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A Q&A with Thomas Søndergård as he formally steps into Orchestra Hall

“I felt I could make a journey with these musicians that would make a big difference in my life, and my devotion in my life is music. So I have no time to waste.”

Thomas Søndergård
Thomas Søndergård: “So little by little, I found out that I had good ears and I had something to say, and it clearly made a difference to the musicians. The idea just grew, and more people just wanted me to be part of that process.”
Photo by Chris McDuffie

Thomas Søndergård’s journey with the Minnesota Orchestra began in earnest last weekend with a divine season opener, and continues this week with a concert that highlights a specialty of Søndergård: working with voices.

He earned early praise in his career when he conducted Royal Danish Opera’s production of Poul Ruder’s “Kafka’s Trial,” in 2005. “The orchestra played brilliantly for the dynamic conductor Thomas Sondergard… eliciting a rhapsodic, supple and engrossing account of the score,” wrote a review in the New York Times.

More recently, he led the same group in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” and was lauded for his production of Strauss’ “Electra” at the Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen. “[Søndergård] elicited playing of staggering accuracy, both in tuning and in rhythm, from his orchestra and they responded to him as one,” wrote one reviewer. “The sheer amplitude of the sound they produced was massive, yet [Søndergård] always allowed his singers through.”

Minnesotans will get a taste of this side of Søndergård’s talents as the Minnesota Orchestra is joined by the Minnesota Chorale for a rendition of Maurice Ravel’s ballet, “Daphnis and Chloe.” In the original version, the chorus sings off-stage, but as this performance won’t include dancers, the choir will join the instrumentalists on stage. The orchestra will also perform works by Lera Auerbach, Claude Debussy and Samuel Barber.

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The dapper and humble new music director talks about the Minnesota Orchestra like a new relationship, one full of possibilities. And while we share him with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and also Denmark, where he makes his home (though he’s thinking about moving to Sweden) (he also guest conducts all over the globe), it’s safe to say there’s plenty to look forward to in the years to come as the soft-spoken Søndergård continues to find his groove with the Minnesota Orchestra musicians.

Here’s a Q & A I did with Søndergård over Zoom about voices, listening and more. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sheila Regan: Did you always want to be a conductor or did that path reveal itself later in your career as a percussionist?

Thomas Søndergård:  It only came to me later. To begin with, I fell in love with music when my mother sang for me. She had a very beautiful voice. Then I saw a marching band when I was a kid, so immediately music just connected with me.

We have a thing in Denmark, it’s when you’re 11 or 12, you can explore for a week anywhere. I arranged that I could take the train to the Royal Danish Theatre. I’d been following one of the musicians for a week. And there I just knew. I sat in a seat at the theater there, and I thought I really would like to play in a theater in that pit.

I wanted to get deeper into the music. I saw the relation between the leader of the project — the conductor — and the musicians. The older you get, you start to analyze what works and what doesn’t work. And in a way you don’t think of it as a leader, you just think of it as someone that inspires the whole project to go somewhere different.

I was very just devoted to the music. And that’s why I started conducting in the small terms. I asked my friends if they needed a conductor for chamber music. So little by little, I found out that I had good ears and I had something to say, and it clearly made a difference to the musicians. The idea just grew, and more people just wanted me to be part of that process. And before I noticed, I was assistant conductor at the Royal Danish Opera. The music director there asked me to assist him. He then found that he had so much to do around that time, and my assisting job went so well in the rehearsal room, he went to the director and the whole opera team, and asked if it was OK that he gave the opera to me. And that kicked everything off. Then my career really started.

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SR: When you say you have to have good ears, what does that mean?

TS: It’s a very good question, because that’s the most important thing of any conductor’s development. Our job in my view, mainly, is to listen. I’ve gone through the period now as a young conductor, and analyzed my way through how this could work the best. And I can tell you that the ears, in the beginning, is the organ that you are the least focused and aware of.

SR: What do you think made your interpretation of “Kafka’s Trial” with the Royal Danish Opera so successful? What makes you good at opera and conducting opera?

TS: There are singers that like to work with me maybe because they feel that I do listen to the way that they have to breathe. The voice is deep in me since my mother sang for me. I never sang in a chorus. And that’s one of my big wishes within the next five years — I’d like to sing in a chorus, not, of course, like a full member, but for a project. I’d like to have that feeling and know what it feels like. The voice has just always been following me. I’m married to a baritone, so he sings and we talk about the voice.

I work in an opera house once a year. I love to engage vocal solos for my concerts. It’s maybe the instrument that has the most character. Apart from oboe, I would say.

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SR: What are some of the challenges of working with voices?

TS: The challenges without any doubt is that they are far more vulnerable for illnesses. They are so vulnerable for weather and infections. So I don’t know how many times I’ve worked right up to the premiere, and then they have to cancel, and we need to find another singer to step in.

But also, their instrument is inside them. It affects their voice if they don’t feel well in life. And it affects their voices if they’re torn apart with a director that they disagree with or find hard to find meaning in their character on stage, or not least, a conductor that makes life impossible for them.

SR: Is that knowledge that someone taught you? Is it something you learned as a conductor?

TS: It’s a combination of it all, like anything in life. It’s observations through life. If I insisted on really getting it right, I would get the musical part of it right and I would satisfy the composer in his or her grave, and they wouldn’t turn around, but it’s still just half of the job. I guess it’s also an experience from my own side. When I’ve been in the opera house myself, I can see that a character completely disappears out of their character for a technical reason — they’re staring at the conductor.

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SR: You’ll be performing Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.” What made you choose this piece and what’s your approach for working on it?

TS: It’s not that often that I do ballet music, but “Daphnis and Chloe” has always been one of my absolute favorite pieces. And when I did meet the Minnesota Orchestra for the first time, I immediately thought, I’d love to hear them play French music because there’s such a beauty in their awareness of sound, which can be taken to many different stages. There’s depth that they have. But there’s also this vulnerability in their sound.

SR: What do you enjoy about “Icarus” by Lera Auerbach?

TS: It’s a wonderful balanced piece of beauty and drama. In the piece, we use a termen [also called a theremin]. It’s so subtle. It’s an electronic instrument that was developed, I think, more or less when I was born.

It slides between the notes. The whole piece circles around this. It’s going to be really interesting to hear in the concert hall. It’s a piece that I’ve known for a long time, but this will be the first time I hear it in the concert hall myself.

SR: Anything you might say about the rest of the program?

TS: For me, it’s just been really important in the first two weeks that we connect well together. Strauss was the composer of where we fell in love. And it happened to be maybe just a feeling that I had, that they would do that incredibly well.

SR: What do you think happened? What was the spark?

TS: When you meet a person for the first time, and you just think — there was something there. It was the way we looked at each other. It was a way that we made room for each other’s comments, interacted, had no problem in saying things directly. That we could feel instantly that there was space for that. I felt that they were so interested in the way that I made music so I immediately reversed that because I do want to hear what comes from them. And if they can hear and see that there’s a leader that they respect, I think it’s easier for them to say, let’s try and engage him to be responsible for the development of the ensemble.

I felt I could make a journey with these musicians that would make a big difference in my life, and my devotion in my life is music. So I have no time to waste. I really do not. And immediately I felt that there were characters and skills, that would click with mine.

SR: What’s one thing about yourself that would surprise people?

TS: I like to dive into the cool sea in winter. People can’t understand that.

SR: There are people that do that here in Minneapolis.

TS: And you have to connect me with those because I want to find those places.

Søndergård, Debussy and Ravel performs Thursday, Sept. 28, at 11 a.m., Friday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. ($30-74). More information here.

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