As Music Director Bows, A Welcoming City Turns Red, White, And Thrilled

Music director Thomas Søndergård and the Minnesota Orchestra take bows after performing Strauss’ ‘An Alpine Symphony’ at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. (Photo by Greg Helgeson)

MINNEAPOLIS — The tallest buildings that make up the skyline of Minneapolis sparkled with certain meaningful colors — red and white — on the evening of Sept. 22. These happen to be the colors of the flag of Denmark, and this was a subliminal way of welcoming the Minnesota Orchestra’s new music director, Thomas Søndergård, who is Danish and was starting his reign with concerts at Orchestra Hall.

Those who hadn’t noticed the changing colors on the tops of downtown skyscrapers might have seen photos of Søndergård on the sides of city buses, or while walking past Orchestra Hall they might have stopped to read quotes from the 54-year-old conductor appearing on showcases outside the hall: ”The most important role of a conductor is to listen carefully” and “Heart is at the center, and that’s where I think art can begin.”

Søndergård succeeds the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, who is now conductor laureate and, most people would say, a hard act to follow. Vänskä’s 19 years with the orchestra was a period — for both conductor and orchestra — of singular accomplishment, a span that might be called the most remarkable in the orchestra’s 120-year history. The ensemble that Vänskä took hold of in 2003, after seven years of aimless and uncertain performances under the direction of Eiji Oue, lacked discipline and purpose. Vänskä, Oue’s opposite, demanded precision and focus. Extensive touring, including a five-city tour to South Africa — the first-ever visit to that country by a professional American orchestra — plus the release of a flock of award-winning recordings, expanded the orchestra’s confidence and renown, such that it wasn’t a total surprise to many that New Yorker music critic Alex Ross proclaimed the Minnesota Orchestra to be “perhaps the finest orchestra in the world.”

Thomas Søndergård is the 11th music director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Beyond that, it is no exaggeration to say that the musicians’ respect for Vänskä turned to something closer to love in 2012. In the early days of a bitter labor dispute that would continue for 16 months and almost killed the orchestra, with the board having locked the musicians out of the hall, Vänskä defied protocol, sided with the musicians, and resigned as music director in 2013. He proceeded to lead the orchestra in concerts away from Orchestra Hall. After the contract was settled, Vänskä was re-hired in the spring of 2014.

Søndergård, the orchestra’s 11th music director, is not likely to encounter quite so much static. When he first conducted the ensemble, in December 2021, he was one of the top five candidates for the job, according to Doug Baker, chairman of the search committee. (Among the other candidates were Gemma New, Karina Canellakis, Juraj Valčuha, David Afkham, and Scott Yoo.) The centerpiece of Søndergård’s first program was Strauss’ tone poem Ein Heldenleben, a work Søndergård had recorded a few years earlier with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, of which he has been music director since 2018. It was a persuasive performance, sumptuous and carefully balanced. (A video of the entire concert can be seen on the orchestra’s website with a digital subscription.)

Members of the 16-member search committee used words such as “captivating,” “thrilling,” and “electric” in describing the concert, though some of them had already heard Søndergård’s work with other orchestras. A member of the search committee, principal trombone R. Douglas Wright, said, “It was the best performance of Ein Heldenleben that I’ve ever been a part of.” Søndergård himself recalled some months later that it “was one of the best experiences I have ever had in a first meeting with an orchestra.”

Inspired by what they had heard, the management quickly engaged Søndergård for a return visit in April 2022, and the next month they offered him a five-year contract as music director, stipulating that he would lead the orchestra in at least 12 weeks of concerts and activities a year starting with the 2023-24 season. He also would continue his affiliation as music director with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, has played a not insignificant role in Søndergård’s career. Woods was chief executive of the Scottish orchestra in 2009 when he hired Søndergård as a last-minute replacement for a conductor who had canceled due to illness. Søndergård’s manager had suggested her client as a substitute, and it happened that Søndergård was familiar with the main work on the program, a rarity, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11.

“Thomas jumped in, and the performance was electrifying,” said Woods. ”It was clear. This is a talent.” In 2012, Søndergård was named principal guest of the Scottish ensemble, and six years later he became music director.

“Thomas has been thoughtful about his career,” Woods said. “He hasn’t rushed it. But now I think it’s overdue for him to be known in the U.S.”

The exterior of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis (Photo by Greg Helgeson)

Søndergård’s first two programs as the Minnesota music director showed him playing to his strengths. For one thing, he obviously has an affinity for the music of Richard Strauss. Ein Heldenleben was the work that brought conductor and orchestra together. And so it wasn‘t a complete surprise that he reached into his comfort zone and chose Strauss’ Don Juan as his curtain-raiser and the same composer’s gigantic symphonic poem An Alpine Symphony as his finale.

Søndergård’s Don Juan was impassioned without being dramatically inflated, and though the conductor spotlighted numerous, often obscured details of the score, it never lost a sense of flow from one section to another. Scrupulous attention to detail rather than heavy interpretive ideas almost always works best with Strauss. Kate Wegener, who becomes associate principal oboe in December, brought graceful phrasing and rich tone to her solos.

For An Alpine Symphony, four extra horns were played off-stage and then, about half-way through the piece, the players, walking on tiptoes, took their seats onstage with their colleagues in the orchestra. Søndergård controlled this huge apparatus brilliantly, and each snap of the acoustical camera along the climb to the summit developed into vivid sound pictures — dancing waterfalls, grazing herds, cosmic thunderstorms — in a performance that was both eloquent and exciting.

Just before intermission, Nathan Hughes, the orchestra’s principal oboe, played Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C major, demonstrating unerring taste, subtle tone coloring, and, most notably in the demanding cadenza of the first movement, a remarkably agile technique.

Thomas Søndergård congratulates Minnesota Orchestra principal oboe Nathan Hughes after a performance of Mozart’s Oboe Concerto. (Photo by Greg Helgeson)

Søndergård returned the following weekend to lead the orchestra in a quartet of works that directly or indirectly evoke tales from mythology. The second half was devoted to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the complete ballet, a collaboration with the well-trained Minnesota Chorale and its artistic director, Kathy Saltzman Romey, who joined Søndergård for a round of bows at the end

A brief work by the Russian-born composer Lera Auerbach, Icarus, served as opener. The title refers to a young man who, along with his father, escapes captivity on the island of Crete by building two sets of wings using bird feathers and beeswax with the hope of flying away. Ignoring his father’s advice, Icarus flies too close to the sun, the wax melts, and the young man falls into the sea and drowns. Moralists love to recite the Icarus story to demonstrate the penalty for disobeying one’s elders, and one might try to find that judgment in the music, but it happens that, as Auerbach admits in a program note, she gave the work its title after she composed it. It’s full of vivid and unusual orchestration, one example of which is her use of a theremin, an early electronic instrument that gives off an eerie sound that was put to effective use in the 1945 Hitchcock film Spellbound.

The concert continued with a beguiling account of Debussy’s familiar Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, for which principal flute Adam Kuenzel provided languorous atmosphere (and he did much the same in Daphnis). A colorful, fast-paced reading of Samuel Barber’s Medea’s Dance of Vengeance concluded the first half.

As for Daphnis, almost any conductor can bring down the house with the electrifying General Dance of Ravel’s masterpiece, and that was certainly the case in this performance, though each climax seemed inevitable rather than merely loud. Equally impressive, if not as visceral, were the early pages of the score, strongly shaped and well-paced, as if each wisp of melody were being thoughtfully savored. At the end both audience and orchestra vigorously applauded Søndergård, who, in turn, applauded the musicians.