Meet the Minnesota Orchestra’s New Conductor, Thomas Søndergård

The Danish music director brings to the podium a philosophy of love
Thomas Søndergård
Thomas Søndergård

Photo by Chris McDuffie

“Do you want the white or the black?”

On the conference table before us is a little plastic tub of strawberries. Next to them are plastic forks, one white and one black. I mishear Thomas Søndergård, the Minnesota Orchestra’s new conductor—catching only, “Do you want…?” and replying, “Sure!” As patient and humoring as you might be with a child, he glances up, laughs politely, and says in a soft, lightly pebbled Danish accent, “I’ll take the black.”

This is, on a micro level, the reason Søndergård is here today. He is expected to bring quiet intimacy and practically mystical chemistry to the orchestra, taking over as its 11th music director in the fall. His first season begins in September, and when we meet on a sunny June morning, he is hungry and ready to praise Lake Harriet, which he visited the day before. “I loved that,” he says. “Maybe I’ll have a bike after some years and then I’ll just go and sit there.”

In a room ordinarily used for hobnobbing, hidden away in downtown Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Peavey Plaza’s sun-dazed pool. The view clouds his eyes, blue-white, when he turns to think about music. Søndergård is a meditator—when he can manage it. Going about his life, if he gets five minutes, he has a practice of shutting his eyes and turning inward: “All thoughts, out.”

While in Minneapolis, the maestro is booked. He will live in Minnesota for 12 weeks each orchestral season; otherwise, Copenhagen, where he lives with his husband, singer Andreas Landin, remains home. He also stays on as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s previous director, Osmo Vänskä, led for 19 years. Clad in iron respect, Vänskä became known for workhorse rigor—for drilling and drilling—as well as for standing with his musicians amid a decade-old labor conflict. Søndergård, in contrast, likes to use soft words like “love” and “collaboration.” He has said that “since God is love, music is also love.” The New York Times once called his style “anti-authoritarian” (a description that makes him smile), and his first season includes breakout programming of self-directed ensembles. “It’s pretty rare that we’d offer a concert without a conductor or soloist,” says Gwen Pappas, communications director. In January, Søndergård also plans to conduct a family program. “Music directors primarily stick to conducting classical concerts for the grown-ups,” Pappas notes, “but he was adamant that he wants ‘to be the music director for all generations.’”

Thomas Søndergård with the Minnesota Orchestra
Thomas Søndergård with the Minnesota Orchestra

Photo by Greg Helgeson

Søndergård happens to fit the child’s image of a conductor. That is, he has the hair. Grizzled and wild, it makes him look less like a lion than a hobbit while still implying the untamable and complicating the conductor’s human-metronome stereotype. He says he is much more stylish now, at 53, than he was at 20. Today, he wears a navy blazer (“a Paul Smith thing”), white sneakers, and, after checking the tag, a Filippa K shirt. “I was far more a nerd when it comes to music,” he says, of his less fashionable early years. “‘Nothing else matters.’”

Søndergård grew up in the arts-friendly Danish town of Holstebro. One day, as a kid, he heard and tracked down a marching band. A sense of clarity struck him: “This is my language.” Marching-band music did not stick, but early loves included Brahms, still a favorite, and Stevie Wonder, with whom he has since performed. “Maybe I just knew that, ‘It’s not football, as all the other ones are talking about.’ That’s not me. It’s not, ‘Who is fastest?’ Or, ‘Who finishes quickest at mathematics?’ This was me.”

His uncle gifted him drumsticks, he says, which he would rattle on a cutting board. Later, he started his percussion career with the Royal Danish Orchestra. Now, he is international. Saunas and 20-minute yoga breaks clear his head—the latter, to his frustration, only when a transatlantic flight lends him extra hours. “It’s the brain that you use the most in rehearsals … and the biggest job happens in rehearsals.”

That’s also where his reputation shines. His relationship to music is as indescribably personal, he says, as his Christian faith, which grew after he met his now-husband about 20 years ago. Composers “want to describe things that are impossible, maybe, to say in words at the speed of how music comes along.” As a conductor, “in the middle of that, I cannot be the opposite of love.” Thinking about his open, reciprocal approach to conducting, he says he is grateful for Denmark, where homosexuality is relatively accepted. His mother and the rest of his family are “very loving,” too. “Early on, I realized that, actually, it’s much more fun to be around people if you listen and observe.”

Imposing one’s will, conversely, reveals “more life interest in going down the power path.” He can identify those conductors. “But its not black and white.” Musicians need structure, and structure does not come naturally to him, necessarily. 

Rather, it seemed to come by force. When Søndergård was 10, his father drowned in a boating accident. It left him, his mother, and his sister “in a shock for many, many years.” He thought, “What do I actually need? What do I actually want?” Shouldering adult responsibilities as a teen, he found a tool—discipline—and kept it close. It made music a good career fit. So did his natural talent. And has that gift ever vanished? Leaning in for a strawberry, he answers cleanly, immediately: “No. It’s always been there.” If he begins to compose, he says, he may answer differently.

Before his next meeting, to talk about the Minnesota Orchestra’s social media plan, an employee comes in and jokes about visiting Patagonia to buy Søndergård some Minnesota-ready outerwear. An air of busyness trickles into the room. There is more to get to know, but the intimacy is lifting. Søndergård sounds earnest, eager, trailing off: “Would you like to…? I mean, I’m sure there will be some tickets.” Pappas says I should be able to receive tickets to the season’s debut. “I’ll see you in September.”

Søndergård’s first season begins September 21. Find dates and tickets here.