Instrumentalists turned conductors tend to be pianists or violinists. Think of Daniel Barenboim or Pinchas Zukerman. But Danish maestro Thomas Søndergård got his start as a timpanist, first as a member of the European Union Youth Orchestra in 1989-1992 and then with the Royal Danish Orchestra beginning in 1992.
“It is rare,” said Søndergård of conductors with a percussion background. But he cited other examples, including probably the most famous, Simon Rattle, who studied piano and violin but served as a percussionist for the Merseyside Youth Orchestra (now called the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Orchestra). Santtu-Matias Rouvali, chief conductor of the Gothenburg (Sweden) Symphony Orchestra, formerly a percussionist with such ensembles as the Lahti Symphony and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, is another.
Søndergård, 49, who will make his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts Nov. 15-18, began thinking at an early age about the potential power of the connection between conductors and orchestras. He noticed how “electrifying” it was when famed maestros such as Claudio Abbado and Bernard Haitink worked with the European Union Youth Orchestra. “And that really made me think,” he said. “Maybe I will just look into this and see if it interests me. I was just more interested in getting to know the scores in a deeper way.”
The idea of conducting only grew stronger in 1992 when Søndergård watched Georg Solti, who had recently ended his celebrated tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony, in a guest-conducting appearance with the Royal Danish Orchestra.
Around age 27, Søndergård began devoting time to conducting studies, working with such mentors as Yves Abel, Graham Bond and Alexander Polianichko and consulting with others. At their suggestion, he conducted some of his orchestral colleagues in chamber performances as a way of gaining experience. In 2005, he led the premiere of Poul Ruders’ Kafka’s Trial with the Royal Danish Opera, and he became principal conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra four years later.
The conductor spoke to Sounds and Stories during his second week as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. “It’s quite a special relationship,” he said. In 2009, he was called in as a last-minute podium replacement for Yakov Kreizberg, and two years later, he became the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. “Now we just find that we just get so well along that we just have to take a step further, so that’s why I’m now with them 10 weeks a season.”
He has typically traveled to the United States once or twice a year, but he expects that number to grow in the coming years, as he ratchets up his presence in this country. “It’s no secret that appearing with the CSO suddenly opens new doors as well in America, and that’s thrilling, of course,” he said.
As a Scandinavian conductor, Søndergård wanted to include something from his native region on his CSO debut program, so it opens with a rare performance of Sibelius’ Nocturne and Ballade from the Finnish composer’s incidental music for the play King Christian II. The CSO, which presented the U.S. premiere of the suite drawn from this music in 1902, has not played any section of the work since 1946. In June, Søndergård released a recording of this piece as part of an album of Sibelius’ tone poems and incidental music with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, for which he served as principal conductor from 2012 through 2018.
The Ballade depicts an infamous movement in Scandinavian history known as the Stockholm Bloodbath. Shortly after Christian II was crowned king of Sweden in 1520, he sanctioned the execution of more than 100 subjects, including members of the aristocracy who had supported a previous regent. “It’s quite dramatically depicted in Sibelius’ music,” Søndergård said,
Also on the program is Tchaikovsky’s celebrated Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Alexander Gavrylyuk, also in his CSO debut. Søndergård and the pianist will perform the same concerto the week before in Scotland, “so we’ll know each other when we arrive in Chicago.”
Rounding out the lineup is Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1, which the orchestra last performed in 2010. The work’s disastrous 1897 premiere, caused in part by under-rehearsal and deficiencies in Alexander Glazunov’s conducting, led to the composer to a psychological collapse.
Søndergård has championed this work, which he believes has been unfairly neglected. “I really want it to be more known,” he said. “It’s really grand, and it has the charm that you find later on in many of his pieces. Even if this was a really bad experience for him, he quotes the first theme in his [final work from 1940] Symphonic Dances, which I find really touching.”