Seattle Symphony music director Thomas Dausgaard has abruptly stepped down from his post, midway through his third season at the top of Seattle’s flagship orchestra.
Dausgaard’s last day with the Symphony was earlier this week; he conveyed his decision via email from his home in Denmark to Seattle Symphony board chair Jon Rosen, according to the Symphony. The Danish conductor had only been back in person with the Symphony for a concert less than two months ago, after pandemic-related travel restrictions kept him away for some 20 months.
“My decision to step away at this moment when we’ve realized such collective artistic success is a result of these pandemic times, which centers the question for us all: how do we value our lives?” Dausgaard said in a Symphony news release. “I have enjoyed immensely my life with the Seattle Symphony, and it is time for me to move on.”
Dausgaard, who could not immediately be reached for comment, is leaving ahead of his originally planned final season in 2022-23, and with concerts he’s been scheduled to conduct coming up. Seattle Symphony says it’s arranging for guest conductors to step in and that programming updates for the current season will be announced shortly.
“The pandemic has been a time of great challenge and self-reflection for us all, and so we understand and respect his decision,” Seattle Symphony President and CEO Krishna Thiagarajan said in the news release.
“I don’t know that I expected it, but I’m not sure I was totally surprised,” Thiagarajan said Friday morning of Dausgaard’s decision, adding that coronavirus restrictions have presented Dausgaard with “significant problems in travel” and that the conductor’s “difficulty in making music regularly” with the Seattle Symphony prompted his departure.
There are no plans at this time to appoint an interim music director. Thiagarajan was optimistic about the Symphony continuing a relationship with Dausgaard in some form and the possibility that he’ll be invited to return to guest conduct.
The Symphony will appoint a search committee — including representatives of musicians, board and staff — to find its next music director, said spokesperson Dinah Lu.
Jeff Fair, a member of the Symphony’s horn section since 2003, said on Friday, “I’m disappointed but understand the decision that he felt that he had to make.” The notification came by surprise Friday morning during a Zoom meeting called by Thiagarajan, he said. “I did not suspect that this decision was coming, but given the difficulty in Maestro Dausgaard being able to travel to Seattle during the pandemic, it is not an entirely surprising outcome.”
Fair, who also played in the orchestra during the previous tenures of music directors Gerard Schwarz and Ludovic Morlot, recalled that Dausgaard’s “chemistry and charisma with the orchestra was evident from the very first time that he conducted the Seattle Symphony.” Fair singled out the Symphony’s performances of two vast and challenging works, Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 and Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony,” as high points of their collaboration with Dausgaard: “The sound and brilliance that he could draw from the string sections was especially inspiring to me. … His interpretation of those works and our performances of them epitomize what I feel will be his lasting mark on the SSO — a sheer joy in making live music that inspired the musicians as well as the community.”
Dausgaard, who is also chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (he’s in his final season there), began his tenure as Seattle Symphony’s music director in fall 2019, after several years of guest conducting here. He first appeared with the SSO as guest conductor in 2010, and was appointed principal guest conductor starting with the 2014-15 season.
But he faced upheaval caused by COVID-19, with concert cancellations announced through January 2021 and streaming concerts performed without a live audience for the remainder of last season. Dausgaard was unable to physically be with the Symphony, as visa issues related to pandemic travel restrictions kept him out of the country. Live audiences returned this past September, with masking and proof-of-vaccination requirements and distanced seating in Benaroya Hall, the orchestra’s home. Dausgaard finally was able to rejoin the Symphony in person for a Nov. 11 concert.
His directorship began promisingly, with Dausgaard continuing the orchestra’s acclaimed series of recordings on its in-house label, Seattle Symphony Media. The Symphony is up for a Grammy Award this year in the best orchestral performance category for a live recording of music by Scriabin and Strauss taken from concerts in the opening months of Dausgaard’s inaugural season. The orchestra was also a nominee for a 2019 Grammy in the same category for its Dausgaard-conducted “Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4.”
Dausgaard’s programming plans continued, and even expanded on, the interest in contemporary music and new commissioned works initiated by Morlot and Schwarz, with increased attention paid to music by women composers and composers of color.
“Thomas Dausgaard is a true visionary who has had a lasting impact on the Seattle Symphony community,” Rosen, the Symphony’s board chair, said in the news release. “His more than a decade conducting and leading our orchestra has been marked by artistic success and a genuine, enthusiastic connection with musicians and audiences alike.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Dausgaard conveyed his decision via email, not phone.