The Grammy Award-winning Minnesota Orchestra, now in its second century and led by Music Director Osmo Vänskä, ranks among America’s top symphonic ensembles, with a distinguished history of acclaimed performances in its home state and around the world; award-winning recordings, radio broadcasts and educational engagement programs; and a visionary commitment to building the orchestral repertoire of tomorrow.
Founded as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble gave its inaugural performance on November 5, 1903, shortly after baseball’s first World Series and six weeks before the Wright brothers made their unprecedented airplane flight. The Orchestra played its first regional tour in 1907 and made its New York City debut in 1912 at Carnegie Hall, where it has performed regularly ever since, most recently in March 2016. Outside the United States, the Orchestra has played concerts in Australia, Canada, Europe, the Far East, Latin America, the Middle East and South Africa. Since 1968 it has been known as the Minnesota Orchestra. The ensemble presents about 175 programs each year, primarily at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, and its concerts are heard by live audiences of 300,000.
The Orchestra’s international tours have reaped significant acclaim. Under Vänskä’s leadership, the ensemble has undertaken five European tours as well as an August 2018 visit to London’s BBC Proms. In August 2018 the ensemble made history as the first professional U.S. orchestra ever to visit South Africa, in a five-city tour from Cape Town to Soweto—the culmination of a month-long Music for Mandela celebration of Nelson Mandela’s centennial—during which Vänskä and the Orchestra collaborated with South African musicians; performed music from South Africa, the U.S. and Europe; and engaged with local communities, students and the South African National Youth Orchestra. In May 2015 Vänskä and the Orchestra undertook another momentous tour, performing two historic concerts and collaborating in educational projects in Havana, Cuba, where it became the first major American orchestra to perform in the island nation since the U.S. and Cuban governments announced steps to normalize relations between the two countries. The trip drew widespread international attention and prompted The New York Times to hail the Orchestra’s new place “at the cultural vanguard.”
The Orchestra’s recordings and broadcasts have drawn acclaim since the early 1920s, when the ensemble became one of the first to be heard via these media—notably making its radio debut in 1923 by playing a nationally broadcast concert under guest conductor Bruno Walter. Its landmark Mercury Living Presence LP recordings of the 1950s and 1960s, under Music Directors Antal Dorati and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, have been reissued on CD to great acclaim. Under Osmo Vänskä, the Orchestra has undertaken several acclaimed recording projects, primarily for BIS Records. In 2014 the Orchestra and Vänskä won their first Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance for a disc of Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 1 and 4.
The Orchestra’s newest recording initiative focuses on the ten symphonies of Gustav Mahler. The series’ first release, featuring the Fifth Symphony, received a 2017 Grammy Award nomination for Best Orchestral Performance. The second disc, featuring the Sixth Symphony, was released in March 2018 to immediate acclaim, while the third disc, Mahler’s Second Symphony, is due out during the 2018-19 season. The First and Fourth Symphonies were recorded during the 2017-18 season, while the Seventh and Tenth will be recorded in 2018-19, with album releases to come in subsequent seasons.
Earlier recordings by the Orchestra and Vänskä include a five-disc cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies that The New York Times wrote “may be the definitive [cycle] of our time.” The recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony received a 2008 Grammy nomination for Best Orchestral Performance, and the album featuring the Second and Seventh Symphonies was nominated for a 2009 Classic FM Gramophone Award. The Orchestra and Vänskä also recorded a two-CD set of Tchaikovsky’s piano-and-orchestra works with soloist Stephen Hough; a disc featuring Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony; two albums of Beethoven and Mozart piano concertos with Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin; and a three-album cycle of the complete Sibelius symphonies, including the Grammy-winning disc of Symphonies No. 1 and 4 and a Grammy-nominated album of the Symphonies No. 2 and 5; the Holocaust memorial oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn, composed by Stephen Paulus with libretto by Michael Dennis Browne; and a live-in-concert recording of Sibelius’ Kullervo and Finlandia and Olli Kortekangas’ Migrations, all performed with Finland’s YL Male Voice Choir and vocal soloists.
The Orchestra’s Friday night performances are broadcast live regionally by Minnesota Public Radio, a weekly tradition for more than 40 years. Over the years, many programs have been subsequently featured on American Public Media’s national programs, SymphonyCast and Performance Today. In November 2017 the Orchestra celebrated Minnesota Public Radio’s 50th anniversary with a special live broadcast concert hosted by Brian Newhouse.
In addition to offering traditional concerts, the Minnesota Orchestra connects with more than 85,000 music lovers annually through family concerts and educational programs including Young People’s Concerts, a series that marked its centennial in 2011. In the last decade nearly half a million students have experienced a Young People’s Concert. In recent seasons the Orchestra brought the series to a global online audience with two Young People’s Concert webcasts, which reached students around the globe in hundreds of cities across more than 20 countries.
In 2011, extending a long tradition of performances throughout the state of Minnesota, the Orchestra launched Common Chords. This multi-year initiative creates partnerships between the Orchestra and participating Minnesota cities, culminating in a celebratory festival week that features performances and dozens of activities that reflect the interests, diversity and heritage of each community. Launched with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Common Chords presented its first festival week in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 2011; subsequent partnerships have taken the Orchestra to the Minnesota cities of Willmar, Hibbing, Bemidji, Detroit Lakes and Mankato. A special edition of Common Chords is set for January 2019, during which the Orchestra will spend a week in North Minneapolis.
Along with its core series of classical concerts, the Minnesota Orchestra presents Live at Orchestra Hall, a lineup of concerts by a broad spectrum of artists; conductor Sarah Hicks leads the series, which features genres including popular music, jazz, film scores and world music. Since 1980 the Orchestra has ended each season with Sommerfest, its beloved urban summer music festival. In summer 2017 conductor Andrew Litton concluded his 15-year tenure as the festival’s artistic director. Jazz in the Target Atrium, a new series of concerts featuring regional and national jazz musicians performing together in Orchestra Hall’s new Target Atrium, was launched in 2014 under the direction of Jeremy Walker.
With a long history of commissioning and performing new music, the Minnesota Orchestra nourishes a strong commitment to contemporary composers. Its annual Composer Institute, now in its fifth season under the direction of Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts, offers up to seven emerging composers from around the nation an intense immersion into the orchestral world, culminating in a Future Classics concert led by Osmo Vänskä. Since 1903 the Orchestra has premiered and/or commissioned more than 300 compositions, including works by John Adams, Kalevi Aho, Dominick Argento (the Orchestra’s composer laureate), Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Charles Ives, Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Kevin Puts and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. In November 2018 the Orchestra and Vänskä are offering the world premiere of What Do We Make of Bach?, a work for organ and orchestra by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison, with Paul Jacobs as soloist.
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has bestowed upon the Orchestra 20 awards for adventuresome programming, including five Leonard Bernstein Awards for Education Programming between 2005 and 2012 and, in 2008, the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music.
Music directors of the Orchestra have included Emil Oberhoffer (1903-1922), Henri Verbrugghen (1923-1931), Eugene Ormandy (1931-1936), Dimitri Mitropoulos (1937-1949), Antal Dorati (1949-1960), Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (1960-1979), Neville Marriner (1979-1986), Edo de Waart (1986-1995), Eiji Oue (1995-2002) and Osmo Vänskä (2003-present).