The Minnesota Orchestra has named Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård its next music director.
A mid-career maestro with a hefty discography, Søndergård leads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. During visits to Orchestra Hall in December and April, his warmth and range earned raves from musicians and audience members.
His first rehearsals with the Minnesota Orchestra were “just wonderful,” Søndergård said in an interview Thursday, because the musicians were so eager to communicate, to collaborate.
“With this orchestra, the heart was in 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 art can begin.”
The 52-year-old succeeds — and bears some resemblance to — Osmo Vänskä, a Finnish conductor who, at age 48, arrived in Minnesota by way of Scotland with a history of Sibelius recordings, a lively podium presence and unruly hair.
Following Vänskä’s 19-year tenure, Søndergård will become the 11th music director to lead the symphony orchestra in its 120-year history.
“He really had an attitude of drawing people in… like a big embrace,” 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 that he interacted with the orchestra.”
Søndergård takes charge of the orchestra’s musical direction at a key moment. The Minnesota Orchestra has been grappling with a series of record-breaking budget deficits that began even before the pandemic gutted its ticket income in 2020.
The organization also has been addressing classical music’s stubborn racial and gender disparities. Along with pledges 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 by two Black artists.
“[Søndergård] showed really a keen interest in Minnesota and the ways in which we are broadening our programming to include more diversity in composers, creators and artists,” Burns said in a statement.
“I’m gay myself,” Søndergård said, “so a lot of my life has had a great effect of not necessarily feeling included in society.” The organization’s work toward becoming anti-racist drew him in, he said. “I’m very proud of being a part of that.”
He will act as music director designate for the coming season before stepping into his new role — and a five-year contract — in September 2023. (His contract with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra continues through at least August 2024, so he’ll hold the two positions concurrently.)
A Minnesota Orchestra spokesperson declined to share his compensation. Vänskä made $870,000 in fiscal year 2020, according to the nonprofit’s most recent tax filing available.
Five finalists emerge
The search for this new maestro started nearly four years ago, in September 2018, and encountered major stalls because of COVID-19 cancellations.
“The No. 1 tool in evaluating the right fit for music director is guest conducting,” said Doug Baker, a board member and chair of the search committee. “Obviously, that demands there be concerts.”
The 16-person committee, which included five musicians, considered some 60 candidates, dozens of whom conducted the orchestra during that time — sometimes more than once. After 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 a few high-profile names Minnesota was considering.
“They were excellent, I’ll say that, and we had high respect for them,” Baker said. “But we didn’t believe 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 the conductors perform elsewhere, chatted with musicians and read reviews. They weighed the breadth of their repertoire and their interest in playing new works.
Søndergård emphasized picking music that connects the orchestra to its community: “What are they longing to hear? We want to surprise and seduce our audience.”
Symphony orchestras are “very aware of the core repertoire that many of our audience members would love to hear in the concert hall — and we’ll keep doing those works,” he said. But he’s interested in the musicians’ longings, too, including “works that have been neglected either because of gender or color.”
“We know there’s an audience there that would also come and listen to that.”
As a child, Søndergård studied percussion. But that was mostly because the best music teacher in town happened to be a percussionist, he said.
Really, he’d been forever fascinated by the sound an orchestra makes, by the connections between instruments.
“To explore how it’s all connected is, in other words, a conductor,” Søndergård said. In his 20s, while playing timpani with the Royal Danish Orchestra, he turned to conducting.
In 2005, he made his debut with the Royal Danish Opera, leading Poul Ruders’ new opera, “Kafka’s Trial.”
“The orchestra played brilliantly for the dynamic conductor Thomas Sondergard, the company’s music director,” a New York Times critic wrote, “who was also the hero of ‘Elektra,’ eliciting a rhapsodic, supple and engrossing account of the score.”
The ensemble recorded the opera on the Dacapo label in 2006, earning praise. Søndergård’s recordings also include Jean Sibelius symphonies and tone poems with BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He’s also known for his way with the music of fellow Dane, composer Carl Nielsen.
He first conducted the Minnesota Orchestra in December, leading Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” — “the best performance of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ that I’ve ever been a part of,” said Doug Wright, principal trombone and member of the search committee.
That piece can be “a bombastic mess” in the wrong conductor’s hands, Wright said. Søndergård “brought a deep knowledge and understanding of how the music should go. But at the same time, he left space for the musicians to share how they felt it should go as well.
“I felt like he had that rare ability to find that happy middle ground where it’s his interpretation but with space and trust for the orchestra.”
In April, Søndergård returned for a program that included Debussy’s “La Mer,” or “The Sea.”
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,” he joked.
The couple are based in Copenhagen but also have a summer home in “a wonderful preserved area where there are no other houses.”
He appreciates a swim in the sea and, like his predecessor, a steam in the sauna.
Classical music writer Rob Hubbard contributed to this report.
Born: Holstebro, Denmark
Home base: 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, “Kafka’s Trial,” with the Royal Danish Opera and Orchestra.
Poul Ruders Concertos with the Aarhus Symphony. (Gramophone Award nominee, 2011)
Bent Lorentzen Concertos with the Arhus Sinfonietta.
Rued Langgaard, Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Vol. 2, with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
Bent Sorensen Concertos with three major 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 BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Sibelius tone poems and theater music with BBC NOW.
Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” and Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier” with Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Honors: This year, the Queen of Denmark Margrethe II bestowed upon Søndergård a Royal Order of Chivalry.
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