Seattle’s Maestro Designate Intends To Stir Repertoire

Thomas Dausgaard, seen here leading the Seattle Symphony, will succeed Ludovic Morlot as music director in 2019.
(Photo courtesy Seattle Symphony)

INTERVIEW — 2017 has been a year of upheaval for the Seattle Symphony. First, on April 21, the orchestra announced that music director Ludovic Morlot, under whose baton the ensemble garnered three Grammys, explored significant new repertoire, and refined its sound, would relinquish his post in 2019 after eight seasons. Not even associate conductor Pablo Rus Broseta knew that Morlot had decided to pursue other paths until right before the official announcement.

And on Nov. 16, the orchestra announced that in January, president and chief executive officer Simon Woods will leave to become CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Given that Morlot and Woods both arrived in 2011, and together birthed a host of innovative music programs the prestigious Seattle Symphony Media label, and several notable community outreach programs news of their combined departures was stunning.

Dausgaard also has posts with the Swedish Chamber and Danish National Orchestras.
(Thomas Grøndahl)

But meantime came happier news for Seattle concertgoers: On Oct. 3, the orchestra announced that principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard, who assumed his post in 2014, would begin a four-year contract as music director of the Seattle Symphony upon Morlot’s departure. Dausgaard, who first visited Seattle in 2003 to conduct Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, most recently made waves with his superb Seattle Symphony recording of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

Respected as a superb musician with a winning presence, the Copenhagen-based Dausgaard is chief conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, honorary conductor of the Orchestra della Toscana (ORT), and honorary conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, His discography includes well over 70 recordings, and will gradually swell with a complete Brahms cycle and an ongoing Bach Reborn project with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra that combines Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with six newly commissioned companion works.

Dausgaard’s first love “was and is Beethoven.” (Grøndahl)

Given Dausgaard’s schedule, pinning him down for an interview took weeks. When our FaceTime one-on-one finally happened, his relaxed, dynamic, extremely charming, and reassuring manner helped explain why Seattle holds him in such warm regard. Here are highlights of our 45-minute chat:

What do you feel about the personality of the Seattle Symphony?

The musicians have a strong sense of curiosity, hunger, and team playing, as well as an open-mindedness and daring risk-taking in the moment. Every time I work with them, our mutual understanding gets better. I’m really excited that we will spend more time together and have time to develop and refine our common language. Ultimately, we have to play as though Beethoven would have loved what we do, and a composer whose ink has just dried will love what we do.

Ludovic Morlot focused on gaps in the repertoire that Seattle Symphony had not performed or recorded – Ives and Stravinsky, for example – and a host of French composers. What do you expect to do?

A Seattle-Dausgaard Nielsen cycle is underway.

I’m privileged to be in ongoing dialogue with the orchestra’s artistic team, because we want to get the dosage right. What we’ve launched so far is a cycle of the symphonies by my fellow countryman, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). The first CD of Symphonies No. 3 and 4 is just out [on the orchestra’s label]. In my country, these symphonies are the most performed musical works – my country’s strongest symphonic card. But even though I have been music director of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, we have never gotten down to recording them. I’ve recorded other things by Nielsen, but I’ve wanted to wait for the right moment. And here we are.

When we played No. 4 a year or two ago in Seattle, the orchestra owned it. It was so striking the way it went down with them. We hadn’t planned on a recording, but it went so well that we decided to jump. Next season, you will hear No. 2, and the rest over the following seasons.

Dausgaard is keen on Langgaard, “sort of the Danish Charles Ives.”

There is a real genius who was a wunderkind in Denmark a generation or two after Nielsen, Rued Langgaard (1893-1952), whose symphonies and opera I have recorded in Denmark. There is a particular piece for chorus and orchestra called Music of the Spheres which I’m very keen that we should perform. Langgaard is sort of the Danish Charles Ives in terms of freedom of imagination.

What else can you share about future repertoire?

Nothing has been decided yet, but Beethoven does have a big jubilee in 2020, during my first season. My first love of music was and is Beethoven. It’s a very important part of my musical life. This week I’m doing Missa Solemnis with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. I think it’s fantastic that there’s a very good reason for doing Beethoven in my first year.

I’m also curious about American music, a lot of which I love. We don’t get a chance to play it nearly often enough in Europe. I’m keen to find new voices in American music, and I want to explore them over the next years. Just these months, I’m working with two (Americans) in the Brandenburg Project, Steven Mackey and Uri Caine. [Tour dates for these performances with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra include Madrid, Potsdam, Budapest and Heidelberg. Click here for details.]

