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. For the first part of his career, Vänskä was an orchestral clarinetist, first with the Turku Philharmonic from 1971-1976. While there, he made his conducting debut (in 1975), garnering approval from both critics and the public alike. From 1977-1982, Vänskä was the co-principal clarinetist for the Helsinki Philharmonic. He won the 1982 Besançon Young Conductors Competition, and thereafter, turned largely to conducting, landing his first major post in 1985 when he was appointed the guest conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. He became the orchestra's chief conductor in 1988, holding the post until 2008, beginning his prolific recording career there.
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 2022. 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. He has also maintained European ties, serving in the 2010s as the principal guest conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, returning to his former home in Lahti, and making many guest appearances with top-level orchestras.
Vänskä is 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. 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.
Many of Vänskä's well over 100 recordings have appeared on BIS and have featured the Minnesota Orchestra, which he has returned to the top rank of the world's symphonic ensembles. His recording work in the 2010s centered on a new cycle of Sibelius symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra; the year 2016 saw the beginning of a new cycle devoted to Mahler, concluding in 2020. ~ James Manheim & Robert Cummings, Rovi
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