Thomas Søndergård

Author: Clemency Burton-Hill

Meet BBCNOW’s new Principal Conductor

You’ve recently been named Principal Conductor of BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Congratulations!
Thank you – it feels extraordinary. The RSNO already feels like a big family, and the opening of my relationship with BBCNOW, well, I can’t tell you when I last looked forward to something so much! I feel this relationship will be very special and I am really looking forward to it, and especially to touring in Wales. I think, on both sides, we are very happy about this appointment!

How do you think you’ll approach your first season – any thoughts on repertoire, for example?
It means a lot to me to get to know the orchestras better, and I’d like to explore a lot of English, Welsh, and Scottish music. I’d like to do something with them that makes it special, really makes it ours. To me it is so important to stand with one foot in where I am now; not only in the repertoire and history that we all know about. I want to have a foot in nowadays and to feel that I am of today. And it will be very important for me, in the first season, to make it really clear to the audience in Cardiff or Swansea or all over North and South Wales, that this relationship is full of joy for both of us; I want to show the audience how much we enjoy making music together and that hopefully they can follow and be part of that for at least the next four years.

What else is on the horizon?
I recently made my debut in Houston and in October I just made my debut with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, so there is a lot of US touring. I’m also conducting in Luxembourg; with the Oslo Philharmonic; at Stockholm Opera, in a Turandot with Nina Stemme that is really exciting; and very happily for me, this autumn I will be at home in Copenhagen doing Cunning Little Vixen at the opera house here.

You’ve conducted a lot of opera so far – is it important for you to keep maintaining a balance with the concert repertoire?
I have to do opera. I must do that. I practically grew up in an opera house; I remember sitting in the seats when I was very young, these old beautiful red seats, with the smell of history in the whole building, and thinking: I must do everything I can to work in a place like this. I got into the Opera orchestra [as percussionist] when I was 18 and I just loved it. So, I must have opera on the side because it’s so much in my system!

Do you think it also complements your symphonic/concert work?
Yes, I think it adds something both musically and technically to the job of being an orchestral conductor. Keeping control of both stage and pit is really tricky, so it is a bit like, once you’ve done it, you can use something from that experience with concert repertoire. Some of the technical things almost become a little easier.

Are there particular musical periods or composers you feel most drawn to or are you pretty much open to everything?
I’m open to everything, but it goes in phases. For a while I was doing a lot of Vienna classical, now I’ve turned more to the high romantic period, I’m completely into Strauss, for example, and Mahler – of course. Szymanowski I love dearly and am doing a lot of in the next few years; plus, I adore Sibelius. His music has followed me continually. And then, I am on and off with the music of our day but I will bump into things that I think: this is worth everything! Other pieces I sit with at my table and think, no, I’m not sure, I don’t think the audience will enjoy this – and then often I am wrong, and that’s wonderful.

How do you approach learning a new work?
Sometimes I find inspiration from the composer’s other work, so I will listen not to the piece I am learning but to other things he wrote. I’m very glad I live in a time when it’s easy for me to get CDs or listen online. Sometimes I will go to the piano. Other times I will sit in silence with the score at my desk.

You were an orchestral percussionist. Did you always want to be a conductor?
When I was a kid I read musical scores like books – I never read the books everyone else at school was reading! And when I was at college, I saw a poster advertising the European Community Youth Orchestra, as it was called then. I saw Claudio Abbado’s name; they were doing Gurrelieder – that inspired me to audition the following year. And without a doubt it was the best decision I ever made. Abbado, Haitink, Mehta, Giulini, Ashkenazy – these are the people who really inspired me, not only to keep being a musician, but to become a conductor. I think I always wanted to do something deeper than just playing and I was so fascinated by the process of rehearsing – of how they got to where they got to. But really I should say, the biggest inspiration for me has been Paavo Berglund…

Why Berglund?
He was so passionate about what he was doing. I travelled all over to see him rehearse; I would just suck everything out that I could learn from him. I went to Germany to see him rehearse the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for example and he was so clear in what he wanted. He had such an insight and that inspired me, incredibly. He spoke about Sibelius’ music in such a way that they became the biggest scores ever written. The things he said about music, I’ve carried along ever since. I can’t remember conducting a rehearsal and not mentioning him!

Music aside, what are your greatest inspirations?
It probably sounds stupid, but my inspirations come from enjoying the many things I experience with people around me. I had a pretty tough youth and now I have got to the other side. Perhaps because of that I really enjoy communication with other people; I love to get to know other people and cultures – artists, actors, painters, sculptors. For me it is all about contact and love – and that inspires me so much. If anything, music is a mirror of that. Then of course I also have much more concrete inspirations – for example, to dip into the sea in winter here in Denmark, that freshens me up in different way! Also I love food, wine, paintings, sculpture. I have many friends who are interested in those sorts of things and shake their head in confusion at my classical music. That’s good!

What about other forms of music? Do you listen to much outside of the classical repertoire?
I am so glad you asked that: yes, absolutely! Modern jazz – in particular Wynton Marsalis. I love his way of playing, and the way he has developed as a musician. And people like Stevie Wonder I have loved ever since I was younger. I was born in’ 69 so I am really of the late ‘70s, ‘80s generation in pop music. However, it is not something I put on all the time. Part of the joy for me in making music is the silence. Often when I go home, I simply have to have silence.

Where’s home?
Here in Copenhagen. Right now, I’m back for a day; it becomes more and more the case that I spend just a day or so at home and then I’m off again – but that’s all part of the job. I’m lucky, most of the time it doesn’t disturb me or my relationships too much and I’ve been so happy to get productions here in Denmark – especially opera, which takes much more time than a concert, of course. I am looking forward to spending more time in the UK with BBC NOW, but Copenhagen will stay home for the time being, I think. It’s my favourite city of all the cities I’ve ever seen, and it’ll take a lot for me to leave here!

Click here to watch the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ latest TV trailer, introducing new Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård

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