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Book Report: Too detailed? Too complimentary? I say, 'No way,' to other review

I try not to read other reviewers' takes on books I plan to review myself.

Sometimes it's unavoidable. But whenever it is, it's usually surprising.

Recently I read a review of a regionally produced book that I hadn't yet received.

The reviewer, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, didn't like it much. The book was about the relatively new conductor of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra.

In essence the reviewer said it was much too detailed and added that the author should have waited until the conductor was dead or dying before he lionized him in print.

Finally, I received my copy of "Osmo Vanska: Orchestra Builder," by Michael Anthony, photos by Greg Helgeson and Ann Marsden (Kirk House Press, $45). As a longtime orchestra ticketholder, I couldn't wait to get a look at it. I read this beautiful book at one sitting and it was as if I were reading an entirely different book than the one reviewed in the Star Tribune.

This is a thrilling study of a man who is transforming the orchestra after years in the doldrums under the baton of Eiji Oue and it's written by Anthony, former classical music reviewer of the Star Tribune and one of the nation's most respected reviewers, who, it seems, has every right to judge Vanska's accomplishments up to this point I time, even though Vanska, in his fifties, is young to be a conductor.

For one thing, Anthony isn't alone in his praise for the Finnish musician. He's had rave reviews all over the world. After a performance at Carnegie Hall, the New York Times reviewer wrote that "The whole (Minnesota) orchestra shines in majestic joy....This is something Mr. Vanska excels at over and over."

The Times of London wrote, "Rarely does a full-sized symphony orchestra manage to thin itself down to a glowingly hushed pianissimo without losing its grip...."

And too much detail? The book is only 135 pages long and is chock full of wonderful pictures by Marsden and Helgeson.

Anthony is an experienced reporter and has dug out the most interesting stuff about not only Vanska, but the way the orchestra and its board operates. There's big stuff, including 11 interviews with Vanska, who only agreed to the biography if the much respected Anthony wrote it.

There are also interviews with principal players in the orchestra, like concertmaster Jorga Vleezanis and musicologists like Michael Steinberg. There's a fascinating chapter about music education in Finland, where Vanska learned to play a hand-me-down clarinet at the Lutheran church his poor family attended.

Vanska said he thinks the high taxes in Finland are great because some of it is used to promote culture and education, not a high priority these days at the capitol in St. Paul.

There's also lots of fun. Vanska riding his motorcycle. Vanska jamming on his clarinet with the band at the Dakota, Vanska conducting a concert of ABBA favorites clad like Sonny Bono.

Anthony's trademark wit shows up on every page, as when he recalls that former conductor Sir Neville Marriner. The audience, writes Anthony, was "strumming its catarrh."

Anthony also lets us in on some secrets, like it was originally thought that the big white cubes strung along the stage's backdrop were acoustically important.

"Actually had no effect on the sound at all."

Vanska, though he's handsomely somber looking, is no slouch in the humor department and Anthony is liberal with the direct quotes he gleaned from the interviews. He tells of his long-ago courtship with his wife Pirkko (They were getting a divorce just before the book went to press). He says her well-off parents never intruded on the marriage, despite the reputation of musicians.

Vanska: "Two mothers are talking about their children. One asks, 'What is your child doing?'

The other one responds, 'He's a musician.'

The first one says, 'Yes, my son is an alcoholic, too.'"

If that's too much detail, so be it. I admired this book and agree with Anthony who says the advantage of writing about a live conductor is you can get his thoughts and ideas as he's creating, rather than waiting for him to die, so you can ask an "expert."

And to add a bit of frosting on this reviewer's cake, the New Yorker critic wrote a piece about Vanska's brilliance and how his new orchestra playing recently at Carnegie Hall sounded like the greatest in the world.

Is that "established" enough for you, Star Tribune reviewer?


"The Tudors," by G. J. Meyer (Delacorte, $30): Fascinated by the Tudor monarchy? Historian Meyer says we are, thanks to Hollywood, which for years has concentrated on Elizabeth I and her father Henry VIII.

He also says that's too bad, because they only ruled for a few generations and were bad boys and girls. It's a big fat book and interesting in its details.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 426-9554.