On Christmas morning, at his seaside home near Copenhagen, Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard made a difficult decision: He would step down as the music director of the Seattle Symphony, effective immediately, more than a year before the end of his contract.
He pressed send on a resignation email Jan. 3 — blindsiding an orchestra that was expecting his arrival a few weeks later to lead a world premiere and a Tchaikovsky symphony, and forcing the organization to scramble to find replacements for his remaining dates this season.
Dausgaard, 58, had seemed a good fit for his position, which he had held just since fall 2019. But he was separated from the acclaimed orchestra for much of 2020 and 2021 because of pandemic-related travel restrictions. And he had grown increasingly frustrated by what he described in an interview as a strained relationship with the orchestra’s managers, accusing the administration of repeatedly trying to silence and intimidate him. (The Seattle Symphony denies his allegations.)
“I felt personally not safe,” Dausgaard said, providing few specifics as he offered his first public comments on his abrupt resignation, which the orchestra announced Friday. “I felt threatened.”
Jon Rosen, the chair of the orchestra’s board, said, “There’s no accuracy to any allegations that there was a hostile environment or that he was, in fact, unsafe.”
By the time he returned to Europe, after finally making it to Seattle for a stint this fall, the board had grown increasingly disenchanted with Dausgaard. In late November, the board privately decided not to renew his contract, which was to have ended after the 2022-23 season, according to two people briefed on the decision who were granted anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
It is an unusually bitter, and open, rupture. Fraught relations between artists and administrators are hardly uncommon in classical music, which teems with big personalities. But the problems rarely break into view, or result in the immediate departure of music directors, who are often the public faces of their organizations.
The situation also highlights the strain the pandemic has placed on ensembles across the country. Many are grappling with waves of cancellations, visa delays and financial woes, among other problems.
The uncertainty has led some artists to reconsider their careers. In September, Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s music director, announced plans to step down in 2024, saying the pandemic had made him rethink his priorities. (He agreed to extend his original contract for a year before departing, to give the orchestra more time to find a successor.)
Dausgaard said that while he had considered resigning before the pandemic, the past two years had clarified his thinking.
“I felt my life is too precious to be in such tension,” he said.
Dausgaard’s association with the Seattle Symphony goes back more than a decade. He began appearing as a guest in 2010 and became principal guest conductor in 2014 — so it was something of an internal hire when he was named music director in 2017, with his tenure officially beginning in 2019. A live recording of concerts that year, featuring works by Strauss and Scriabin, was nominated for a Grammy.
Around the time Dausgaard was named music director, the symphony underwent a series of personnel changes. Krishna Thiagarajan, an experienced arts administrator, took over as president and CEO in 2018. Some veteran leaders, such as Elena Dubinets, who oversaw artistic planning, departed.
Dausgaard said he felt the culture of the organization shifted and became “ruled by fear.” At one point, he said, an employee of the orchestra was pressured to make negative comments about him to the administration. (The symphony denies the accusation.)
In February 2020, Dausgaard brought a list of grievances to the board, which investigated his accusations but found they did not have merit, Rosen said.
“We took it seriously,” Rosen added. “There was no validity to the charges.”
The board tried to make Dausgaard feel more at ease, said Rosen, who began meeting with Dausgaard weekly and was present when Dausgaard met with Thiagarajan.
But then the pandemic proved a turning point. Dausgaard was abroad from March 2020 until November 2021 largely because he was unable to get a visa to enter the United States, which imposed a ban on travelers from 33 countries.
The restrictions upended the classical music industry, stranding star musicians overseas and leading to a series of high-profile cancellations. But they were particularly disruptive in Seattle, with communication between Dausgaard and the orchestra reduced to town hall-style meetings on Zoom.
“It became sort of like a long-distance marriage that just wasn’t going to be working,” Rosen said.
Dausgaard finally received a visa and returned to Benaroya Hall in Seattle in November to great fanfare, for a program of Beethoven and Brahms. But the following week he canceled, citing illness, frustrating some board members and players. He returned to Denmark in late November.
Thiagarajan praised Dausgaard as “very inspiring” and “a man of conviction.” He said the symphony was doing its best to support him, including by allowing him to end his contract early without penalty.
The orchestra, like others, is at a delicate moment. It lost $15 million in anticipated ticket revenue over the first two years of the pandemic. Ticket sales remain far below pre-pandemic levels — attendance this season is down by about one-third — creating financial pressures. And without a music director, around whom marketing is often focused, attracting audiences and donations is even more difficult.
“It’s a double threat,” said Thomas W. Morris, a veteran orchestra administrator. “They’ve got to move quite expeditiously to reassert artistic leadership.”
Donors said they were taken aback by Dausgaard’s decision. “It was very abrupt, a very big surprise,” said Rebecca Benaroya, a member of the family for whom the orchestra’s hall is named. “He was hardly there.”
Charles Simonyi, another prominent donor, said that he was worried the orchestra would be without a music director during a vulnerable time, but that he believed it could weather the crisis.
“We are saddened that he is leaving the symphony,” said Simonyi, a software executive. “But we are looking forward to the renewal of the energy of the whole organization.”
When he took over as music director, Dausgaard was generally well regarded among the orchestra’s musicians. But his prolonged absence during the pandemic frustrated some, who began to have doubts about his commitment to the ensemble, according to interviews with players who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
Joseph Kaufman, the associate principal bass, praised Dausgaard as a “brilliant musician.”
“Nobody should fault him for living his life as he sees fit,” Kaufman said. “We all deserve that, don’t we?”
A series of guests, including Dausgaard’s predecessor, Ludovic Morlot, will take over the concerts he was to have led over the remainder of the season. The orchestra said it would soon begin a search for a new music director. (The New York Philharmonic is also looking, as are major ensembles in Chicago, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Salt Lake City and elsewhere.)
“We’re looking for someone who is interested and dedicated to being here, and keeping us on the trajectory of excellence that we have greatly appreciated and loved having with Thomas, and before that also with Ludo, and of course before that with Gerry Schwarz,” Thiagarajan said, referring to Morlot and his predecessor, Gerard Schwarz.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, of which Dausgaard is chief conductor, announced last week that he would not conduct a concert Thursday, quoting him in a statement as saying that “traveling at this moment in the pandemic is sadly not an option for me.” But in the interview, he said he would remain with that ensemble, and that he would miss the players in Seattle.
“It is the musical part which will always shine over the rest,” he said. “It’s the memories I have in my heart — of the music and of the wonderful musicians.”