Music Unleashed: In Conversation with Thomas Dausgaard

Seattle Symphony Music Director Thomas Dausgaard (Photo: Karya Schanilec)

As he enters his second season as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, Thomas Dausgaard reflects on music’s power to move us in the 2020–2021 season.

By Andrew Stiefel

From the suspended silence before the crash of applause at Benaroya Hall, it’s clear something special is happening in Seattle.

Last September marked the beginning of a new era at the Seattle Symphony with the arrival of Thomas Dausgaard as Music Director. Since then, Thomas and the orchestra have embarked on a thrilling first season together, earning standing ovations at Opening Night with Daniil Trifonov, reaching audiences around the world with a live broadcast of Mahler’s First Symphony, and performing to sold-out crowds for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

As Thomas’ artistic vision takes shape in Seattle, one theme stands apart: a deep, joyful fascination with creativity and how music connects us. His signature roots programming, which illuminates connections between composers and their contemporary musical traditions, continues in 2020–2021 with an exploration of Romani influences in Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Tan Dun’s visionary Buddha Passion.

In addition to major symphonic works by Berlioz, Mahler, Dvořák and Stravinsky, Thomas has filled the season with inspiring creative collaborations, inviting Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot back to the stage and appointing the brilliant Reena Esmail as Composer in Residence.

This will be your second season as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony. What's next for your collaboration with the orchestra?

I have been tremendously inspired by the fundamental openness and curiosity I’ve found in Seattle, which led the Seattle Symphony musicians to present the now famous Music Beyond Borders concert some seasons back.

The music this season will take us on a journey as we travel beyond our borders in an exchange with our neighbors on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I am excited that we are inviting a number of world class soloists from Asia to the Seattle Symphony stage: the prize-winning pianist Eric Lu, pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, pianist Nobuyuki Tsuji, sitar player Guarav Nazumdar and cellist Zlatomir Fung.

As musicians, we are privileged to exchange and share musical ideas from around our world, enriching the lives of those who listen to us, and empowering everyone to make the world a better place. This season is filled with many more cultural exchanges, from the juxtaposition of liturgical works by Beethoven and Tan Dun, to new commissions by Mexican composer Enrico Chapela and Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, Reena Esmail as Composer in Residence, and welcoming artists from musical traditions around the world.

I’m also excited to continue exploring the music of this country, including what is probably the first great American symphony, Amy Beach’s wonderful Gaelic Symphony from 1894, as well as the Seattle premiere of John Adams’ latest orchestral work, I Still Dance.

This season continues your exploration of the artistic roots of inspiration with a focus on Brahms. Could you describe the journey that you'll be taking audiences on with this project?

I love getting an impression of context for the works we perform. In the recent seasons we have explored contexts for the music of Stravinsky, Sibelius, Rachmaninov and others. Brahms was a lifelong fan of Hungarian Romani music and those musical traditions inspired him to even include a “Hungarian Dance” movement in his Fourth Symphony!

I’ve invited Roby Lakatos and his band to give us an authentic take on the Romani musical tradition, which is very much alive today. We will be performing a work by his grandfather. I think Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is going to sound different to us after that!

Could you share a bit about the two large liturgical works you have planned this season, starting with Beethoven’s Missa solemnis in November? What makes this work so powerful?

Beethoven himself considered this a milestone among his works as it sums up his religious and musical beliefs. He believes in God rather than in religious institutions, and the moments when this is felt the strongest is when the music is at its most sublime, like in the Benedictus — the angelic voice of a solo violin spinning an endless melody with soloists and chorus gently joining. The music is in some ways similar to the symphonies but on a much larger scale: everything is larger than life, as it should be!

The season culminates with Tan Dun's Buddha Passion, another major liturgical work, but from an unexpected perspective. Could you share a little of the story behind this work? What will we hear?

Passions are traditional Christian liturgical forms. Never before has a there been a Buddhist passion! Similar to our other roots programming, Tan Dun’s contemporary interpretation of the passion integrates indigenous performers and traditions from China, all of whom will share the stage with us at Benaroya Hall. The music weaves together chants, stories, and sounds into an oratorio of six individual short stories from Buddha’s life.

One of the most moving moments is when Buddha’s disciples ask him if he is God, which he declines. When asked “what are you then?” He responds “I am ... awake” and there is silence. The chorus intones “nirvana” before the final chorus builds up to an overwhelming finale.

The new season is all about music's power to inspire and move us. What are you hopes and aspirations for the season?

We’ll perform Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite together in February. The firebird is a mythological symbol, and in this fairy tale an enchanted feather from the firebird saves the world from evil. I like to think of our concerts as enchanted feathers making our world a better place. We offer a communal space to explore the magic of experiencing music together.

And you are lucky in Seattle to have such a great orchestra in town! The best musicians want to come and play with us and for you — they love the music-making in the orchestra, and they love you, the fantastically appreciative and inspiring community. Ultimately, we try to give you the best and trust that enchanted feathers will come your way.

Subscribe to the 2020–2021 season with Music Director Thomas Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony at or by calling the Ticket Office at 206.215.4747.

Explore the Season

Thomas Dausgaard’s performances sponsored by the Scan|Design Foundation by Inger and Jens Bruun.

Posted on February 20, 2020