"It was one of the best first impressions I've ever had."
That's what Thomas Søndergård said about his first rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra in December 2021. Many of the orchestra's musicians have since called the ensuing performances of Richard Strauss' tone poem "Ein Heldenleben," the best version of that work they've ever played.
An April concert of music by Benjamin Britten and Claude Debussy went similarly swimmingly. Then, in late July, the 52-year-old Danish conductor was named the orchestra's new music director, succeeding Osmo Vänskä after his 19 years at the helm.
Søndergård won't assume the post until fall 2023, but he will return Oct. 20-22 to conduct two early 20th-century orchestral showpieces of disparate moods, Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and the complete ballet music from Maurice Ravel's "Mother Goose."
When introduced to the media and invited guests on July 29, he was asked how to pronounce his name. He replied the Danes would say "soh-NEHR-gore," but the past 11 years of leading orchestras in Wales and Scotland had made him accustomed to the more Anglicized "sohn-dare-GARD."
He slipped away from the crowd at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall that day in July for a half-hour conversation with the Star Tribune about what he would like to do in his new job. The interview has been edited for brevity.
Q: It's been two days since you've been introduced to the musicians as their new music director. How did that moment feel?
A: Of course, thrilling. Because, after all, they are the ones I will work the closest with, and create the magic with. And to hear and see the enthusiasm there is important.
Q: Let's talk about repertoire. Are there any composers, living or dead, you'd particularly like to see included in Minnesota Orchestra programming?
A: It's good that you say living or dead, because I like to make sure that we do bring in new music. But [Richard] Strauss and [Sergei] Prokofiev have made a big impact on me the last five years. I've actually chosen Prokofiev pieces — symphonies of his, mainly — as debut pieces with many orchestras, which is quite an important thing for a conductor. Like it was "Ein Heldenleben" here. It could have been Sibelius, but for very good reasons, it wasn't. I want not to interfere with what Osmo has done [i.e., recording Sibelius' complete symphonies and other works]. It's also good for an orchestra to have space before that returns.
Q: Carl Nielsen? He is somewhat to Denmark what Sibelius is to Finland.
A: Absolutely. I'm a little cautious because I've had, unfortunately, some experiences where musicians just don't understand his music. But I think the audience here would love to hear some Nielsen. After all, there are a lot of Scandinavian roots here. In school, we'd start a class with two songs, and most of them would be by Carl Nielsen. Now that I've gotten to know those songs so well, I see him as a melody man. He really knows how to write a beautiful melody.
Q: How about living composers?
A: I would like to look at local composers, first of all. There's also a lot happening in Germany that's interesting: Matthias Pintscher, Jorg Widmann. Then, I think it could be interesting to grab a few Scandinavian contemporaries. There's a wonderful Swedish composer named B. Tommy Andersson. Then, I have my fellow Danes. Bent Sorensen has done beautiful music. And Poul Ruders.
Q: Where would you like to take this orchestra on tour?
A: Where don't I want to take them? I'd like to hear where their ideas are. Of course, what comes to me first is that it would be wonderful to bring them to Scandinavia and to show what we can do. But then the touring world is not the same as before the pandemic. The awareness of the environment, to begin with. Is it necessary to take an orchestra to the other side of the world? But, certainly, it would be thrilling.
Q: I heard that a brass quintet from the orchestra, the Uptown Brass, played at a donor's home last night, and you surprised them by showing up.
A: It was great hearing some of the brass section. They have such a great spirit when they play together. And Orono was a beautiful place. We had dinner in Wayzata, down by the water. It's been wonderful days here.
And great that Andreas [his husband, Swedish baritone Andreas Landin] could come and see where I'm going to spend a lot of time. We are keen to come back, not least because the Swedish history is immense. So, if I have the courage, we will hire a car and go to some of the Swedish hubs. I would love to do a Scandinavian festival.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.