Meet Thomas Dausgaard

Seattle Symphony’s new music director

Thomas Dausgaard

Photo courtesy of IMG artists
Danish-born conductor Thomas Dausgaard has been appointed Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, bringing a new Nordic perspective to the Pacific Northwest.

Melinda Bargreen
Everett, Wash.

Heads up, fellow Northwest Scandinavians: there’s a new Dane in town.

The distinguished Danish orchestra conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, began his music directorship at the Seattle Symphony with a season-starting opening night concert and gala in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on Sept. 14. He follows the eight-year Seattle Symphony tenure of French maestro Ludovic Morlot, who made his biggest impact with performances and recordings of new works (many of them by French composers).

Dausgaard’s focus will be slightly different—and he won’t be in Seattle all the time, either. He also will continue as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; he has had a lengthy relationship with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra; and he has honorary conductor posts in Italy (Orchestra della Toscana) and his native Denmark (Danish National Symphony Orchestra). But he has big plans for Seattle, a city that fascinates him with its coastal vistas of water, mountains, and islands. It’s also a city in which he is greatly appreciated: the Seattle Symphony players consistently surpass themselves when Dausgaard is on the podium, and the audiences are wildly enthusiastic. When you get a standing, shrieking ovation after a performance of a Sibelius symphony, and it’s not even the finale of the evening’s program, you know you’ve connected with your listeners.

Now 56, Dausgaard is married and the father of three sons, ranging in age from 16 to 24. He and his family are based in Denmark, but he will spend 12 weeks—spread out over the concert season, fall through spring—in Seattle. He has served as principal guest conductor here since 2014, amid heightened speculation that he might take over as music director when his predecessor stepped down.

What a lucky way for a conductor to begin his tenure in a new post: the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the perfect excuse to program many works by one of the world’s greatest composers (and a huge draw for audiences as well). The Beethoven emphasis will be a great opportunity for Dausgaard to explore one of his favorite approaches to classical music: tracing the influences and origins of those works from the realms of folk and liturgical music. Even Beethoven, whom we usually think of as “strictly classical,” was influenced by folk cultures and shares some musical similarities with their traditions. Dausgaard plans to underline those directions in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall where the nine Beethoven symphonies will be performed (on different concerts).

Seattle will, of course, not be the only stop for this international conductor: he will also return to many of the venues in which he has already made music. A “short list” of his previous guest conducting engagements includes the BBC Proms, Edinburgh International Festival, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the Munich Philharmonic, Berlin Konzerthaus, Vienna Symphony, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. His North American experience includes conducting the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Toronto and Montreal symphony orchestras. Dausgaard has also appeared with the New Japan Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic, and Sydney and Melbourne symphony orchestras. And he has already made more than 70 CDs with several European orchestras, as well as with the Seattle Symphony (where a recording of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony was a finalist for the Gramophone Award for orchestral music).

Busy as he is in the concert halls, Dausgaard relishes time in the outdoors with his family, and quiet time spent at a family getaway in Sweden where there is no music, just the profound silence of nature. When he’s in Seattle, one of his top priorities is finding a hotel with a beautiful view of the water, which he loves to gaze at and observe the small changes that light and clouds cast on Puget Sound. Dausgaard photographs these views frequently at different times of day and in different atmospheric conditions. It may seem unusual to think of a man who is so active, so much in demand, pausing to gaze at a view, but this is not a “business as usual” conductor.

He also takes the time to give credit to important mentors, such as the late Leonard Bernstein. “I think of him every time I sit with a new score,” Dausgaard observes of the charismatic, magnetic Bernstein.

“He was very strict about thinking in phrases; very aware whether it was three bars or four bars. Then you can achieve magic. He came at a transformative time for me, and in that way, he was very powerful, and I’m grateful I got to know that side of him and not just the pure magic. But I realize what is behind the magic; how much cool thought there is behind it.”

An indication of how Dausgaard is regarded nationally came in a New York Times review of his concert with the New York Philharmonic last February, when the headline read “Thomas Dausgaard Should Be a Philharmonic Regular.” The influential critic Anthony Tommasini went on to praise the conductor for his “exceptionally urgent and insightful account of Schumann’s Second Symphony,” adding: “He may want to focus his attention on the thriving Seattle Symphony where, this fall, he steps up from principal guest conductor to music director, succeeding Ludovic Morlot. But I hope we’ll hear more of him in New York. He has a penchant for challenging players, partly through bold interpretive ideas, but also with his idiosyncratic conducting style.”

There will be many opportunities to see and hear Dausgaard at work this season in Benaroya Hall (visit www.seattlesymphony.org for information and links to tickets). Among the season highlights: Strauss’ Salome; an all-American program featuring Bernstein’s Songfest, Hannah Lash’s Double Harp Concerto and Daniel Kidane’s Dream Song; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; and Haydn’s The Creation. And June 11-28, 2020, a Beethoven Festival celebrating that composer’s 150th birthday will feature performances of all nine of the symphonies, plus other Beethoven works (as well as some newer music inspired by Beethoven).

But maybe you’ll also see him at Seattle’s new National Nordic Museum, which he has said he “loves.” It’s clear that this very Nordic conductor feels at home—and warmly welcomed—in Seattle.

Visit the official website of conductor Thomas Dausgaard at www.thomasdausgaard.com.

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Washington, and a doctorate from the University of California, Irvine.

This article originally appeared in the October 4, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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