On a cold morning in early December of last year, the Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård stood in front of the Minnesota Orchestra for the first time. He was at Orchestra Hall to rehearse the weekend performances of Richard Strauss’s extravagant tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”), no small challenge for both conductor and orchestra, along with two other works.
He gave a downbeat and, as he recalled recently, he almost fell off the podium. “There was so much energy and focus from the orchestra, and it was there from the beginning,” he said. “It was a moment I’ll never forget. It was one of the best first impressions I’ve ever had of an orchestra.”
The rehearsals later that week and the subsequent performances impressed the musicians. “It was the best performance of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ I’ve ever been a part of,” said R. Douglas Wright, the orchestra’s principal trombone. “Thomas has a warm, inviting and trusting presence on the podium that extends from the front of the stage to the back, making us all feel that we are an integral part of the musical experience,” said principal bass Kristen Bruya.
Other musicians talked about the chemistry that developed quickly between Søndergård and the orchestra and about his collaborative approach to music-making that made the musicians feel they could do their best. And indeed, the two concerts that Søndergård presided over that weekend turned out to be highlights of the season. Søndergård’s Mozart, the Piano Concerto No. 23 with Ingrid Fliten as soloist, displayed a warm and elegant touch, and the Strauss, superbly clarified and balanced, emphasized lyric drama rather than bombast, a reflection perhaps of Søndergård’s extensive experience conducting opera. (A video of the concert can be viewed on the orchestra’s website.
The musicians’ enthusiastic reactions to Søndergård were not lost on the staff of the orchestra or its board. The orchestra was, in fact, looking for a new music director, a replacement for Osmo Vänskä, a beloved figure here whose 19 years at the helm of the orchestra had been a time of singular achievement and acclaim. A 16-member search committee headed by board member Doug Baker had been hard at it since 2018, when Vänskä announced that he would step down at the end of the 2021-22 season.
The COVID pandemic, which caused the cancellations of numerous concerts, slowed the process, but the committee, made up of musicians, staff, board members and members of the community, pursued their mission with unflagging determination – interviewing candidates, hearing their concerts, talking to musicians who had worked with the candidates — so that by the autumn of 2021, the committee’s list of 40 names had been narrowed to five, one of whom was Søndergård. Names of prospective music directors are seldom divulged, though a newspaper in Atlanta reported in 2020 that Søndergård was on the Atlanta Symphony’s short list. (Nathalie Stutzmann starts this fall as music director in Atlanta.)
Probably no mortal human being has ever possessed all the positive qualities that orchestras ask for these days in a music director. Baker’s list, though not so extensive as others, was formidable. It included charisma, musical insight, a commitment to new work, to diversity and inclusion, a willingness to collaborate and being a born leader with an unblemished reputation. And, Baker added, no traffic tickets.
But the most important part of the evaluation process is the guest-conducting experience. “That’s the pass/fail,” Baker said. “It’s got to go really well, and the musicians have to respond in a way that you feel that the relationship has legs, and it’s the musicians who need to feel it’s got legs.”
After the December concerts the committee began to focus seriously on Søndergård, who appeared to fulfill Baker’s criteria as much as was humanly possible and who, at 52 — a young age for a conductor — had been music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra since 2018, had held principal guest positions with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, had made more than a dozen recordings of mostly unusual, interesting repertoire and maintained an increasingly robust schedule of guest conducting with major orchestras in Europe and the U.S.
The committee got the picture: this was no lightweight. (Assistant principal bass William Schrickel, a 46-year veteran with the orchestra, said, “Of all the potential candidates we worked with, I thought Søndergård’s conducting and interpretive ideas had the most depth.”) The staff quickly shuffled a few dates around and re-engaged Søndergård for a pair of concerts in April. These having gone well, the committee then voted – unanimously – to offer him the position of the orchestra’s 11th music director, a vote sustained by the board, and in late May representatives of the orchestra made the official offer to him by Zoom. Søndergård was in Europe.
