Minnesota Orchestra appoints Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård as new music director

The Minnesota Orchestra has named Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård its next music director.

A mid-career maestro with an extensive discography, Søndergård conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. During visits to Orchestra Hall in December and April, its warmth and range won praise from musicians and audience members alike.

His first rehearsals with the Minnesota Orchestra were “just wonderful,” Søndergård said in an interview on Thursday, because the musicians were so eager to communicate, to collaborate.

“With this orchestra, the heart was at the center at the very beginning…”, he said. “It was so clear that they were vulnerable and so was I. And that’s where I think the art can start.”

The 52-year-old succeeds – and looks a bit like – Osmo Vänskä, a Finnish conductor who, at 48, arrived in Minnesota via Scotland with a history of Sibelius recordings, a lively presence on the catwalk and unruly hair.

After 19 years in Vänskä’s tenure, Søndergård will become the 11th music director to lead the symphony orchestra in its 120-year history.

“He really used to pull people in…like a big hug,” CEO and President Michelle Miller Burns said of Søndergård’s visits to Minnesota. “I felt that both in conversing with him and in all the ways he interacted with the orchestra.”

Søndergård takes over the musical direction of the orchestra at a key moment. The Minnesota Orchestra is grappling with a series of record budget deficits that began even before the pandemic drained its ticket revenue in 2020.

The organization has also tackled enduring racial and gender disparities in classical music. Along with promises to play more composers of color more often, the Minnesota Orchestra announced this year that it had commissioned a major composition for orchestra and choir from two black artists.

“[Søndergård] has shown a keen interest in Minnesota and how we are expanding our programming to include a greater diversity of composers, creators and artists,” Burns said in a statement.

“I’m gay myself,” Søndergård said, “so a lot of my life has had the effect of not necessarily feeling included in society.” The organization’s work to become anti-racist appealed to him, he said. “I’m very proud to be part of it.”

He will act as Designated Music Director for the coming season before entering his new role – and a five-year contract – in September 2023. (His contract with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra runs until at least August 2024, so it will hold both positions simultaneously.)

A Minnesota Orchestra spokesperson declined to share his compensation. Vänskä earned $870,000 in fiscal 2020, according to the nonprofit’s latest available tax return.

Five finalists come out

The search for this new maestro began almost four years ago, in September 2018, and ran into major blockages due to COVID-19 cancellations.

“The No. 1 tool for assessing the ideal candidate for a music director is guest direction,” said Doug Baker, board member and search committee chair. “Obviously that requires there to be concerts.”

The 16-person committee, which included five musicians, considered around 60 applicants, dozens of whom have conducted the orchestra during this period – sometimes more than once. After the concerts, the committee surveyed the musicians.

During the search, a handful of major orchestras, from Houston to Atlanta, announced their own new music directors — including some high-profile names Minnesota was considering.

“They were excellent, I will say that, and we had great respect for them,” Baker said. “But we didn’t think they were the best fit for our orchestra.”

Five finalists emerged, Baker said, “and that list was diverse by gender, by race, and also by other factors, including GLBT.”

Committee members watched conductors perform elsewhere, spoke with musicians, and read reviews. They weighed the breadth of their repertoire and their interest in playing new works.

Søndergård emphasized selecting music that connects the orchestra to its community: “What do they want to hear? We want to surprise and delight our audience.”

Symphony orchestras are “very aware of the core repertoire that many of our audiences would like to hear in the concert hall – and we will continue to do these works”, he said. But Søndergård is also interested in musicians’ desires, including “works that have been overlooked because of their gender or color”.

“We know there’s an audience out there who would come and listen to this as well.”

Musical debut

As a child, Søndergård studied percussion. But that was mostly because the best music teacher in town was a percussionist, he said.

Really, he had always been fascinated by the sound of an orchestra, by the connections between the instruments.

“Exploring how everything is connected is, in other words, a conductor,” Søndergård said. In his twenties, while playing timpani with the Royal Danish Orchestra, he turned to conducting.

In 2005 he made his debut with the Royal Danish Opera, conducting Poul Ruders’ new opera, “Kafka’s Trial”.

“The orchestra performed brilliantly for dynamic conductor Thomas Sondergard, the company’s musical director,” wrote a New York Times reviewer, “who was also the hero of ‘Elektra,’ prompting a rhapsodic narrative , supple and captivating of the score.”

The ensemble recorded the opera on the Dacapo label in 2006, winning acclaim. Søndergård’s recordings also include symphonies and symphonic poems by Jean Sibelius with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He is also known for his journey with the music of fellow Danish composer Carl Nielsen.

He conducted the Minnesota Orchestra for the first time in December, conducting Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem ‘Ein Heldenleben’ – “the best performance of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ I have ever been in”, said Doug Wright , principal trombone and member of the research committee.

This piece can be “an explosive mess” in the hands of the wrong conductor, Wright said. Søndergård “brought in-depth knowledge and understanding of how the music should go. But at the same time he left space for musicians to share how they thought it should go, too.

“I felt like he had this rare ability to find that happy middle ground where it’s his interpretation but with space and confidence for the orchestra.”

In April, Søndergård returned for a program that included Debussy’s “La Mer” or “La Mer”.

This summer, Søndergård married his longtime partner Andreas Landin, a Swedish baritone he met at the opera 23 years ago. “I knew what I was saying yes to,” Søndergård joked.

The couple are based in Copenhagen but also have a summer home in “a wonderful unspoilt area where there are no other homes”.

He enjoys swimming in the sea and, like his predecessor, steam baths in the sauna.

Classical music writer Rob Hubbard contributed to this report.

Thomas Sondergaard

Born: Holstebro, Denmark

Home: Copenhagen, Denmark

Family: Husband Andreas Landin, a Swedish opera singer

Education: Royal Danish Academy of Music

Instrument: timpani

Career: Principal Conductor, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, 2009-12; Principal Conductor, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, 2012-18; principal guest conductor, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, 2012-17; Principal Conductor, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, 2018-24.

Recordings: Poul Ruders’ opera, “The Trial of Kafka”, with the Royal Danish Opera and Orchestra.
Concertos by Poul Ruders with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra. (Gramophone Award nominee, 2011)
Concertos by Bent Lorentzen with the Arhus Sinfonietta.
Rued Langgaard, Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Vol. 2, with the National Symphony Orchestra of Denmark.
Bent Sorensen Concertos with three great Scandinavian soloists (pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, clarinetist Martin Fröst and trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth), the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
Sibelius Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 6 and 7 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Sibelius sings poetry and theater music with BBC NOW.
“Ein Heldenleben” and Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Honours: This year, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark awarded Søndergård with a Royal Order of Chivalry.

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