Meet Thomas Dausgaard, the Seattle Symphony’s New Music Director

Photo: Karya Schanilec

With joy and enthusiasm, Thomas Dausgaard starts his journey as the Seattle Symphony’s new music director in the 2019–20 season.

By Andrew Stiefel

Thomas Dausgaard brings a special energy to the stage every time he conducts. His joy and love for the music are contagious: with Thomas at the podium, you simply cannot leave Benaroya Hall without being moved.

For Thomas, Seattle has long been a home away from his native Denmark. As the Symphony’s Principal Guest Conductor since 2014, together Thomas and the orchestra have achieved international acclaim with their recordings of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and Nielsen’s Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4.

But, in so many ways, we’ve only seen a glimpse of Thomas’ musical interests.

Through close working relationships with many of the leading orchestras in Europe, Thomas has established an international reputation for his creativity and innovation in programming. He is currently Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, having previously served as Chief Conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.

So, ahead of his first season, we wanted to learn more about Thomas and his vision for the years ahead.

Thomas Dausgaard conducting the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall. (Photo: Brandon Patoc)

What can we expect in your first season as music director?

This season is an invitation into my world, into some of the music which changed my life — music close to my heart and which has played a continuous role in my musical life. I find it very inspiring to think that we as an orchestra are a source of life and vitality for the community, offering spiritual experiences which inspire on many levels, with each program expressing something about who we are and where we are going together.

This season marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. You’ve taken the celebration a step farther by commissioning a series of new works. Could you share a bit about your vision for the festival?

I am always drawn to an element of context, so rethinking how to celebrate the humanist ideals of Beethoven in a way which meaningfully involves communities in Seattle is incredibly stimulating, like creating a completely new context.

In his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven sets to music the text by Schiller with the famous line that “we shall all be brothers.” Our celebration of his 250th anniversary has inspired us to present his music in the context of his brothers and sisters here in the United States, and, in particular, Seattle. Sharing the stage with us will be members of regional native tribes, an ensemble performing on Harry Partch’s unique instruments, a youth chorus, and Seth Parker Woods in new works composed by Tyshawn Sorey, Janice Gitek, Chuck Corey and Angelique Poteat.

Beethoven’s music played a pivotal role in your musical journey. Could you share that story with us?

Beethoven was my gateway to classical music. When I was about 10 I formed a rock band together with three other boys. We were writing our own songs, performing them, and had been taken under the wings of one of the leading rock bands in Denmark. I loved it. But when I first heard Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata about a year later there was no way back.

The rock band disbanded and I reveled in Beethoven, listening to and playing all I could get hold of. I feel a connection to his music, and in some way I felt understood through it. And it opened my ears to all those composers who had inspired him — and to those he inspired afterwards. His music had an elemental force, it was larger than life, and it had a humanity and warmth. I couldn’t imagine a life without it.

So how did you go from playing in a rock band to conducting orchestras?

What got me started in conducting was the urge to hear what I had composed. As soon as I could sit in a chair, I sat next to my father while he played the piano, improvising to his jazz playing. When I later cracked the code for musical notation, I began writing down the ideas I wanted to keep, and eventually they developed into longer works, some of them for orchestra.

The first piece I conducted was an overture for orchestra I had written for a multimedia show at my high school. We were short of rehearsal spaces and ended up one day rehearsing outdoors on the football field. As I didn’t enjoy playing football very much, this was the best day for me on that field!

Following that I got a small orchestra together in my family’s living room to play Haydn’s Cello Concerto with my cello teacher. Lots of tea, hygge and fun. And it whetted my appetite for more.

Thomas Dausgaard in rehearsal with Principal Timpani James Benoit, left, and Principal Flute Demarre McGill, center. (Photo: Brandon Patoc)

So what inspired you to make a life in music?

I had an urge to explore all kinds of things to do with music and studying at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen helped me grow up and focus on what I enjoyed the most, conducting orchestra. I realized I had a fire burning inside, making me kind of addicted to the experience.

You’ve spoken in the past about your fascination with discovering the roots of inspiration for composers. This year you’ve planned an exploration of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Could you share a little about this concert?

Planning this program, and discovering Stravinsky’s possible inspiration from folk music, has been just hair-raisingly fascinating and fun! In this program we explore ecstasy by two Russian composers partly living at the same time, but each exploring into the extreme their own — and very different — musical languages.

Both works have drawn me to them like a magnet: Scriabin’s like a musical hallucination of fantasy and repetition, and Stravinsky’s a series of dances accumulating tension released by the final ritual of a girl dancing herself to death. It has its inspiration in stories of ancient rituals and in traditional folk music which Stravinsky immersed himself in while composing it. We’ll share the stage with folk musicians and singers to explore what inspired Stravinsky.

You’ve had success conducting music by Carl Nielsen with the Seattle Symphony, most recently as a Grammy nomination for his Third and Fourth Symphonies. You have a personal connection to Nielsen, correct?

My grandmother knew him, because when she studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, he taught her and her best friend, who later became my piano teacher. So I heard about Nielsen from as early as I can remember.

In one of the first concerts I went to (I was probably 10 or 11), the program opened with Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture. It opened the concert in the most sparkling and upbeat way and I fell in love with it.

Later on, while studying conducting at the Royal College of Music in London, I went to a concert with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra where they performed it as an encore. Having been away from his music for awhile, I was blown away by hearing it again and I realized I had a deep connection with his musical language — the humor, affirmation of life and joy shining in this miniature work was simply part of me.

I’ll open our season with the Overture as a greeting from my country and my musical background.

 When you're not in rehearsal or concerts, what do you enjoy doing?

A poet once said that for a man to be happy he needs a beautiful garden, a good library and a wonderful partner. I am happy and agree! Together my wife and I are privileged to have three children, and my greatest joy is to be with my family and friends.

In Seattle I am lucky to have very good old friends, and as I love going on the ferries, luckily some of them live on Bainbridge Island. I love the way nature interacts with the city of Seattle; you are never far from the water, and that means space, where you can feel the elements and the changes of light. I don’t think a day passes without me taking pictures of the sky, the changing colors of Puget Sound or the mountains!

I love being outside cities in a place where the night sky is lit by stars or a bonfire. I love being in nature, leaning on a tree, sitting in a kayak. And I love silence — then sound can have a greater impact.

Be part of Thomas Dausgaard’s inaugural season! Subscriptions are available online or by calling the Ticket Office at 206.215.4747.


Posted on February 21, 2019