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Published: Sunday, 1/23/2005

First-rate Finns: Finland s Lahti Symphony Orchestra to visit Toledo for concert

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

It s hard not to consider the history of Finland s Lahti Symphony Orchestra and wonder if the same musical renaissance couldn t happen here in Toledo. Hailing from a formerly depressed lumber center of 100,000, this once-ragged orchestra has become one of the world s finest.

Credit Finnish music director Osmo Vanska, who took up with Lahti in 1985 as principal guest conductor. He became music director shortly afterwards.

Vanska brings his orchestra to the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle for an all-Sibelius program at 8 p.m. Friday.

There is no magic to success, just hard work, said Vanska, who spoke by phone last week from his office in Minneapolis where, since the fall of 2003, he has also served as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

I just wanted to make the orchestra play better. If you have a group of people who are skillful musicians and their attitude that is the right one, then you can do something. But it is never easy. You have to be ready to start from zero after every concert and with each new program, he said.

In terms of the maestro mold, the 51-year-old former Helsinki Philharmonic clarinetist presents an interesting combination of old and new. He is a fearsome presence on the podium, a drill master who doggedly settles for nothing short of perfection. Yet, in conversation he groups himself along side his instrumentalists.

Lahti was a good situation for everyone. We both learned a lot and grew together. These musicians really believed in what I was doing and they forgave me my mistakes. I believed in them too. It has been a great operation, he said.

Remarkable, in fact.

Since 1990, the orchestra has made 19 Sibelius recordings on the Swedish label BIS. A number have received international awards. Vanska and Lahti are currently completing a project to record the seven Sibelius symphonies. All told, the orchestra has released more than 50 CDs.

Vanska has focused on Finnish music throughout his tenure at Lahti, but the music of the enigmatic and meticulous nationalist Sibelius has been the centerpiece.

People are always talking about how nature is present in this music. And yes, if there is such a thing as a Finnish music then it must be based in the place, the language, and nature. But with Sibelius there is more than that. For me, this music is about emotions and hopes. It s a human connection, said Vanska.

It s also true that Finns have a certain understanding of this music. This is our home, after all. And if you know where to go, then you can find the right tools. But as for this orchestra s being so good at it, that just comes from hard work.

Many think Lahti is the finest Sibelius orchestra in the world, he said.

It helps that Vanska is a devoted Sibelius scholar who in the early 1990s obtained permission from the composer s estate to study the original manuscripts and unfinished works. In so doing, Vanska discovered a leaner, more incisive Sibelius than that which the world had come to know. In 2001, Gramophone magazine declared that the Lahti orchestra s recording of the sixth symphony was the finest ever made.

Here in the States, Vanska has found his experience in Minneapolis both different and similar to that in Finland. On the one hand, the dollars-and-cents business of making classical music is much more difficult here, where there is little government assistance. On the other hand, face-to-face work with the musicians is the same.

The Nordic way of thinking is that people pay a lot of taxes so that the government will take care of many kinds of important things. That includes education, social security, and the arts. Here, these things are much more difficult to accomplish.

But in rehearsal, there are no differences. Music is not about which country, it s about having good musicians, the right ideas, and then making them work, he said.

With the Lahti Orchestra established as one of Europe s little giants, Vanska is determined that the Minnesota Orchestra excel equally. It was already one of America s upper-tier orchestras when Vanska arrived in 2003, but that s no longer going to be good enough.

Our goal is to be number one. That s realistic, he said.

Vanska s 20-year affiliation with Lahti is long by contemporary standards. Even now, with Vanska living in Minneapolis, he manages to spend 15 weeks annually with Lahti. The relationship will continue into the foreseeable future.

We have many invitations for touring and still have a number of recordings to do together. Still, it s obvious that I am doing less, and that one day it will end. But at the moment, there is so much to do together.

Osmo Vanska leads the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Finlandia and Sibelius second and third symphonies at 8 p.m. Friday in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Tickets range from $20 to $45. Information: 419-246-8000.

Contact Steven Cornelius at: scornelius@theblade.com or 419-724-6152.



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