“We were so excited to talk to Thomas once the decision had been made,” said Michelle Miller Burns, orchestra president and CEO. “We didn’t want it to be just a phone call. Thomas’s reaction was immediate enthusiasm. We were looking for an extraordinary music director. In Thomas we also found an extraordinary human being.”
The agreement, signed July 27, calls for a five-year commitment, which is long for a first contract. Burns called it a vote of confidence in Søndergård. “It wasn’t a demand by Thomas’s management,” she said. “It was totally about mutual enthusiasm and confidence in the relationship.” The appointment was announced July 28.
Søndergård would assume the position with the 2023-24 season. As music director-designate he would conduct the orchestra in one program this season: three concerts Oct. 20-22.
Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, worked with Søndergård during the first years of the conductor’s engagement with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as principal guest. Woods was the orchestra’s chief executive. Søndergård’s appointment in Minnesota wasn’t a surprise, Woods said, speaking by phone from his office in New York City.
“I think he’s a great fit for this orchestra, in part because there’s a big Scandinavian DNA in the community there, and Scandinavia consistently produces amazing conductors. We always had a great relationship, and I admire Thomas tremendously. To me, the only surprise is that he hasn’t become well known in the U.S. sooner. As someone who has seen him at work, I would say it’s overdue for Thomas to be known in this country because he’s an exciting conductor. And he’s been thoughtful about his career. He hasn’t rushed it. He has based it on building meaningful relationships with orchestras. The relationship with the orchestra in Scotland has been wonderful to watch.”
Woods hired Søndergård as a guest conductor in 2009 as a replacement for a conductor who was ailing. It had been a problem finding someone, Woods said, because the main piece on the program, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, is difficult, and not many conductors know it. Søndergård’s manager in London recommended him. She said to Woods, “Thomas knows that piece. He could jump in and do it.”
“We had never heard of Thomas,” Woods said. “But we brought him in, and I remember sitting there listening and thinking, ‘OK, this is electrifying. This is a talent.’ And I knew that day that he would be an important conductor. We appointed him principal guest and later they named him music director.”
Søndergård spoke recently via Zoom from Denmark about his life and his work. He was at his mother’s house just outside Copenhagen. He has homes in central Copenhagen and in rural Denmark. He had told an intermediary that he lacked confidence in his English and would like some of the questions in advance. In fact, his English, with its slight accent, is good if not perfect. The conversation ranged widely from learning to conduct to sexual identity to sauna as a mystical experience.
Søndergård was born in Holstebro, a town of about 35,000 in central Jutland, the peninsula that makes up most of Denmark, which itself has a population similar to that of Minnesota, about 5.5 million. The family was musical but not professionally. His sister, his mother and his mother’s three sisters, all sang at home.
“My uncle, my father’s big brother, gave me drumsticks when I saw the marching band on the street, and he said, ‘I know what present to give you. On Friday, you come to your grandmother’s house and I’ll teach you a little bit.’ And that’s how it all started. He’s a trombone player, and my mother’s father played the accordion. There was always music.”
When Thomas was 10, his father, an engineer, drowned in a boating accident. His mother worked at Bang & Olufsen, the electronics company, and later as a management secretary while raising Thomas and his younger sister. Musically speaking, percussion was his first love. He began lessons at the local music school at age eight and got into a marimba band. At 13 he went to Copenhagen for a week to study and observe how music is made. He was already thinking he wanted to make music his life’s work. He hoped to spend his time in a theater because, he said, he always found the theater to be magical.
“Opera and ballet were my first experiences of classical music,” he said, “and I saw, looking at the conductor’s podium there, how he and she interacted with the stage and made everything fit. And I learned to breathe with singers, both as a timpani player and later, when I worked as a conductor in opera. It’s a good starting point. Often, when I teach conductors, I ask them to go and sit in a theater and see how conductors and orchestras breathe with the singers.”
He studied percussion at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, specializing in timpani. During his student years he served as percussionist with the London-based European Union Youth Orchestra, a training ensemble that regularly tours Europe and is led by many famous guest conductors. In 1992, he joined the Royal Danish Orchestra as timpanist.
