Watching Thomas Dausgaard conduct the Seattle Symphony Orchestra is like watching a tall dad jam out to Zep at a particularly excellent reunion show. As he rigidly rocks back and forth and bops up and down, his cloud of white hair flops around as if he's head-banging. With his sweeping hand gestures and emphatic fist-clenching, he seems to be conjuring some music god from the mountain tops. The composition is clearly alive and buzzing around within him, and you can tell he knows exactly the way he expects each blast and swell from the orchestra to play out. From the audience, he seems game, earnest, amiable, genuinely curious about his art, and eager to tell people everything he thinks about it. And he is! Or at least he was when I sat down to talk with him earlier this week.
Dausgaard will take over as the symphony's music director when Ludovic Morlot moves onto wherever he's moving onto next year. But for now he's the principal guest conductor, and in that capacity he's presenting a suite of Brahms pieces tonight that the composer himself described as "all blue sky, babbling of streams, sunshine and cool green shade," according to press materials. Given all the recent changes at the symphony, I wanted to get to know our future music director and talk about why he'd take a job in the United States right now when we're doing such a bad job of being a country.
The conductor hails from a northern suburb of Copenhagan, Denmark. Like every other symphonic musician you talk to, he started playing music around the age of 3. His grandmother was a famous pianist and teacher, and she'd been a student of Denmark's most famous composer, Carl Nielsen. Dausgaard's father played a lot of jazz piano around the house, so there was always music in the air. And from the time he was able to sit up, he says, his family dropped him in a highchair and placed him next to his dad's piano bench.
But unlike every other symphonic musician you talk to, Dausgaard pursued other interests (such as biology!) and other instruments, and he even played rhythm guitar in a protest band on Danish national television in the mid-1970s. The song was called—what else?—“Demonstration.”
"We had no band name and that is why we failed," he told me in his well-appointed office at Benaroya Hall. The crew of 10-year-olds rehearsed in a basement and mostly played school parties. One of the guys in the band had a father who was a famous author, and he invited them to play at a housing co-op he was living in at the time. This house show increased their notoriety, and through happenstance, eventually they ended up on television. During an interview after the performance, the kids admitted they had no band name and no real musical inspirations. The interviewer rolled his eyes, and it became clear to Dausgaard and his friends that they didn't stand much of a chance in the mainstream. They broke up not long after that, alas.
Though it'd only increase his prestige in the eyes of most Stranger readers, Dausgaard's nervous about developing a reputation as a young, radical rock-and-roll star, and so insists he had no explicit political motivations for making music at the time. “It was modest!" he says. "It was daily life! There was nothing special about it at the time! We were not leading protests or anything, it was just the natural mood of the era."
Shortly after abandoning the band with no name, Dausgaard had what he calls "a revelation experience" with a Beethoven sonata. "I had to hear it again and again and again. It had a resonance with my being. I bought my first LP with two of the piano concertos on it and I thought, 'How could I have lived so long without knowing about this?!'"
Very early on in life—around first grade—he'd been drawn to the mysteries of writing music. As he learned notation, he grew more interested in understanding the various shapes music makes, and discovering the patterns composers use to make those shapes. "For instance," he said, getting a little excited to geek out for a second, "In some pieces, like the Brahms second symphony we’re playing this weekend, there are these three notes at the beginning. Those notes are the basis of many of the themes that weave throughout the 40-minute work. Realizing things like that—you feel like it’s a revelation! You think, 'Is it just me who realizes this?? What an incredible insight!'" he said. "And those moments are so precious. They made me want to realize something about the language, to get on the backside of the language. That was for me the way in."
This little pre-teen tornado of passion for classical music drove Dausgaard to start attending concerts and observing rehearsals at the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, where he now holds the title of honorary conductor.
In addition to his principal guest conductor job at Seattle Symphony, he's also chief conductor for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Plus, he holds an honorary conductor title with the Orchestra della Toscana.
With all these international gigs, which allow him to work throughout the year, why does Dausgaard want to take a job in the United States when he could just double down in Sweden, which has healthcare, good fish, and the world's largest model of our solar system?
"There’s important work to be done here," he said in reply. "And you have great orchestras. You have a different kind of rhythm in your work," he adds.
In the States, Dausgaard says, orchestras rehearse for a very short period of time but then play several shows. In Europe, the orchestras practice for a long period of time and then hold perhaps only one performance.
"I've always enjoyed jumping between both places," he said. "It keeps my mind fresh! To put something together in a very short time but with the highest level of expertise and then figuring out how to develop things through the concert series—that’s a different dynamic than having one concert where you put everything on one performance."
While Morlot brought a lot of weird-ass French music to Seattle, Dausgaard is slated to bring some fascinating and challenging Danish music. The symphony has already recorded Dausgaard conducting Carl Nielsen's third and fourth symphonies, and they plan to record the rest of his six symphonies during his tenure here.
"Nielsen is the big god in our country, and we play him all the time. So we can’t really understand why you people outside our country don't do the same thing," Dausgaard said, laughing.
When Dausgaard starts talking about his relationship with Nielsen's work, he slips into a gleeful professorial mode. He says, like Beethoven, Nielsen's music resonates with him in a personal way. "I’ve known it since before I can remember. Some of the songs we have in Danish are written by him. But they’re written in such away that they sound like they’ve always been around—it’s almost like they’re part of a folk heritage," he said. "As it happens, they’re some of the most beautiful songs we have."
Dausgaard will roll out some more Nielsen soon, but you should go watch him rock out to Brahms this weekend.