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Is Osmo Vänskä an Immigrant?

By Donna Gabaccia, IHRC Director (on sabbatical)

Immigrants have been making music in the United States for over 200 years. So why is it that no journalist writing recently about Osmo Vänskä’s jazzy clarinet-playing at New York’s Avery Fischer Hall referred to the Finnish-born Vänskä, director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003, as an immigrant? To reporters, he’s a Finn who happens to live in the United States.

Scholars have begun to explore the music made in the United States by immigrants (see for example Victor R. Greene’s A Singing Ambivalence: American Immigrants between Old World and New, 1820-1930 from Kent State University Press in 2004). Here in Minnesota, the IHRC in 2006 hosted a special exhibit on music-making among the state’s newest Lutherans, featuring photography by Wing Huie.

Archives are full of documentation on immigrants who sang, played musical instruments, conducted musical groups, or wrote music. Some of that music will be performed this fall at First Fridays in Andersen Library on Nov. 7, in the “Caveret: Performing Arts from the Archives.? Some immigrants–for example the Latvians who arrived in the United States as refugees in the aftermath of World War II–transformed their music into a medium that expressed their politics, their connections to their homelands, and their emerging American identities.

Vänskä’s Finnish origins certainly mattered to those attending the recent performances in New York. There he appeared as part of a Finnish-themed “Mostly Mozart? program. Recently, he also led the Minnesota Orchestra in a program of “Finland’s Finest Pieces? as part of FinnFest 2008.

Like many immigrants, Osmo Vänskä came to the U.S. to pursue his career and to work. Like others, too, he may or may not remain all his life in the U.S. (Americans often assume that immigrants commit permanently to life in the United States but that’s never been a requirement of those seeking green cards.) Highly skilled and well-educated foreigners may face shorter waits for visas than immigrants with more modest qualifications, but their status is otherwise little different once they are here.

So what’s going on here? Would journalists insult Vänskä by calling him an immigrant? Despite continuing paeans to the United States as a nation of immigrants, increasing numbers of Americans apparently do understand the label immigrant to be a pejorative term. Maybe that’s why so few Americans know of the large numbers of immigrants–more than one-third entering the United States–who are professional, middle-class, and extremely well-educated. They’re part of the nation of immigrants, too.