How Thomas Søndergård became the new Minnesota Orchestra Music Director

16 people, four years, and a lot of listening resulted in the Danish designate.

WORDS BY Tiffany Lukk

In its nearly 120-year history, the Minnesota Orchestra has only had 10 Music Directors. As Osmo Vänskä—who served as Music Director for 19 years—planned his departure from the orchestra, the search began for the 11th Music Director Designate that could carry on the legacy of the orchestra.

“It’s an infrequent task, but it’s an important one,” said Doug Baker, head of the Search Committee and a member of the board of directors. “We’re trying to find someone to build on this organization’s 120-year storied history. We’re trying to find someone who can continue to build upon our already very strong international reputation. But just as importantly, find someone who’s also going to continue to build our engagement and our relevance in the local community.”

After Vänskä announced his retirement plans in 2018, the 16-person committee—consisting of five musicians, orchestra board members, senior staff members and members of the community—was created. They determined the qualities that they wanted the next Music Director to have: artistic excellence, a commitment to diversity, a collaborative vibe, and an unblemished record.

“Let’s say the background checks were very boring,” Baker joked about the music director they ultimately chose.

Starting with a pool of more than 50 conductors worldwide, the committee invited many to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra at least once, and visited various cities to see the conductors perform with other orchestras. The four-year endeavor concluded with a unanimous choice: Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård.

For the ‘22-’23 season, Søndergård will serve as music director designate, and will officially start as music director in September 2023. He’s currently music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), of which he was a guest conductor for six years. He’ll continue that role alongside his time with the Minnesota Orchestra. Prior to the RSNO, he served as principal conductor and musical advisor to the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Additionally, he’s led orchestras across the world including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and the Gewandhaus Orchestra; conducted multiple operas; and has appeared on a range of musical recordings. But this only scratches the surface of Søndergård’s accomplishments.

From Denmark to Minnesota

Søndergård had a monumental start with the Minnesota Orchestra. In December of last year, he conducted the orchestra in Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for Orchestra, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.

“[Ein Heldenleben] is this big, huge piece of music—it’s got extra brass, it’s got its full stage, lots percussion, lots of brass, big strings, lots of winds,” says R. Douglas Wright, one of the Search Committee members, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal trombone, and a performer in an Aerosmith music video during MTV’s 10-year anniversary. “It’s all hands on deck for that. And he showed up and almost immediately, you could sense this sort of trust—he trusted the orchestra to kind of take care of its role in things and he met us where we were.

“He had his own opinions, obviously, of how the piece should go—and he had a very musical approach to it,” he continues. “But he also didn’t try to dominate, he didn’t try to force a square peg into a round hole, he found where we were, and then just joined us in a kind of a dance.”

During the search for a new Music Director, the musicians were asked to fill out a survey about their guest conductors. After Søndergård’s first performance with the orchestra, Wright says that there was a lot of positive energy, and that Søndergård received high scores.

The feeling was mutual. “After my first rehearsal in Minnesota I remember thinking that it was one of the best experiences that I have ever had in a first meeting with an orchestra,” Søndergård said in a statement. “There is a warmth, an openness, and a cooperative spirit among the musicians that fits very well into the way that I like to make music.”

To ensure that his excellence was consistent, the committee invited him back in April of this year to conduct an entirely different set of repertoire: Debussy’s La Mer and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements.

“He came out with flying colors the second time through. In fact, it was even better than the first time by all indications,” Wright says. “So yep, that was it.”

The future of the Orchestra

Søndergård’s five-year contract will have him conduct 12-15 weeks of concerts per year to ensure a consistent presence. As music director, he’ll shape the artistic vision of the orchestra, develop items such as programming and touring, help choose new musicians for the Orchestra, and serve as the face of the organization.

One of the qualities the committee looked for in a candidate was a commitment to diversity. During his welcome event, Søndergård reaffirmed his commitment to continuing the Orchestra’s work of making programs that make the audience consider what they can do to help solve issues involving gender, race, and prejudice. The Orchestra members believe he’ll continue to expand the diversity of the organization and its audience.

“He has said, being a gay man himself, he has felt like he has been an outcast from time to time,” Wright says. “I think he is sensitive to other outcasts or people who have felt sort of marginalized. And I think he wants to address that and try to bring as many, many folks into the hall as he possibly can. And if that means we gotta go out and find them, play in their neighborhoods, wherever that is, I think that he’s up for it.”

The stage is set for an amazing debut as music director designate for Søndergård. His first performance as such will be this October where he’ll conduct Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Lili Boulanger’s Of a Spring Morning, and Ravel’s Mother Goose.

“This is an organization with a long and wonderful history, and I’m honored to now be part of its future,” Søndergård said in a statement. “I look forward to deepening my relationship with the broader community. My mind is full of possibilities for where we’ll start and what we’ll do together—I cannot wait to begin.”

Søndergård Conducts The Rite of Spring, Oct. 20-22
Orchestra Hall, 111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis

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