Osmo Vanska (courtesy HarrisonParrott)
In the summer of 2007 when I began research for the third Perceval novel, Perceval in Love, I developed research questions about Helsinki and Finland. The beginning of the third novel, I decided, would be in Helsinki, with a rustic side trip somewhere out in the country one weekend. I wondered if Osmo Vanska would be willing to help me. A native Finn, the Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra had lived in Helsinki and performed with the Helsinki Philharmonic as their co-principal clarinetist. I asked my friend, Julie, who was the musicians’ personnel manager at the time, and she helped me arrange an interview with Osmo through his Executive Assistant. In preparation, I narrowed my Finland questions down to those I could not otherwise find through reading and websites, e.g. details that only someone who’d lived there would know. I also spent a lot of time researching Finlandia Hall in Helsinki where Evan Quinn would conduct. The internet can be an amazing research tool, but nothing like talking to a person who knows the place intimately.
I sent my list of questions the week before my scheduled interview to give Osmo an idea of what I needed. The day of the interview, I remained calm until I was approaching the stage door at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. It doesn’t matter whom I’m interviewing, I am always nervous. I checked in at the stage door and since I already knew where the Conductor’s Suite was, I was sent on my way. Osmo’s Executive Assistant, Michael Pelton, was waiting for me, and ushered me into the office, introducing me.
Osmo came out from behind his desk, windows looking out on a portion of Peavey Plaza behind him, and extended his hand. I remember telling him that I’d just heard a recording he’d done on the clarinet, a clarinet quartet by Bernhard Crusell. I confessed that I’d not heard of the composer before, but that I’d loved the music and the performance. He was dressed for summer in casual khaki, olive green shirt and sandals. We settled on the white sofa facing the desk and I gave Osmo an idea of the Perceval series — the protagonist Evan Quinn who is a young orchestra conductor and music director of the Minneapolis State Symphony (formerly Minnesota Orchestra) — and that the third novel begins in Helsinki. I’m glad I sent him the questions the week before. He was totally prepared and full of lots of really good details and tidbits about Helsinki, Finlandia Hall, the countryside in Finland. I knew already that Minnesota reminded him a lot of Finland, and hearing him describe Finland, I could understand why. He suggested places for Evan and his girlfriend to spend a weekend, to spend a romantic afternoon, hotels in Helsinki Evan would most likely stay at (with a side story about Sibelius and one particular hotel — I hadn’t known Sibelius liked to drink), places where Evan could run, the layout of Finlandia Hall and especially the conductor’s dressing room and if the stage door opened in or out.
I told Osmo about my 24-hour visit to Helsinki on my way to Russia (then Soviet Union) and my impressions of the city because I would be drawing on my own experience as well. We had talked for almost 50 minutes, and I’d requested only 30 minutes. I learned long ago, however, that if an interviewee wants to talk, let them. I was about to wrap it up, however, when Osmo interrupted me with a comment about concert programming. I had included Evan’s all Brahms programs with the Helsinki Philharmonic in the material I’d sent Osmo the week before. He told me that he could understand the reason I’d used the order of the symphonies that I had, but he said there was a more accepted order based on their timings. He then got up and retrieved a thick blue hardcover book that contained the timings of music performed on symphonic programs. I can see the book in my mind, but for the life of me, I can’t recall its title. Osmo showed me the timings and then rearranged the programs for Evan’s concerts. Osmo’s concern that I get the concert programming right surprised and moved me.
When I stood to leave, I had one last question, an important question for any interviewer to ask. Could I follow up with him if I had any additional questions? He nodded with a smile and said that I should work through his Executive Assistant, email him with any additional questions. As I left his office, I found a crowd of people waiting to talk to him — both musicians and staff. A few weeks later, as I began work on Perceval in Love, I had more questions for Osmo, this time how to say certain things in Finnish. He responded much faster than I expected, giving me exactly what I needed.
I completed the first draft of Perceval in Love in June 2020. When I look at the Finland chapters now, Osmo is everywhere. So I gave him a cameo appearance in the Finland chapters. Thank you, Osmo!
(courtesy Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)