The Minnesota Orchestra has named Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård its next music director.
A mid-career maestro with a well-rounded discography, Søndergård has been Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra since 2018. On visits to Orchestra Hall in December and April, his warmth and range have won praise from musicians and members alike. public.
From his first rehearsals with the Minnesota Orchestra, Søndergård could tell it was “a unified, wholesome ensemble,” eager to work together to create something new, he said in an interview Thursday.
“With this orchestra, the heart was at the center at the very beginning…” he says. “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,” said CEO and President Michelle Miller Burns. “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 internal work to become anti-racist was a big part of what attracted him, he said. “I’m very proud to be part of it.”
He will act as designate music director for the upcoming season before assuming his new role – and a five-year contract – in September 2023. A 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 each series of concerts, the committee surveyed the musicians.
Five finalists emerged, Baker said, “and that list was diverse by gender, by race, and also by other factors, including GLBT.”
Committee members flew out to see conductors perform elsewhere, chatted with musicians and read reviews. They weighed the breadth of their repertoire and their willingness to play new works.
Every conductor has their own style, so the orchestra never looked for “Osmo 2.0,” Baker said. But Vänskä maintained high standards, he said, that musicians have come to expect.
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.
“There were people on our candidate list who were hired by others,” Baker acknowledged. “They were excellent, I say, and we had great respect for them.
“But we didn’t think they were the best fit for our orchestra.”
Until recently, almost all the major orchestras in the country were led by white men. Minnesota is among the positions open nationwide to see if that might change. Just last week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced that it had chosen Jonathon Heyward, a 29-year-old African-American conductor, as its next musical director.
As a child, Søndergård studied percussion. But it had more to do with the fact that the best teacher in his town was a percussionist, he said.
Really, he had long been fascinated by the sound of an orchestra, the links 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 path with fellow Dane Carl Nielsen.
He made his Minnesota Orchestra debut in December, conducting Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” – “the best performance of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ I’ve ever been in,” said Doug Wright, principal trombone and board member of research. .
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 he returned, leading the orchestra in a program that included Debussy’s “La Mer”.
Earlier this year, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark awarded Søndergård with a royal order of chivalry. This summer, Søndergård married his longtime partner Andreas Landin, a Swedish baritone he met 23 years ago at the opera.
Classical music writer Rob Hubbard contributed to this report.
Born: Holstebro, Denmark
Home: Copenhagen, Denmark
Family: Husband Andreas Landin, a Swedish opera singer
Education: Royal Danish Academy of Music
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.
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