Osmo Vänskä’s debut in Singapore… conducting Mahler

Illustration © André Carrilho.

There was a time when concert-goers in Singapore generally did not expect any big names to play with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).  If memory serves me right, this was about the case in the earlier 1990s when I first began attending SSO concerts and also when I first started writing for The Flying Inkpot circa 1996. Not surprisingly this was also pre-Esplanade.  Still, we were treated to some big names (pre-Esplanade), among whom I can vividly recall the wonderful human being that is cellist Yo-Yo Ma (SSO 12 Mar 1999) and that icy duchess of violinists, Anne-Sophie Mutter (SSO 3-4 Jun 1999).

Okko Kamu - Photo from NaxosOne of the biggest treats we had then was the talented Finnish conductor Okko Kamu, who later became Principal Guest Conductor of the SSO.  It was a big deal, because the SSO played very differently, much much better, under him. We looked forward to all his concerts, and he in particular gave me my first opportunities to hear many Sibelius pieces “live”, including The Oceanides (On 1 March 1999), the Fourth Symphony (On 28 July 2000) and Seventh (5-6 November 1999) Symphonies.

I remember speaking to him when he was new on the Singapore scene – an SSO concert could be so “laid back” back then at the Victoria Concert Hall that Kamu would be lounging around at the main entrance of the concert hall, his jacket off hanging from his arm.  I went up to him, thanked him for the music he brought, and asked him if he could one day grant me the wish of hearing the Seventh “live”. He did. (Well, not specifically for me, probably).

While Mr Kamu, a self-taught conductor, was well-known then as a young winner of the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition (he took the prize in 1969), his recordings were generally not that many nor as popular, so to speak.

Osmo Vänskä
Osmo Vänskä – Photo from Star Tribune

This is quite different from Osmo Vänskä. Mr Vänskä is one of the most important conductors involved in the Complete Sibelius Edition of the Swedish recording label BIS.  His work with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, in terms of Sibelius, is pretty much legend. You cannot possibly record not one but several world-premiere recordings of Sibelius’ music, such as  The Wood Nymph, the complete  Karelia, the original versions of the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony, without becoming permanently linked with the composer forever.

Not only that, but during his tenure at the Lahti SO from 1985 to 2008, he basically brought the orchestra to well-deserved international acclaim, and again in association with the music of Sibelius.

Mr Vänskä is currently Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra (who teaches us that “Osmo Vänskä is pronounced AHS-moe VAN-ska. The “ä” in Vänskä rhymes with “bandstand.”).

I’ve wished on many occasions that he would come to Singapore to conduct Sibelius. He is finally making his debut in Singapore with the SSO on 27 November 2010.

But no Sibelius.  In fact, to my chagrin, he is conducting Mahler. Now, I have great respect for Mahler. But in aesthetic, musicological terms, it’s often said that his music is antithesis to Sibelius’. Mahler wrote gigantic, expressionistic, deeply and humanly emotional works; Sibelius wrote concise, concentrated, organic works. His works are filled with emotion as well, but the kind that you will associate with nature having “emotion”. A crude comparison and probably not entirely that simple, but still there is a difference.

But I shall be optimistic, I think once this “debut” barrier is crossed, Mr Vänskä will surely return again, and I’m sure we… I’ll hear Sibelius from him someday. Who knows, maybe he’ll be the one to finally let me hear Tapiola “live”.

Here is the programme for Mr Vänskä’s 27 November concert:

Gala: Mahler Festival: Virtuosos
Sat, 27 Nov 10, 7.30pm

Esplanade Concert Hall

Osmo Vänskä conductor
Emmanuel Pahud flute

MOZART – Flute Concerto No. 2 in D major, K.314
BORNE Fantaisie Brillante sur des airs de Carmen
MAHLER – Symphony No. 7 in E minor

Two great musicians make their Singapore debuts in this concert. Emmanuel Pahud was only 22 when he was appointed Principal Flautist of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1992, and he remains one of the supreme virtuosos of his instrument. Osmo Vänskä has led the Minnesota Orchestra in many great concerts since 2003, prompting the New Yorker’s Alex Ross to write: “For some years, it has been evident he is a conductor of genius, one whom Fürtwangler might have recognized as a kindred spirit.”Lauded for his recordings of Beethoven and Sibelius, Maestro Vänskä has chosen to conduct Mahler’s epic Seventh Symphony, whose five movements mark a traversal from night to the blazing daylight of its virtuosic finale.

Tickets $18 – $88++ from the usual places. Booking Form | SISTIC (From 15 Jun/1 Jul)

Oh, so it’s a Gala concert, so now not only do I have to listen to a Sibelius master conduct Mahler, I have to pay extra. Great. Heck I will probably still go.

Published by


Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *