It was 2003 when Osmo Vänskä took to the podium as the Minnesota Orchestra's 10th music director: a date that seems to belong simultaneously to yesterday and yesteryear. Thinking of what has elapsed since nationally, locally, personally, culturally, institutionally makes me feel dizzy, as if I've leaned too far over an Orchestra Hall balcony rail. Thinking of what's all to come is well, unthinkable.
But that is the impossible mission that the Minnesota Orchestra is now tasked with as it kicks the search for Vänskä's successor into high gear. Late last year, he announced that he'd be retiring from his position in 2022, and a slate of potential replacements are scheduled to guest conduct during the 2019-20 season.
I'm well aware that patrons don't have any particular say in the choice, and for good reason. Someone who is a supernova onstage might flame out at rehearsals. But I've read the histories, and I've slid into the soft seats with a new breed of gratitude every time I've visited Orchestra Hall, and I've loved people who have loved this orchestra. I feel invested. So for what they're worth, here are things that I, as a patron, want to see in the Minnesota Orchestra's next music director.
1. I want someone who the musicians respect.
2. I want someone who respects the musicians. I want someone who gets the best out of them. I don't want someone who coasts, even if at first glance he or she looks glamorous doing it. There's always a temptation when conductor-hunting to find someone who is the polar opposite of his or her predecessor. Let's not go quite that far: We still need someone with Vänskä's burning sense of purpose.
3. I want someone who values collaboration when it comes to planning organizational direction. I want someone who is genuinely interested in hearing critiques from all constituencies: musicians, non-musician staff, board members, and, yes, even audience members. I don't want a dictatorial diva. I want someone who takes the best from all of us and then synthesizes that into something greater than we could ever have imagined by ourselves.
4. I want someone who has a knack for clever programming. I want someone who we'll trust to follow off the beaten track. I don't want someone who specializes in crafting frothy, pleasant nights out. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, music isn't just my entertainment; it's my church. We live in a stressful time. A concert is the closest thing that many of us have to a sacred rite, and there is such healing power in these communal acoustic experiences. Make me literally stagger out of a performance, as I did after Vänskä's reading of Kullervo in 2016. Wring me out, and then replenish me by showing me what I didn't even know I wanted.
5. I want someone who cares deeply about diversifying the repertoire, not because it's a trendy way to appeal to mission-minded donors, but because of a genuine belief that great music has been overlooked. I want to go to Orchestra Hall and see the work of women on the programs, then see the light in a young girl's eyes as she's given the gift that I never received: representation and thus an unspoken assurance that who she is won't prevent her from becoming whatever she wants to be.
6. I want someone who will make the most of partnerships with local organizations, especially the Minnesota Chorale, and connect with the Minnesota vocal culture more broadly. I might not be a singer (save when I'm alone in the car), but I know enough about the art to know that the Chorale deserves a partner that prioritizes its work.
7. I want someone with an expertise and a viewpoint. Sibelius was Vänskä's magic trick. No one else will catch that lightning in a bottle again. Bring me someone who will make me fall in love with a whole new world.
8. I want someone who understands the peculiar challenges of running a modern U.S. orchestra. I want someone who understands the pressures facing every employee and volunteer, while resisting the urge to micromanage them.
9. I want someone who knows the recent history of the orchestra: someone who understands (as best as an outsider can) what happened over the course of Vänskä's tenure, and how the 16-month lockout became a part of the organization's DNA.
10. I want someone who is the best person for the job. If that isn't a middle-aged European man, let's not reject that person out of fear or timidity or deference to tradition. By the time that Vänskä leaves, it will be 2022. The world is changing. The body that your musicianship and leadership is contained in shouldn't have a role in determining your professional value here.
I don't envy the employees and the board members who will be in private rooms over the next two years, arguing spiritedly over these points and many others. Even as a mere patron, the pressure makes me nauseous to contemplate. But then it strikes me: That pressure, that terror, is simply the tax we must pay for the past extraordinary decade and a half. In the end, our journey together was worth it. For now I'll hold tight to the faith that something new and special is just around the bend.
Emily Hogstad is a freelance writer and creator of the Song of the Lark classical music blog.