New book documents Osmo Vanska's career

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
November 8, 2009

St. Paul, Minn. — Osmo Vanska, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is the subject of a new book. The pictures are a feast for the eyes, tracing the maestro's story from his early years playing clarinet to leading -- and building -- one of the finest orchestras in the world.

Photographer Ann Marsden describes meeting Vanska for the first time. She was assigned to capture a formal portrait of the new music director and recalls she was pretty nervous.

"So much of taking a picture is about rapport," she explains. "I was afraid that maybe I wouldn't connect with him."

She needn't have worried. The moment she met Vanska marked the beginning of a very special relationship.

"That first experience was lovely," she says. "He had incredible warmth, a spirit, and then there's that little bit of mischief."

The warmth and openness that Ann Marsden describes is one that is obvious to many upon meeting the Minnesota Orchestra's music director.

Coupled with high musical standards and a serious work ethic, Osmo Vanska has brought the orchestra to great heights in musicmaking, in addition to a whole new level of popularity in both Minnesota and the larger musical world.

Osmo Vanska and his success are the subjects of a new glossy coffeetable book, "Osmo Vanska - Orchestra Builder," with text by former Star Tribune critic Michael Anthony and photos by veteran photographers Greg Helgeson and Ann Marsden.

It's a wonderful feast for the eyes, tracing Vanska's career from his early years as a professional clarinetist to his long, successful career as music director of the "other" Finnish orchestra in Lahti, to the invitation to serve as the 10th music director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Pictures speak a thousand words, and the orchestra has been blessed to have these two very different photographers bring their unique vision to the orchestra's work.

Greg Helgeson has been looking for, and finding, the "decisive moment" in action pictures of the Minnesota Orchestra for more than 25 years. He's not a musician himself, but tells me he familiarizes himself with the score enough to at least get the feel of the music.

"This helps me to know the mood of the piece, whether it's quiet or explosive," he says, adding that getting in position for the best shot can be difficult.

"In reality, there isn't a lot of time to do this so I just need to pay attention."

Some of the most splendid shots in all orchestral photography grace the pages of this book, from a closeup of a highly focused rehearsing Vanska to the utter joy in musicmaking after the work is done and the concert is finally happening.

Ann Marsden shared a story with me about a shoot with Vanska and the orchestra on the Stone Arch Bridge. Although it was sunny, it began to drizzle and the musicians, who were holding their valuable instruments, had to call it quits.

"I was up there on my ladder and got about 10 shots, which is devastating if you're trying to get your masterpiece."

Vanska offered to hang around anyway. In no time the wind picked up and he was shivering. But then, the sun came out and she caught an incredible shot -- one of the best in the book.

"His arms are folded and his tails are flapping and the Minneapolis skyline is behind him," Marsden relates excitedly. "And then he has that beautiful smile. I think that was born out of compassion for me!"

Both photographers are struck by the seeming contradiction of Osmo Vanska -- the important, famous and successful leader of a major American orchestra, and the man they photograph who is so real, natural and, as both describe him, a friend.

"He is such a public figure, and yet he's never looking for the limelight," Marsden says.

Helgeson agrees that Vanska is a team player, someone who sees everyone's work as part of the whole.

"Osmo understands thoroughly what people like me are doing and is always more than helpful."

"Osmo Vanska -- Orchestra Builder" is published by Kirk House Publishers.

Vanska will sign copies in the Orchestra Hall lobby following the Minnesota Orchestra concert on November 12.

Vanska will be featured with the Metropolitan Orchestra on November 22 as soloist in Mozart's "Clarinet Concerto."

In addition, the orchestra will perform his moving elegy for the victims of the 35W bridge collapse, "The Bridge." Vanska will be on hand following the concert for a book signing.

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