Interview: Thomas Søndergård


First published in The Herald on 23 October, 2013

What happens when a member of the orchestra becomes the conductor? How much does rank-and-file experience count for on the podium? And – the big question – should he still go to the pub with the musicians after a concert?

It’s been a year since Thomas SøndergÃ¥rd, once timpanist of the Royal Danish Orchestra, arrived as principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He became BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s principal conductor at the same time, and in the past 12 months there’s been something of a quiet bond taking place in the concert halls and rehearsal rooms of Cardiff and Glasgow. Audiences admire SøndergÃ¥rd’s cool, unshowy insight: he’s the kind of conductor who doesn’t make a fuss, whose stage presence is understated but always communicative. Musicians respect his clarity and formidable ears. He earns focused and stylish playing from his orchestras – and if he’s building trust with them, he says it’s because he respects the fact that he’s not their colleague any more.

I meet SøndergÃ¥rd on a rainy Monday at the start of rehearsals for his new RSNO season. Striding through the hotel lobby, the 44-year-old is the picture of Danish good looks: blond curls, blue-grey eyes, smart dress sense. He’s just in from Copenhagen where he lives with his partner, an opera singer.

As someone who’s always flitting between time zones, does he manage to take proper time off? “Conducting is as much about humanity as it is about studying scores,” he answers with soft, weighed precision. “So time off to engage with the world is important. I’ve always been hungry for inputs. Even time on buses or planes is useful to just look out of the window and think.”

There’s something wonderfully and wholesomely Scandinavian about SøndergÃ¥rd. He grew up in a small town in central Jutland where the local library supplied all the recordings and scores his inquisitive mind could devour. He knew he wanted to be a musician from the age of about seven: “whenever I heard music on the street – a marching band or something – I’d have to find it and watch. I said to my parents, ‘I like to be a part of that’.”

At ten he was sent on the first of several stints of work experience, part of every Danish child’s education. He chose to spend a week sitting in on rehearsals for Strauss’s Elektra at the Royal Danish Theatre. At 15, he began travelling regularly into Copenhagen to study percussion, but also to teach. “It paid the travel,” he explains. “I was ready for it, and it gave me the opportunity to get to the capital and into the opera house. That’s where I wanted to be: as close to the pit as possible.”

He did well as a percussionist, landing places in top youth orchestras (including the European Union Youth Orchestra) and eventually a job in the Royal Danish Orchestra. But the shift to conducting was always inevitable. “Even though I really worked to get that job, even though it was secure and well paid, with a pension, with great musicians who felt like a family… Even though things were a lot calmer then than they ever will be as a conductor.”

Does he miss playing? “Very rarely. In a way it’s strange not to physically create a sound any more, but now I make sounds with gestures. What I realise is how different that sound can be if there’s good chemistry between orchestra and conductor.”

And there’s the nub: how to concoct the right kind of chemistry. SøndergÃ¥rd says that there are no tools, no tricks. “What I do know is that there’s no fake way of doing it. I try to be myself and to be honest. I try to show musicians that I’m only there for one thing, and that’s to make music together. Power is not interesting for me: there are some old-fashioned conductors for whom power is 80 percent of why they’re holding a baton. Playing in an orchestra taught me a lot about how not to behave.”

Didn’t playing in an orchestra also grant him some sort of lasting camaraderie with the musicians he now conducts? He shakes his head. “When I started conducting people warned me: don’t think you can be the same person as you are privately. Occasionally I will have a whisky with the RSNO musicians after a concert. But lots of orchestral players would prefer not to get to know their conductor. To them, I’m the boss for the week and they don’t want to reveal themselves to me. That’s OK.”

He might not be paying their wages, but that doesn’t make him the same thing as a colleague, he says. “Whether I like it or not there is power involved. I could ruin someone’s day, week, year or life by saying something careless in a rehearsal in front of all their friends. So I understand if there needs to be some distance.”

The vulnerability goes both ways, of course. “Try standing in front of 80 people with all the seats turned towards you, everyone expecting you to talk and do gestures that will make them play beautifully. There’s a body language to conducting that I’m judged on minute-for-minute.”

It sounds draining. With so much hanging in the balance, Søndergård says that the chance to build solid relationships in Wales and Scotland is a huge plus. “All that stuff becomes less of an issue the more we get to know each other. Less energy needs to be devoted to how we communicate; more energy can be devoted to the music.”

Thomas SøndergÃ¥rd conducts the RSNO at Dundee’s Caird Hall tomorrow, Edinburgh’s Usher Hall (Friday) and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (Saturday)

Sondergard on… Brahms

Thomas Sondergard enjoys exploring contemporary and non-mainstream repertoire, and he brings Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony to the RSNO later this season. This week, though, his programme focuses on Brahms’s Fourth. I asked how he approaches such a stalwart of the symphonic repertoire.

“Music is alive, so there’s no way I can just conduct Brahms or Beethoven all the time without adding new spices. And working with contemporary music makes me think differently about Brahms. For example, I might focus more on beauty than weight. Brahms is often played as if it’s a 300-kilo man, but after working on contemporary music I start to hear the beauty of pure sounds and harmonic clashes. So I might get the second violins to bring out a certain clash or the winds to bring out a certain texture. Most of all, though, I simply feel more like conducting Brahms after I’ve been conducting contemporary music. And that makes all the difference. Even if the audience has heard the piece a hundred times, the performers must be willing to play it as if it’s new-born.”