After some years of playing the timpani, he found himself studying scores. “I would put conductors’ remarks in the scores, not because I wanted to become a conductor, but because I thought it was interesting what the conductors said about bowing and articulation and breathing. I still have these scores,” he said.
He began to share his interest with friends about how these scores were put together. Then a friend said, “I have an exam tomorrow. Could you look at the score tonight and then conduct these three movements from ‘Pierre Lunaire”? He immediately went to the library, copied the music and sat up all night learning those three movements. “Little by little, the story spread that I was good at leading musicians through rehearsal, making the process easier, which is one of the things that we conductors should think more about. We are there to make the process quicker for the orchestra.”
Encouraged by positive feedback, Søndergård began conducting chamber music around Copenhagen and working with small orchestras while continuing with his job as a percussionist. He sought advice from visiting conductors. Paavo Berglund, the Finnish conductor, was one of them. Another was the Russian, Alexander Polianichko, a student of the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky.
“Polianichko is the kaiser of conductors in Russia,” Søndergård said with reverence. “Every time he was in Copenhagen, I pulled him aside. I made sure that when he was there for a longer opera production, I would try to have him hear something I was doing. For a chamber concert I had Polianichko sitting next to me when I was rehearsing. We filmed it. Polianichko has been the absolute most, the biggest inspiration for me.”
For 10 years, starting in 1996, Søndergård managed to keep two plates spinning in the air: percussionist and conductor.
The big moment came in 2005. Søndergård was invited to be the assistant conductor under Michael Schonwandt for the premiere by the Royal Danish Opera of “Kafka’s Trial,” an opera by the Danish composer Poul Ruders. Søndergård ended up conducting the whole production throughout Scandinavia and on the subsequent recording on the Dacapo label. Concerning Søndergård, the New York Times said, “The orchestra played brilliantly for the dynamic conductor Thomas Søndergård.”
It had become obvious that the young conductor had to choose which road to take. Was he a percussionist or a conductor? He knew the answer. “It was very difficult,” he said, “to leave my colleagues in the orchestra, the repertoire, a monthly income plus pension and jump into uncertainty. But there were so many things that indicated that, if you don’t do this, you are stupid, because everything was laid out in front of me. And actually, there were a lot of jobs already, two years ahead. So I had to.”
In addition, he had great support from friends and colleagues like Schonwandt, who helped him get a manager. In 2009, he became principal conductor of both the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and, as previously mentioned, principal guest at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He has returned many times to the Royal Danish Opera and has also enjoyed collaborations with the Norwegian Opera and the Royal Swedish Opera. He made his Deutsche Oper Berlin debut in 2017. His repertoire continues to be wide ranging. Last month at the BBC Proms he conducted the Royal Scottish in Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti as soloist.
Søndergård retains a strong interest in education, especially education in the arts, a preoccupation that is perhaps no surprise in someone from the Nordic countries, which are strewn with music schools, professional orchestras, concert halls and modern opera houses. Much of that infrastructure was born of a movement that sees culture as part of the welfare state, as a source of sustenance for the largest number of people. Or as someone once defined social democracy: the institutionalization of kindness.
The Danish word dannelse meaning “cultivation” is a key to this line of thought. “Education is more important than ever, so that we don’t start acting badly toward each other,” Søndergård said. “And that’s what I try to bring to the podium. There’s no way I can get a good result with anyone in front of me if I don’t start with love and respect. But I am also the one in control, and they want that. They want someone to guide them. And that is called love.”
To that end, while working with the BBC in Wales, Søndergård and the orchestra’s staff gave special attention to classical music for young people. In a program called “10 Pieces,” the children were encouraged to get to know 10 short pieces of music and then to respond to them through music, art and dance.
“This had an incredible impact, much bigger than we expected,” Søndergård said. “The kids made drawings and all kinds of things in response to the music They came up to us afterward as if we were movie stars, taking photos of us. We made two Proms concerts and both were sold out. The kids made huge birds that flew over the audience for the finale of ‘The Firebird’ at Royal Albert Hall. It was so touching that I could hardly conduct.”
