In the 1980s Osmo Vänskä successfully transitioned from principal clarinetist to conductor and went on to hold some of the world's most prestigious and coveted conducting posts, including music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. Actually, the transition was rather brief: Vänskä won the 1982 Besançon Young Conductors Competition and thereafter turned largely to conducting, landing his first major post in 1985, when he was appointed guest conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Since that time Vänskä has held a half-dozen or so major posts and appeared on more than 100 recordings. He is best known for his advocacy of Finnish music, particularly from the 20th century, with the names Aho, Crusell, Klami, Kokkonen, Kajanus, and Rautavaara appearing regularly on his programs. But Vänskä is probably best known for his spirited Sibelius, both in the concert hall and on recordings. That said, Vänskä has hardly limited himself to Finnish music: his repertory includes works by a vast array of composers, including Beethoven (whose cycle of nine symphonies he recorded for BIS), Bruckner, Mussorgsky, Mahler, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Nielsen, Poulenc, Britten, Bax, and even Leroy Anderson. Beside BIS, Vänskä has recorded for Hyperion, Ondine, LPO, Classico, and Kontrapunkt.
Osmo Vänskä was born in Sääminki, Finland, on February 28, 1953. Though he studied conducting under Jorma Panula at the Sibelius Academy of Music in Helsinki, his initial focus there was the clarinet.
Vänskä served as principal clarinet for the Turku Philharmonic from 1971-1976. While there, he made his conducting debut (1975), garnering approval from both critics and public alike. From 1977-1982 Vänskä was co-principal clarinetist for the Helsinki Philharmonic.
Following the Besançon competition victory and Lahti appointment, Vänskä was suddenly in demand. He was elevated to chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony in 1988 and held the post until 2008. During this 20-year stint he held several other posts as well: chief conductor of the Iceland Symphony (1993-1996), principal conductor of BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (1996-2002), and music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, from 2003. The Minnesota Orchestra has remained at the center of Vänskä's musical life, and his personal life as well: he married Erin Keefe, the orchestra's concertmaster, in 2015. He has received several contract extensions, the latest running through 2019. Vänskä was at the helm in Minneapolis through a bitter labor dispute in 2013 and 2014, during which he temporarily resigned his position. He has attempted to weave the orchestra into the city's daily life with such enterprises as an appearance at a 2016 halftime show for professional football's Minnesota Vikings. The local Minneapolis Star Tribune named Vänskä its artist of the year in 2010. He has also maintained European ties, serving in the 2010s as principal guest conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, returning to his former home in Lahti, and making many guest appearances with top-level orchestras including, in 2016-2017, the London Philharmonic.
Vänskä has received two contract extensions from the Minnesota Orchestra management, the latest in 2009, which keeps the maestro in Minnesota through the 2014-2015 season. In 2008, Vänskä's composition The Bridge was premiered by the Minnesota-based Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, under music director William Schrickel. Among Vänskä's later recordings is his 2009 BIS CD To Be Certain of the Dawn, an oratorio by Minnesota-based composer Stephen Paulus. His recording work in the 2010s centered on a new cycle of Sibelius symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, recorded for the Swedish label BIS; the year 2016 saw the beginning of a new cycle devoted to Mahler.