Lutherans in the Twin Cities, Reviews

Finnish orchestra director deepens connections to Lutheran church

A new link has been forged in the chain connecting Osmo Vänskä, the celebrated music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, and Central Lutheran Church, the ELCA congregation in downtown Minneapolis, of which he is a member.

The latest tie is a book — a biography of Vänskä that was the brainchild of Leonard Flachman, also a member of Central and the owner of Kirk House Publishers in Edina, Minnesota.

Vänskä signed copies of the full-color, coffeetable-style book, titled Osmo Vänskä: Orchestra Builder, at a special event for members of Central after worship services on October 4. And Central sponsored a public book signing after a concert at the church by the Metropolitan Symphony November 22 at which Vänskä was the featured soloist.

Flachman, an ordained Lutheran pastor, was a veteran of church publishing work, both on the mission field in Ethiopia and at Augsburg Fortress in Minneapolis before founding Kirk House in 1994. He said he came up with the idea for the book early in 2005. He was impressed both by the skills of Vänskä and the quality of the photography in orchestra programs.

The morning after attending a Friday evening concert at which it was announced that Vänskä had signed a contract extension through 2011, Flachman wrote to Osmo, proposing a book and suggesting that a ghost writer be hired. The music director declined, however, saying he didn’t feel the time was right.

Flachman persisted, and after three years of unsuccessful approaches came up with a suggested author who was acceptable to Vänskä. At the urging of Gwen Pappas, publicity director for the orchestra, Flachman proposed asking Michael Anthony, a veteran journalist and former music critic of the Minneapolis StarTribune, to write the biography.

Anthony’s familiarity with Osmo and the Minnesota Orchestra and his knowledge of Finnish music and the orchestral world made him an “ideal choice,” Flachman said. A four-way contract involving Kirk House, Anthony, the Minnesota Orchestra Association, and Vänskä was signed early in 2008. Under the agreement the orchestra gave Kirk House access to its extensive library of color photography.

In the preface to the completed book, Anthony noted a disadvantage in writing a biography of a living person: The most defining events, ones that will shape the true legacy of the subject, may still lie in the future.

But there is an advantage that counters that shortcoming, the author pointed out: The writer has direct access to the subject for conversations, not just letters and e-mails, and at the very least gets his or her view of events. And “that is surely part of the story,” Anthony said.

Orchestra building

Anthony conducted 11 one-hour interviews with Vänskä between July 2008 and February 2009, and these provide the foundational material for the book. They cover everything from Osmo’s formative years in Finland to his approach to the music he plays with the Minnesota Orchestra. A substantial number of the interviews are in question-and-answer format.

There were many more interviews with musicians, managers, critics, composers, and family members. Anthony traveled to Finland to cover Vänskä’s farewell concerts with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in May 2008 and to interview family members and orchestra people there.

The book contains a diary of a week with Osmo at Orchestra Hall leading up to and including weekend concerts, and it contains a description of the orchestra’s work in the final sessions of recording the Beethoven symphonies.

Anthony makes no secret of his admiration for Vänskä and says the book “is largely a positive portrait of a positive individual.” He describes Osmo as “one of the most compelling and admired conductors of our time,” and says he “embodies the values of modesty, teamwork, persistent effort, and strong religious faith.”

Still the book is not public-relations fluff, and those close to Vänskä speak of its accuracy. “It is definitely a representation of who he is, both professionally and personally,” said Michael Pelton, executive assistant to Vänskä.

“It tells honestly how he functions in his job as well as his personal life. It’s a very honest look at him,” Pelton adds.

Finding sanctuary

Osmo’s ties to Central Lutheran Church date back to the months before he moved from Finland to Minneapolis to take up his new post in 2003. Gordon Braatz, then an associate pastor at Central, wrote to Vänskä, inviting him to join the congregation, which is a close neighbor to Orchestra Hall.

At two places in the text of the biography, Anthony questions Osmo about his connection to Central. Is it true, Anthony asks, that even when he has a concert on Saturday evening he attends an early service at Central the next morning?

Osmo’s reply: “Yes, I like the church, and I would like to go there even more often. Sometimes it’s not possible when I’m traveling. But I would have to say it’s a good place to go.”

Anthony also asked Osmo about his turning down a series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic because he had a church concert commitment at Central.

Osmo’s reply: “It was the new bell tower at Central Lutheran Church that was going to be dedicated, and they hired the Minnesota Orchestra to play at the opening ceremony. I promised to conduct, and Stephen Paulus wrote a piece for it. It was a unique situation. Plus, I’m a member of the congregation here, so I just felt this was an important thing for me to do. If I promise something, I have to do it.”

The new Vänskä biography was no small undertaking financially, Flachman agreed. With the hiring of a professional writer and the use of many color photographs and top-quality paper stock, the cost came to $600,000, he said.

The 136-page, hardbound books sell for $45.00. Copies are available at the Orchestra Hall box office, through the Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores, and from several independent booksellers in the Twin Cities.

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