Minnesota Orchestra Names Thomas Sondergard as Music Director

The Minnesota Orchestra, after the departure of a longtime leader who shepherded the ensemble through the most tumultuous period in its history, announced on Thursday that the Danish conductor Thomas Sondergard would become its next music director.

Sondergard, who has conducted the orchestra several times in the past year, currently leads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and will continue to do so. In Minnesota, he succeeds Osmo Vänskä, who led the group for about 19 years — including during a lockout that was one of the most bitter labor disputes in classical music in recent history.

A former principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Sondergard first conducted the Minnesota Orchestra in December, leading Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Ein Heldenleben,” among other pieces.

“It was just a beautiful, open-minded, warm, interested first meeting with the ensemble,” Sondergard, 52, said in an interview. “I just felt instantly that there was a connection.”

Sondergard brings an anti-authoritative spirit to an orchestra that, perhaps more than most, values a democratic approach, following a contentious period between musicians and orchestra leadership about a decade ago. In Scotland, he said, he has sought to encourage a collaborative ethos among musicians by asking them to rehearse — and sometimes perform — without a conductor during one week of the year; instead, the concertmaster steps in when a leader is required.

“Musicians have long educations and loads of ideas about how music-making can be done,” Sondergard said. “They aren’t puppets.”

In a news release announcing the appointment, R. Douglas Wright, the orchestra’s principal trombone, said that in the performance of “Ein Heldenleben,” Sondergard “trusted the musicians to do our job in a way that gave us great freedom.”

The chair of the orchestra’s board of directors, Joseph T. Green, said he believed Sondergard would prove to be a “powerful advocate” for the musicians.

A timpanist who joined the Royal Danish Orchestra in 1992, Sondergard has served as guest conductor for ensembles around the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony. In April, Sondergard returned to the Minnesota Orchestra to conduct Debussy’s “La Mer” and Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements.”

Sondergard starts as music director designate in the 2022-23 season before formally stepping into the position in fall 2023; he’ll adopt the group’s missions, including helping the company weather the ongoing effects of the pandemic shutdown and diversifying both the ranks of the orchestra and of the composers whose music it plays.

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