On the news of Thomas Dausgaard, BBCSSO chief conductor-designate

First published in The Herald on 11 March, 2015

Printed on the first page of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s 2015-16 season brochure —  released today — is a list of the orchestra’s artistic high-hiedyins. (Find me an institution more tenaciously hierarchical than an orchestra.) Top of the list comes Donald Runnicles, chief conductor, then principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, artist-in-association Matthias Pintscher and leader Laura Samuel. Then there’s a slight gap, followed by a new name: Thomas Dausgaard, chief conductor-designate.

After all the fuss and fanfare of last week’s appointment of Simon Rattle as new music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC SSO’s announcement is a veritable coup-de-théâtre of understatement. True, Dausgaard isn’t the household name that Rattle is, and the BBCSSO isn’t saddled with the hype and politics of London’s flagship orchestra. But it would be wrong to mistake the unshowy Dausgaard for any kind of musical lightweight. This is an intriguing, intelligent and potentially very exciting appointment.

Dausgaard (in English he pronounces the ’s’, so that the first syllable rhymes with ‘cows’) is a Danish conductor in his early 50s. With a mop of bushy grey hair and expressive eyebrows, he’s known for performances of robust, rigorous and unfussy integrity. His earliest musical memories involve improvising jazz at home with his dad and wanting to play guitar in a rock band. He is outdoorsy, a keen walker, a father of three. According to his official biography, he has a “fascination with the life and culture of remote communities: he has visited head-hunting tribes in Borneo, volunteered as a farmer in China and stayed with villagers on an island in the South Pacific.” When he speaks about music he is unpretentious, inquisitive and excitable.

Dausgaard is currently principal guest conductor of the Seattle Symphony and chief conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Previous posts include principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, with whom he recorded the complete symphonies of Schumann, Beethoven and the early 20th-century Danish maverick Rued Langgaard. Musicians reputedly enjoy working with him and critics tend to be impressed by his sculpted, energetic interpretations.

The BBCSSO has history with Scandinavians, of course, particularly through the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä (chief conductor from 1996-2002). As last month’s searing performances of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony under Donald Runnicles demonstrated, this ensemble can summon the right sound for Nordic music. Without being too geographically reductionist about it — the shared light and latitude, the peculiar psychology of people who know about wild weather and open spaces — there is no question that our orchestras respond well to fellow northerners. Think of the superb relationship happening just up the road from City Halls with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and its principal guest conductor Thomas Søndergård, another Dane.

Dausgaard is about to embark on a Sibelius symphony cycle in Seattle, and the first programme he brings to the BBCSSO next season is a Sibelius triple-hitter of the fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies. For anyone who missed his recent appearances with the orchestra — which have included Bruckner’s Second, Nielsen’s Fourth, Dvorak’s Ninth and Shostakovich’s 14th symphonies — that concert on 8 October should be an ideal introduction.

What is potentially so exciting about Dausgaard’s appointment is that it isn’t an attempt to replace Runnicles like-for-like. Runnicles brought the orchestra his clout as an international Wagnerian; he played to his strengths in Germanic longform and has developed the orchestra accordingly — beefy textures, grand architecture. The results have been thrilling in Wagner, Berg, Beethoven, Mahler and more. Runnicles will take on the title Emeritus Conductor in 2016 and has already indicated that he hopes to continue programming big scores, including opera.

Although Dausgaard is respected for his interpretations of core symphonic repertoire, he is more often associated as a champion of lesser-known Scandinavian voices. And that means his appointment is a commitment to the kind of off-piste programming that has become the orchestra’s USP in recent years. From the slick Euro-avant-gardism of Pintscher to the earthier experimentalism of Volkov via the odd vintage obscurity from regular guest conductor Martyn Brabbins, the BBCSSO now plays rare and contemporary orchestral music as well as any orchestra in the world. Certainly, its range is broader and more interesting than any other orchestra in the UK. The success of Volkov’s contemporary music festival Tectonics at enticing younger, hipper audiences into City Halls has not gone unnoticed by the powers that be, and the official line issued from Ken MacQuarrie, director of BBC Scotland, is tellingly worded: “creativity is the lifeblood of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and Thomas Dausgaard will ensure the orchestra continues to be one of the most dynamic and boundary pushing orchestras in Scotland and the world.” A chief conductor who is passionate about the radical Danish symphonist Per Nørgard? Whose regular fare includes Allan Pettersson, Frans Berwald, Bent Sørensen, Johan Svendsen, Dag Wirén, August Enna…? Bring it on.

But to the season at hand, Runnicles’ last at the helm. There is no opera on the bill, which will disappoint those of us enthralled by the recent Tristans and Wozzecks, but Runnicles opens and closes with Mahler — the first and the tenth symphonies, in reverse order — and includes Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis among his weightier programmes. Responsibility for celebrating the orchestra’s 80th anniversary in December falls to Pintscher, who conducts Mozart and Mahler alongside the UK premiere of a work of his own called Idyll. The marvellous Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin is back to play Brahms’s two piano concertos, and there’s a focus on the concertos of South Korean composer Unsuk Chin. Soloists include oboist François Leleux, clarinettist Kari Kriikku, soprano Claire Booth, mezzo Sarah Connolly, pianist Jonathan Biss and violinists James Ehnes, Vadim Repin and Viviane Hagner.

More details have still to be announced, particularly around the contemporary programmes. There are dates listed for three Hear and Now concerts (the first featuring music by Ryan Wigglesworth and Oliver Knussen) and, happily, for a fourth instalment of Tectonics. On that note, BBCSSO director Gavin Reid stopped short of saying the boundary-pushing festival has an ‘assured’ place in the orchestra’s annual calendar, but said he recognised it has made “a huge impact in widening the orchestra’s repertoire and inquisitive audiences”. I suspect that inquisitive audience will be particularly receptive to what Dausgaard has in store for us come 2016.

BBCSSO 2015-16 highlights

  • Mahler. Donald Runnicles opens the season with the Tenth Symphony (in Deryk Cooke’s completion) and closes the season with the First. 24 September 2015 & 19 May 2016
  • Sibelius symphonies with Thomas Dausgaard. The Dane’s first concert with the BBCSSO since being announced chief conductor-designate is 8 October 2015
  • Unsuk Chin. Wu Wei plays the Sheng Concerto on 5 November 2015;  Kari Kriikku plays the Clarinet Concerto on  14 January 2016; Viviane Hagner plays the Violin Concerto on 7 April 2016
  • 80th birthday concert. François Leleux plays Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, Sarah Connolly and Andrew Staples sing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Matthias Pintscher conducts the UK premiere of his own orchestral piece Idyll.
  • Missa Solemnis. Donald Runnicles conducts the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and soloists Kim-lillian Strebel, Stephanie Lauricella, Toby Spence and Marko Mimica
  • Tectonics. 7-8 May 2016; programme to be announced early 2016