Thomas Søndergård poised to take the helm at the Minnesota Orchestra

An affinity with an orchestra can be felt in a matter of hours, Danish maestro Thomas Søndergård believes. “It’s little bit like sitting on the sofa next to someone.”

Martin Bubandt

Four years after Thomas Søndergård debuted as a guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he is returning with an important new title. In July, the Minnesota Orchestra announced the Danish maestro would take over as its music director beginning in 2023-24. He will replace Osmo Vänskä, who held the position for 19 years, while building a tight relationship with the musicians and gaining heightened international attention for an already respected ensemble. 

Søndergård, 53, first led the Minnesota Orchestra in December 2021, and he felt an immediate connection with the group. “Out of the 70-80 different ensembles that I have now worked with,” he said, “it’s been rare for me to be met with that kind of enthusiasm and eagerness. Wonderful, skilled orchestra — really listening to each other.”

At the same time, he said, because the ensemble was on the lookout for a new music director, the musicians were eager to show what they could do for a perspective candidate. 

As happened in that case, he said, an affinity with an orchestra can be felt in a matter of hours. “It’s little bit like sitting on the sofa next to someone,” he said, “and you have an immediate feeling that somehow you have known each longer than you have.” It helped that he clicked almost immediately with some of the musicians in the ensemble’s key positions. “For example, he said, “the concertmaster  [Erin Keefe] is among the best I’ve worked with,” he said. “She’s incredible. And that’s a really important for a conductor to have that connection to someone as close as that.” 

Søndergård called the Minnesota Orchestra a “happy and organic ensemble,” and he attributed much of that harmony to Vänskä. The former music director invited Søndergård to his home during his December visit, and they discussed the orchestra. “At that point,” Søndergård said, “no one knew if I was going to be the next music director or not, but that shows to me also that he cares about who follows in his footsteps with the orchestra that he has worked so closely with over the years. When I met Osmo, I understood more the warmth and humanity and interest in collaboration that comes from the orchestra.”

“You have an immediate feeling that somehow you have known each longer than you have.” — Thomas Søndergård on his bond with the Minnesota Orchestra

Søndergård is planning to keep his music director post with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which he started in 2018 after six seasons as principal guest conductor. “There is something about the Scottish people,” he said, “that reminds me a lot of the Scandinavian mentality, maybe strongest in Denmark. The Vikings were not pleasant people, but there is something from that time that just clicks in — the humor and warmth.”

The conductor and his husband went on a tour of the Scottish Highlands several months ago and got to know more of the country, making a stop at Skibo Castle in the county of Sutherland, a massive former residence once owned by American industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

He led the Royal Scottish in back-to-back performances in early September at the BBC Proms in London that featured Scottish-Italian violinist Nicola Benedetti in Marsalis’ Violin Concerto. “Nicolas Benedetti and I have known each other for quite a while, and early on when we met,” he said, “I told her that one of my biggest musical idols was a jazz musician. And I asked her if she knew Wynton Marsalis and she said, ‘Yes, it happens that he is thinking of writing a violin concerto for me.’”

She asked Søndergård for some feedback on the work as it was being written, so he was able to keep abreast of its progress. Benedetti premiered the piece in 2015 with James Gaffigan and the London Symphony Orchestra. In an Evening Standard review following the first of the Royal Scottish’s two Proms concerts, music critic Nick Kimberley was enthusiastic about Marsalis’ creation and the performance. “He could not have asked for a more persuasive advocate than Benedetti,” the critic wrote of the composer. “And the RNSO players lacked nothing in swing in what amounted to an anthology of classical, jazz, blues and Scottish folk.”

In addition to his two significant orchestral posts, another mark of Søndergård’s rising stature is his flurry of debuts with an assortment of major American orchestras this season, including the Baltimore Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra and Cincinnati Symphony. “I actually make very sure that the first meeting, preferably from both sides, feels comfortable,” he said.

To that end, he is careful to program works that don’t appeal to his own ego but really make sense for a debut engagement. “That’s really important for me,” he said. “But also, I like doing things with an orchestra that they have not done too much of recently — that actually make them more curious about the new meeting, instead of doing another Tchaikovsky 5 they did with someone else on the podium two weeks ago.”

For his first program with the CSO, Søndergård led a small selection by Jean Sibelius: the Nocturne and Ballade from the Finnish composer’s incidental music for the play, King Christian II. For his return concerts Dec. 1-6, he wanted to do a more substantial composition, and that led to the choice of the conductor’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 (1901-02). At the same time, he wanted to work with the renowned Chicago Symphony Chorus, and to that end, he chose Igor Stravinsky’s 1930 choral symphony. “The Symphony of Psalms the last few years has been very close to my heart. I really love that piece,” he said.

He is a big fan of Stravinsky in general. “You can tell that he is a composer who sits at the piano and composes,” Søndergård said. “He’s looking for sounds, harmonies that trigger him. I’m very much the same. When I started at the academy and was asked to compose as part of my studies, that is what I did. I sat at the piano and found harmonies and sounds that I really loved, and I imagined what kind of instrumental section would play it. Then, a little bit like Prokofiev, I can hear and see that he’s [Stravinsky] a composer of the theater. He really writes for either the dancers or the singers. He’s very attached to combining music with theater, even if it is not necessarily going on the stage.”

Finally, Søndergård wanted to bring along a soloist that he enjoys working with, Francesco Piemontesi, who is making his CSO debut in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The Swiss pianist took third prize at the 2007 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels and was a BBC New Generation Artist in 2009-11. “It’s the way that we communicate musically without words, and, offstage, he is a very warm-hearted, interesting, funny guy,” he said. “I can’t remember how long we have known each other. I think it’s over 10 years. There is just something sometimes, it’s difficult to describe in words, but mainly it’s, of course, a musical link that we feel that we have.” 

“I thought with the Stravinsky and the lighter Beethoven concerto, that would go well in the first half,” Søndergård said of the program for his Chicago Symphony reunion. “Then return to some Scandinavian repertoire with them. I really look forward to that.”

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