The skies, the Sound, the snowy Olympics: Thomas Dausgaard loves snapping photo after photo of Seattle’s maritime views in their constantly changing light. He is almost magnetically attracted to this view.
And Seattle classical-music fans are equally attracted to his conducting. Dausgaard sends out a kind of force field from the podium, inspiring the musicians and wrapping the audiences up in his joy and enthusiasm. He compels them to listen, to involve themselves in the music.
This synergy between the Danish maestro and the city augurs well as Seattle Symphony opens its new season Sept. 14 — its first with Dausgaard as music director.
The silver-haired Dane, 56, who has guest conducted with Seattle Symphony for years, succeeds Ludovic Morlot as the artistic head and principal conductor of the 90-member orchestra. With a budget of $33.7 million, Seattle Symphony ranks among the 20 largest orchestras in the U.S.
“I’m thrilled,” Dausgaard says of assuming his new post. “I really love the orchestra, with its wonderful musicians, backed by great people around us, and in a wonderful place on Earth. You saw my enthusiasm for the light on the water — it makes me feel at home here. And I see many possibilities in Seattle: I would like to see the orchestra as one of the most innovative arts organizations and symphony orchestras in North America.”
How does he plan to achieve this?
“Every orchestra can say they want to be the best,” Dausgaard observes. “Of course we want excellence. But it’s much more meaningful to think in terms of innovation and how we can make our music relevant to the people around us. I’m thrilled every time I’m here that I feel we understand each other on a deeper and deeper level. I feel I can build on what I’ve done before. So I’m really excited that I’ll be here so much more that the intensity of building this language can escalate.”
An orchestra finds its own voice, Dausgaard believes, through intensive endeavors like the Beethoven festival planned for June next year. For his first season as music director, Dausgaard says he’s very lucky that it’s the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, because Beethoven’s music was “the single most important gateway for me into classical music. I have lived very closely with his music; the symphonies are some of the first things I ever recorded. Certain pieces, like the ‘Pathétique’ Piano Sonata, just caught me and made me want to hear them again and again. Coming from that experience in the fingers to hearing these larger-than-life explosions in the symphonies was so dramatic for me.”
But he doesn’t want to present Beethoven in Seattle as just a lineup of symphonies, concertos and other major orchestral works.
“I am excited that we are finding a way of engaging with the community to present Beethoven,” Dausgaard says.
“We spoke to a representative of the [Coast Salish peoples], Paul Wagner, about our collaboration for one Beethoven concert with Native American musicians and others joining in. We can really learn from them. We don’t just accompany them.”
What are Dausgaard’s goals in Seattle — besides making beautiful music?
“We want to deepen the trust with the audience,” Dausgaard says. “I would like that they trust us so much that even if we didn’t announce the program, they would want to be here. I had a wonderful experience when I was with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra where we created a series so popular that people didn’t care what we were playing. For one very challenging work, we had a very full hall: people trusted us. I would love that to be so in Seattle too.
“We can focus so much on a limited number of famous works which are limiting for all of us,” he continues. “This prevents people from having other wonderful experiences, and limits the exposure of the musicians to many different things. We want music to be alive with all kinds of byways.”
There’s already a strong bond between Dausgaard and the Seattle Symphony musicians, whom he first guest-conducted in 2003. (He was appointed principal guest conductor in 2014).
“It is the dynamic between us which is unique. I find we already have quite a strong language together,” the maestro observes. “This feeling of having something very important in common is the reason I am here. I feel at home here, too.”
The Scandinavian vibe scattered throughout the city doesn’t hurt either: “I am in love with the new Nordic Museum,” Dausgaard says. “I also loved the older version of it.”
Like almost everyone else involved in classical music, Dausgaard is concerned about the development of future concert audiences in a digital era where the concert hall is increasingly terra incognita.
“I’ve done some projects in Europe where kids can be on the stage and see the level of musicians’ concentration and focus, and the pride in the final results. There is a real joy inside these experiences,” Dausgaard observes.
“I recall reading an article in The Wall Street Journal several years ago, asking, ‘Who are the concertgoers?’ About three-quarters of them were people with hands-on musical experience. The main reason to be there in the audience is if you’ve tried making music yourself.”
Not surprisingly, Dausgaard is very happy that “music from my part of the world” has such a resonance in Seattle. His 2015 Sibelius Festival here, with performances of all seven of the Sibelius symphonies, drew an overwhelmingly positive response from the audiences, with nightly standing ovations for music that does not always ignite such a reaction.
“I don’t want to be in a box of just promoting music from Scandinavia,” Dausgaard says. “My season is more universal. But I’m really excited about the resonance that this music has here, in the orchestra and in the audience.”
Dausgaard plans to spend at least 12 weeks a year in Seattle, “which is more or less the usual thing at the moment [for music directors],” he said. In addition, he will continue as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and he continues with honorary conductor posts in Italy (Orchestra della Toscana) and his native Denmark (Danish National Symphony Orchestra).
“It’s a very positive thing that I bring connections with other organizations,” he says. “There is a constant flow of information because I’m deeply involved with them all.”
Dausgaard’s family is planning to come for the Seattle season opener. He is married to Helle Hentzer, an educator, psychotherapist and grief counselor. They have three sons: Tobias, who is studying architecture in London; Christoffer, who is at Warwick University studying PPE (politics, philosophy and economy); and Jakob, who studies the piano and lives at home in Copenhagen.
And what does the maestro do, when he’s not conducting or studying music?
He enjoys kayaking with his wife, walking their dog in the forest, and hanging out with his kids.
“When I’m home I don’t do music very much; I’m with my family in other ways. Then I always optimistically bring a stack of books with me, and find new books in the bookshop constantly.”
And, he says, “I really need silence. Silence is very important; it’s when we feel in contact with ourselves. I can only do music on the background of silence. I’ve been privileged all my life that my family has a place in Sweden that is far away from everything. Just thinking of it, I know it is there, and that I can get to a place where I can hear even the most quiet things. Then I feel connected to something deep inside — how we must have felt thousands of years ago. It awakens that alertness in me which I love.”
Seattle Symphony opening night; 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; tickets start at $58; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org
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