I was a student in the last couple of years of Bernstein’s life, and I watched him conduct some of his own music, including the Songfest, which I’ve only heard live in his own performances. His works inspire me, not just because he was a great musician, but also because his way with the words was so very special. I want to do more of his music than I have a chance to do in Europe.

Dausgaard has worked with Scottish composer Helen Grime.

I’m also very fascinated with Charles Ives, of course. Such an original voice, such a daring human being. I was very fond of Steven Stucky, who passed away (in 2016), and Kirchner (1919-2009), whose music I conducted with the Boston Symphony when I was assistant there.

In Europe, we’re working with Anna Clyne (b. 1980), Scottish composers William Sweeney (b. 1950) and Jay Capperauld (b. 1989), Sally Beamish (b. 1956) and Helen Grime (b. 1981).  Helen wrote two pieces for us inspired by a painter called Joan Eardley, one of which we took to Seattle last season. But I don’t want to copy what we’re doing in Europe, so I have to find voices of our own here. I’m curious all the time, and suggestions are very welcome.

There is virtually no art song in Seattle except when Seattle Symphony programs it. Can we expect more from you?

Choral and vocal music is very close to my heart. But in terms of opera, I have a family with three kids. Because it works best to not be away too long, opera is something I’ve mostly done in concerts, where my focus has been on the concentrated effort of a week. I see great possibilities, not least from my part of the world, Scandinavia, which I’m very keen to bring onstage here.

What else about your vision for this orchestra would you like to share?

The role of a symphony orchestra in America is significantly different than the role of orchestras in Europe. In Europe, we will often have many orchestras in one city, and we’ll be sharing the responsibility as each goes off in various directions. But here, we have it all on our shoulders. That’s scary, but I’m really excited about the challenge to play a more prominent role in a society where there is a platform and possibility to make a difference.

Dausgaard’s ideal is to nurture an audience open to surprises. (Seattle Symphony)

We need to keep thinking about finding ways where we are indispensable to the people around us. How do we make it relevant to people growing up today, so that children can have a hands-on experience together with us? It isn’t good enough to just bring in children to passively listen; you want to engage with them, and you want them to experience a little bit of that fantastic joy we can have – that incredible concentration where we are taken into another realm.

We’re used to announcing programs well in advance, and to speaking as though there’s just one main piece on the program, and a few other things happen to be going on as well. This is very detrimental to the idea of the concert being a total experience, and perhaps takes us down a road which doesn’t go anywhere. Ideally, I would like that we did concerts where we didn’t need to announce what we were doing. Maybe it’s not realistic, and it’s not a goal in itself. But it’s important for us to have the full trust of the audience so that people want to come to hear, and trust that when we do something, it’s worthwhile. Even if they don’t know in advance what it’s going to be like, they will trust that they will spend their time well, and come out richer from the experience.

Then, I’m excited about where the roots of inspiration for composers come from, and what makes the pen move. I want to listen to Beethoven not from where Wagner took him, but from where he came. Recently I preceded a concert of Beethoven Nine with a Palestrina motet, to hear it with ears that came out of earlier music. When I performed Missa Solemnis at Lincoln Center, I began with Gregorian chant. It enriches us to look at music, not from the perspective of what happened afterwards, but also what came before, so we can become more sensitive to those incredible things that were unheard of when they were performed for the first time.

Seattle Symphony’s home base is Benaroya Hall. (

I’m interested in using the concert hall in various ways, and in creating a contextual experience that begins way before the concert itself and ends well after the concert. In some of the concerts we’ve already done in Seattle, we’ve had things going on in the foyer, or we’ve begun with a choir singing Russian orthodox music before we played Rachmaninoff, or alphorns in the foyer when we had Alpine Symphony.

It’s very important for me to keep the sensibilities fresh, both for the audience and myself. My inspiration comes from nature, from being in places where space, light, and the power of nature are somehow present. In that way, Seattle is a wonderful place for me. It is a fantastically beautiful corner of the United States that has one particular ingredient which I love, and that is the sea. We’re never very far from the sea, because we’re basically a group of islands and a peninsula where, if you drive for an hour, you’ll hit the sea. Having grown up with that, I never tire of the play of light, the play of wind, the play of animals on the sea. Seattle is wonderful for me.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.