Interview: Thomas Dausgaard

First published in The Herald on 9 March, 2016

It’s early morning in Munich and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s future chief conduct is telling me in animated detail about a wild night he spent in Orkney a couple of years ago. He was there to conduct at the St Magnus Festival and, as is the way, had found himself at the after-hours folk club. “The Wrigley Sisters were performing to a big crowd,” he recalls. “The fiddler would add her own little twists and ornaments to the tunes and the crowd would roar. I was blown away!” He closes his eyes and holds his hands aloft as if reliving the experience. “Your folk music is so deeply rooted and so alive that people could actually tell the difference in her interpretation. In my country you would need a very specialist audience to get a reaction like that, but in Orkney there was a crowd of hundreds — I mean, that’s not a specialist audience any more,” he beams. “It’s basically people!”

Dausgaard’s morning energy is impressive. The previous night he conducted the Munich Philharmonic and Choir in a long Bruckner programme — an exquisitely hushed Ave Maria, a lucid, luminous Second Symphony — and from where I was sitting at the side of the stalls I could see every expression of rapture and exuberance on his face, every long-limbed gesticulation, every waggle of athletic eyebrows. This is a man who seems to make music and talk about music with entirely unselfconscious enthusiasm. During the concert a press release went out announcing his contract renewal as Principal Guest Conductor with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra through 2020. “A scary number of emails were waiting for me when I got back to my hotel room,” he says, momentarily less elated. “It’s great news, of course. It just made for a rather late night.”

I’ve come to Munich to interview the 52-year-old Dane about the BBCSSO’s new season — the lineup was announced today — but we spend most of the morning discussing folk music because that’s what he is “deeply into” at the moment. He tells me about a concert he put together recently with violinist Pekka Kuusisto exploring inspirations behind Sibelius’s music. He sent dozens of themes from the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony to Finnish folk musicians and asked whether they could find any traditional tunes to match. “They could in every case. Every case! So I asked them to come and play alongside the orchestra. It was wonderful. It didn’t just show us Sibelius’s roots, it showed us how to play the melodies.” He starts singing the dotted rhythms of the Violin Concerto’s third movement, but slower and with more swing than the skittish showpiece a lot of violinists make of it. “That’s how a fiddler might play it, right? That’s what would make people want to dance.”

And so to one of the main features of Dausgaard’s inaugural BBCSSO season: a series of orchestral commissions called Scottish Inspirations that will see composers — Scots and non-Scots — asked to respond to aspects of the country including landscape and traditional cultures. In his introduction to the season brochure Dausgaard describes a picturesque memory from a trip to Skye: “hiking on our own, in breathtaking landscapes, my son would catch sight of a hiker on a distant ridge — not clad in what we would think of as hiking gear, but in a kilt, of course.” I joke that the kilted hillwalker was probably a tourist and Dausgaard looks a little crestfallen; in any case, his point goes deeper than any Visit Scotland poster image. “I haven’t specifically asked the composers to write variations on bagpipe music,” he clarifies, “though that would probably be fun too… The idea has more to do with how we see ourselves through our art. If only we could start thinking of nations in a way that isn’t just about daily politics. We should make the most of where are. Maybe this strand of commissions will help root the orchestra in a new way.”

It is striking that Dausgaard’s opening move is to subtly root the orchestra at home rather than to loudly declare his own personality with the Scandinavian repertoire he’s known for championing elsewhere — not only the symphonic giants Nielsen and Sibelius, but more obscure names such as Rued Langgaard and Per Nørgard. On the spectrum of conductorly egos, it’s a gesture that places him pretty firmly and refreshingly at the lowest end. “I’m not just a Dane,” he reasons. “I’m a musician, and my musical world is bigger than just Denmark. Of course I’ll happily do it” — he means the Nielsens, the Nørgards — “but I don’t want to drown you in Langgaard.”

Instead Dausgaard’s first season strips back to classicism, with several works by Haydn and a recreation of Beethoven’s famous Academy Concert of 22 December 1808 — that mind-bogglingly huge billing that premiered the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth piano concerto and the Choral Fantasy all at once. Make sure to smuggle in a snack or several on 2 October. The season also includes a lot of English music, with the start of Elgar and Tippett symphony cycles and works by Finzi, Malcolm Arnold and Vaughan Williams. Dausgaard explains this as something of a personal indulgence ever since he studied in London with Norman Del Mar — BBCSSO chief conductor from 1960-65 and one of the orchestra’s defining figures. If lineages are auspicious, the Del Mar-Dausgaard connection bodes nicely.

Incidentally, the season does contain some Langgaard: that bold and eccentric early-20th century loner who believed a decaying world could be saved by music and religion and whose refusal to give up romanticism meant he was left behind by the times. Dausgaard will conduct the Prelude to the opera Antichrist — “a gateway into his music because it marries music with the spiritual world” — and the Fourth Symphony, “a fantastically wild example of the kind of collage composition that ended up becoming fashionable decades later. By the way,” he adds, “it has taken time for us to be able to return to this man in Denmark. My grandmother used to see him on the streets of Copenhagen where children would mock his high tenor voice and his strange clothes. Maybe we had to wait a generation to give him the respect deserved of a serious musician.”

Dausgaard’s demeanour is generally open, warm, grounded, but there is one question that causes him to bristle a bit. Donald Runnicles has developed a marvellously broad and burnished way of playing during his tenure as chief conductor; is there a certain sound, I ask, that Dausgaard hopes he might be able to bring in turn? “You’ll hear with your ears and you’ll find your own words for it,” he replies. “I’m sure Donald Runnicles didn’t take the job so he could hear you say that he got a particular sound out of the orchestra. We work with such a richness of nuances and as soon as you put a word on it, that word is too simple.” But he softens again. “I suppose it’s what makes your job difficult. And I suppose it’s why we’ve got music.”

BBCSSO 2016-17 season highlights

The season opens with a new work by Helen Grime and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony
The season closes with Haydn’s Symphony Number 88 and Mahler’s Seventh Symphony
Five ‘Scottish Inspirations’ commissions include Helen Grime’s Two Eardley Pictures, Sally  Beamish’s Piano Concerto, Jay Capperauld’s Fèin-Aithne and Edmund Finnis’s The Air, Turning
Martyn Brabbins conducts Tippett’s First and Second symphonies and Thomas Dausgaard conducts Tippett’s Ritual Dances from ‘The Midsummer Marriage’
Dausgaard recreates Beethoven’s marathon 1808 Academy Concert
Donald Runnicles returns to conduct Mahler’s Fourth Symphony
Soloists include Jean-Efflam Bavouzet playing both Ravel piano concertos; Cédric Tiberghien playing Mozart; Yevgeny Sudbin playing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto; Daniel Hope playing Britten’s Violin Concerto; Steven Isserlis playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto; Lawrence Power playing James MacMillan’s Viola Concerto; Erin Wall singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Ian Bostridge singing Britten’s Serenade for tenor horn and strings
Martyn Brabbins conducts a semi-staged performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s 2000 opera The Last Supper
Matthias Pintscher conducts Hans Werner Henze’s Seventh Symphony
Ilan Volkov conducts Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the music of Anthony Braxton
Tectonics is back for a fifth edition in May 2017; details yet to be announced