On another occasion Søndergård spent a week with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a children’s project involving non-hearing children. The children sat inside the orchestra and could experience the music through the vibrations of the instruments. He invited some of them up onto the podium to feel the vibrations in the floor and to try to conduct it.
“It was a fantastic experience to see the impact that music had on these children,” he said. “When the week was over, I got all kinds of drawings and cards from the children. But there was one little girl who hadn’t made a card. She could neither see nor hear, but she could feel the music and she could smell. So she gave me the only thing that she could share, a small bouquet of very fragrant lily of the valley flowers, to show what she had felt in experiencing the music. This made a huge impression on me.”
Looking ahead, Søndergård faced a heavy season of guest conducting. He had already spent a week with the Baltimore Symphony and another week with his orchestra in Scotland. This weekend, starting with the Coffee Concert Thursday morning, he will be at Orchestra Hall conducting Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Ravel’s “Mother Goose” ballet and a rarity, a piece by the French composer Lili Boulanger, “Of a Spring Morning.” After that he will lead the St. Louis Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and the Cincinnati Symphony.
He shares the view that many have offered that orchestras today sound alike. Asked if the Minnesota Orchestra has a unique sound, he said, “I need to sit in the hall and just listen. When I heard the Beethoven 5 when I was in Minneapolis for the announcement, it was certainly sparkling. It was incredibly delicate, all the way around the orchestra, and there was unity and spirit in both strings and winds, a real focus. I’d love to hear them in different rooms, how they react in different acoustics.”
The visit he referred to was the announcement at the atrium in Orchestra Hall on July 28 of his appointment. Several board members spoke and Søndergård made a brief, quite eloquent speech during which he said “I believe all music comes from God, and since God is love, music is also love, even if it sometimes expresses other feelings, too.” He then introduced his partner of 23 years, Andreas Linton, a Danish opera baritone. The two were married in Denmark weeks earlier.
“Some things take time,” he said. “But if you work hard and seriously, things can change. I have seen this in my own life. As a gay man, I’ve experienced prejudice many, many times. But things really have changed because of hard and serious work by many brave people. If I had been offered this job 50 years ago, I didn’t think I could have stood on this podium and talked about being gay. I wouldn’t have been married then, either.”
I asked him some months later for an example of prejudice that he had experienced and did he think that prejudice had negatively affected his career. He said, “I can’t really answer that. It has to do with small situations, like everyday life, and there’s not anything that I want to bring up here that made a big difference. But it’s certainly something in attitudes, in eyes, yeah, that is quite clear that we still have some way to go for it to be – and I wonder if it would ever happen, really, because, obviously, people feel threatened by it. If I say I honestly love that person, why should it matter if it’s a male or female?
“But I have to tell you the way the Minnesota Orchestra received us and took care of Andreas has been extraordinary. We’ve never met anything like that. It was actually overwhelming, they way they just embraced us both.”
And, just for the record, the Danes really are the happiest people on the planet, as all those highly scientific surveys have been saying for decades. This Dane, at least, is convinced of it. “Looking at our history, we’ve done all our wars and we feel at peace with each other. We’re like brothers in Scandinavia,” he said.
The one extra necessity for Søndergård’s new life in Minneapolis – or a good part of his life, let’s say, since his basic home will remain Copenhagen – is, of course, a sauna. It’s not just the Finns. (Osmo Vänskä had one installed in his downtown condominium.) Søndergård goes the extra mile. He likes to dip into real cold water after all that heat. One of the five best experiences of his life, he claims, occurred when a chorus member at the Royal Opera invited him after a show to do something “you’ll never forget,” and as they approached the water, he knew what it was going to be. He said “No.” But the chorus singer persisted, and they did it. They went into the sauna and then dipped into the sea.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. “It’s the endorphins in the brain that are released, they say. To actually get heated up and then crack a hole in the ice and dip – not swim – dip in the water, get up, sit and look at the moon, if it’s up, or at the snow, is when you can’t think of anything else. It’s like a religious thing. Your thoughts are forced away. It’s like Zen. So, if I can find a place in Minneapolis or the Twin Cities or somewhere close by, a river, I would definitely do it. And the colder the better.”