Over three days in late April, Thomas Søndergård conducted a performance at the opera house, attended a concert at an art museum and spent a night at his summer house.
The sea never left his side.
Søndergård's career requires constant jetting, including frequent trips to Glasgow, where he leads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and now Minneapolis, where in September he'll start as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. But Søndergård, 53, always returns to his beloved Denmark, a country shaped by the sea that surrounds it.
His life, too, has been defined by its waters.
Søndergård was 10 years old when his father, out with friends in a little boat, drowned.
"It took away my father. So it's a special energy with that," he said, squinting out at the glinting, gray-blue waters encircling the Copenhagen Opera House. "Because when you're 10 years old, you don't really understand how difficult life can be.
"Everything is just exploring. And then. … "
Over the years, Søndergård has transformed his relationship with the water — and with his grief — by focusing on the visceral experience of it. By swimming, by sauna. Music helped, too.
Søndergård has been shaped by Denmark's musical culture. By the marching band he heard at age 6. By the European Community Youth Orchestra, with which he first played Mahler's Ninth Symphony. By the music of Carl Nielsen, its most famous composer and a member, just as Søndergård was, of the Royal Danish Orchestra.
But not only its music. Its art and its architecture. Its democratic spirit.
That spirit helped bond him to the Minnesota Orchestra, which since a bitter labor dispute and lockout a decade ago, has valued a collaborative approach so much that they've dubbed it "The Minnesota Model."
Within five minutes of Søndergård's first rehearsal with the orchestra, it was clear to concertmaster Erin Keefe that he saw the musicians as equals. "He has a commanding but warm presence on the podium, which is a rare combination," she said. "You have many conductors who are dictators — you do things the way they want.
"But he was so obviously listening to the orchestra and adapting while also leading where he needed to. He has this amazing ability to lead and follow at the same time."
'Your ears become bigger'
Backstage at the Copenhagen Opera House, hours before he'd perform Richard Strauss' epic opera "Elektra," he paused to point out two portraits, taken a century apart.
A 33-year-old version of himself, with shorter hair and fuller cheeks, half-smiled at the camera. The photo was taken in 2003, when Søndergård was a timpanist in the Royal Danish Orchestra. A few steps down the hall, another portrait, this one sepia: Carl Nielsen, who was just a second violinist then.
"And now I travel around the world and conduct his music," Søndergård said.
Søndergård's breakthrough, in 2005, came in this hall, leading this ensemble. The music director at the time, Michael Schønwandt, was preparing "Elektra," so he asked Søndergård to run rehearsals for the world premiere of another opera: "Kafka's Trial."
One day, Schønwandt came into the rehearsal room.
"I immediately saw how Thomas was in total control of the score and completely connected to the performers," Schønwandt said. So he asked Søndergård to conduct the production.
At first, Søndergård was nervous to lead musicians who for a decade had been his peers. "A conductor's job is to lead musical ideas ... and you need to be convincing in that," he said. "It's harder to convince people who know you from all sides.
"But the focus, within five minutes, was the music," he continued. "We can actually hide in the music, all of us, especially the conductor. You can cover yourself in it."
Critics raved, and agents called.
In time, he was guest conducting across the world — including with the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony — becoming known for his interpretations of Nielsen and Jean Sibelius, for his recordings of composers both living and long dead.
As a younger conductor, it was as if mirrors encircled him. "You're so focused on how you do things," Søndergård said. How are you moving your hands? How are you illustrating this idea?
"And actually those mirrors prevent you from doing what's most important — to connect and to listen," he said. "Little by little, you have the confidence to turn those mirrors over. To connect. Your ears become bigger and bigger the older you get."
At 8 p.m. on that April night, the richly hued concert hall mostly full, Søndergård strode into the orchestra pit and onto the podium.
He gave no hint that, minutes earlier, he'd discovered that he'd left his bowtie and cufflinks in another bag. He and an assistant had run up and down flights of stairs in search of replacements. They threaded them with the help of a fork.
For the next hour and 45 minutes — and without an intermission — Søndergård led the urgent, piercing "Elektra." During moments of intensity, he leaned forward, past the edge of his score. During moments of rage, he furiously shook both his baton and his hair.
Then, Elektra reunited with her brother. Atonal chords turned tender, the melody swelling with love. Søndergård raised his arms, sweeping them in big, smooth circles.
He lifted his body, his arms, his nose. And for just a moment, a stage light caught his profile, making him visible.
The next day, afternoon light streamed into the sitting room of the apartment Søndergård shares with his husband, Andreas Landin, a Swedish opera singer, in a century-old building.
Stacked in a neat pile were books about artists and composers. Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck. Beethoven and Wagner.
