Poster Minnesota Orchestra standing outside Orchestra Hall
Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra present Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 ('Symphony of a Thousand') on their latest recording.
Travis Anderson
New Classical Tracks®

Osmo Vanska and Minnesota Orchestra present Mahler's 'Symphony of a Thousand'

New Classical Tracks (Extended Interview) - Osmo Vanska
New Classical Tracks - Feb. 14, 2024

Osmo Vanska/Minnesota Orchestra – Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (‘Symphony of a Thousand’) (Bis)

“My job was to play the orchestra and the choirs; it’s like a huge instrument,” conductor Osmo Vänskä says. “And my job is to make it sound as Mahler loved it.”

Vänskä spent 19 years at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra.  He closed out his final season in June 2022 with 400 musicians and singers onstage. It was the largest production that Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis had ever witnessed. That closing concert was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, also known as the Symphony of a Thousand, because of the massive forces it requires. That recording is now the penultimate recording in their Mahler cycle.

Because these final concerts took place during the pandemic, Vänskä says they were faced with many challenges.

“We knew that the singers were going to have to wear a mask,” he says. “So the most important thing was how to pronounce so that we could hear all the text that is coming out. And I think that from my side that was a big challenge. And also, to get enough volume and make the singers feel comfortable because it's so obvious if you have a mask that it's difficult to sing out.

“Then there was Caroline Samson, the great British soprano who stepped in when the singer who was supposed to do this short angel part, sung from the third balcony, couldn’t make it. We asked her and she said, ‘I have never done it, but I'm ready to try.’ And then she came to the second rehearsal doing everything. She saved this production.

“That's why we have one soloist less than in the usual recording. We had eight soloists, and usually there are nine.”

There were two works of text that inspired Mahler in this composition. Can you tell us about them?

“Mahler was using a text which was his way of understanding how to go to heaven and what needs to be done. The second half has a different text from Faust. So it's easy to think that this symphony is about what is going to happen to us when we die. Is there something after that or not? That is the big theme.”

Considering the emotional context of your wrapping up your official tenure with the orchestra with this massive work, at what point during the performance did you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is happening’?

“It’s a good question, and when speaking about this Mahler Symphony No. 8, it's just such a difficult piece. It's really difficult — complicated to keep together. And when you concentrate on the music and keeping this music going and holding back and going forward when needed, that gives this kind of feeling of satisfaction. I don't need to think about it, that it's my last concert or last week. Those feelings came much later.

“But I have to add, of course, that is a great way to go, with this last concert. So I think that the conductor cannot ask anything more.”


Osmo Vanska/Minnesota Orchestra – Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (‘Symphony of a Thousand’) (Bis)

Minnesota Orchestra (official site)

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