn't play for those years, I started to think that I need this direct connection to an instrument," Vanska explains. "I also think it's good for the orchestra to know that this guy can play himself, and not just give orders."

Vanska's desire to have a direct connection is shared by Sommerfest Artistic Director and pianist Andrew Litton. He's joining Vanska and Minnesota Orchestra cellist Sachiya Isomura for Sunday's performance of the Beethoven Clarinet Trio.

As the music director of the Dallas Symphony, Litton tries to play one or two concertos each season.

"You lose all sense of reality if all you do is stand on a box, and tell people what's wrong with what they're doing," Litton says. "It's much better to keep playing yourself and realize that it's darn hard to play these notes."

Litton enjoys being the artistic director of Sommerfest, because it gives him more chances to play the piano than he has the rest of the year in Dallas. He especially appreciates the many opportunities to play chamber music.

"It's a chance for a conductor to not be a conductor; to just sit there and be one of the gang," Litton says. "And I think that is extremely important and very valuable for a conductor, to be reminded once again that he's just another musician here. I think it's a fantastic equalizer."

Litton says the initial rehearsals with Osmo Vanska and cellist Sachiya Isomura have been very much a collaborative effort. Despite the presence of two conductors, Litton says no one is dominating the group.

"I keep saying to Osmo, 'What do you think?' And he says, 'No, what do you think?'" says Litton.

The Clarinet Trio is a light-hearted, early Beethoven composition that isn't too challenging. Litton says it's a good choice for Vanska's return to the clarinet.

Vanska says he sounded terrible when he tried to play last fall after being away from the instrument for three years. He's been warming up slowly as he becomes reacquainted with the clarinet, and practicing no more than 15 minutes to an hour.

"You need time," Vanska says. "If you play too much then there's a lot of pain in the lip, and you can't play for many days. So at first you just play a few minutes, and then a few more and so on."

Vanska says he's pleased with the sound he's getting from the clarinet. Whether he continues to play depends on how well Sunday's concert goes.

"If it's a great disaster then I'll just put it away," he says "But if it's not, I might keep going."

Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska makes his Orchestra Hall debut as a clarinetist this Sunday evening in a Sommerfest performance of the Beethoven Clarinet Trio.