Early in the pandemic, their whirlwind schedules suddenly stilled, Landin would read the books aloud, accompanied by birds chirping and children laughing in Frederiksberg Gardens across the street.
"The only thing you had to do when you got up in the morning was to make coffee," Søndergård said a bit wistfully. COVID had terrible effects on the world, of course, he said. But it also offered a respite.
Walking through the neighboring park, where families were picnicking and playing, Søndergård told the story of hearing, at age 6, a passing marching band and feeling its pull. His uncle, who plays trombone, gave him drumsticks.
The city where he grew up, Holstebro, counts just 37,000 people. Yet, thanks partly to public funding for the arts, it boasts an art museum, a music school, an experimental theater, a ballet academy. It's hard to describe "what that meant to me in terms of imagination, possibilities," he said.
When Søndergård started studying music, he worried that by being more aware of a work's complexity, "the analytic part of the brain would take over," he said. So he is careful, even now, not to skip the emotion.
Each time he starts a piece, he sits with it, cries with it.
"I know that moment is not going to come back to me again," he said. "That's really a gift."
In conversation, Søndergård is much like he is on the podium. He punctuates his points with graceful gestures. He engages. He listens. He skips small talk in favor of conversations about art, about music, about living.
Later that day, he ran into Johannes Moser ahead of the German-Canadian cellist's concert at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, on the shores of the Øresund Sound in Humlebæk.
"I have to ask you," Søndergård began, his blue eyes intent. "Last time we were working together, you told me you were starting something new, because you were traveling so much. 'I've decided to take at least half a day out to see things.'
"Have you done that here?"
In fact, Moser said, he had spent several nights in a guesthouse on the museum campus, 100 feet from the shore. "You wake up to the sound of the waves."
Søndergård pressed his hand to his heart.
Both he and Landin were facing busy weeks. On his end: A flight, two days of rehearsal, a season launch. Two more flights. A final performance of "Elektra." Then to Scotland, again, for two nights of performances.
But after attending the concert at the museum that evening, he and Landin made the 90-minute trip to their summer house in Odsherred, on the island's northwestern tip. On the drive, they didn't play music, enjoying the quiet.
But when they reached the coast, they rolled down the windows and listened to the sea.
'Over the moon!'
The windows of their thatched-roof summer house, built in the 1970s, look out over a grassy slope leading to blue waters and a path Søndergård often jogs, a towel around his neck, for a swim.
Where there aren't windows, there is art.
Artifacts, too, collected over decades. In their bedroom, a poster for the Royal Danish Theater — where Søndergård and Landin met — from the night of Søndergård's birth, in 1969. In the bathroom, an orange art print he revealed with a grin. "Foreigners," it reads, "please don't leave us alone with the Danes!"
Then, in the dining room, a 9-foot-wide, black-and-white photograph: his mother and father on Denmark's west coast. His father looks at her with warmth. Her eyes are squinting, maybe closed. Behind them, waves.
Søndergård hung the piece on what would have been their 50th wedding anniversary.
His 79-year-old mother, who lives about five hours from Copenhagen, is a big reason why, when he takes the Minnesota Orchestra post this fall, he will not move. "Being here for her, it's become even stronger for me," he said. Another is Landin, whose work as a baritone is more tied to this region.
Landin is the one more likely to tout the preparation Søndergård puts in, the education work he does, the Carl Nielsen and Anne Marie Carl Nielsen Foundation honorary award he'll soon receive. Sitting in their summer house, sipping coffee, Landin told the story of Søndergård returning from first performing with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2021. "He was over the moon!" he said.
"I'd say you were surprised because you don't hear about it that much," Landin continued. "Except when you speak to musicians. Because almost all musicians we know say ... 'That's a fantastic orchestra.'"
"They were so open, so keen to connect," Søndergård said.
His concerts with Minnesota this September, which launch the season, will be bookended by Richard Strauss, whose music they performed during their first concerts together.
Some composers speak to the intellect a little more, Søndergård said. But few capture, in ways easily accessible to any audience, an emotion. "In terms of a tone poem, which he's the master of, some of his songs contain some of the most touching moments in the world."
All their friends are musicians, Landin said. But for their wedding, in 2022, they picked just one piece of music: Strauss' "Morgen," which the German composer wrote for Pauline, his wife and muse, as a wedding present.
The vocal line takes a moment to enter. "And tomorrow the sun will shine again," it begins, according to one translation. Beautiful but also simple, unhurried:
And to the shore, broad, blue-waved,
We shall quietly and slowly descend,
Speechless we shall gaze into each other's eyes,
And the speechless silence of bliss shall fall on us.