We love a good story about a conductor running away. Love his direction or hate him, Thomas Dausgaard has always thought of bigger things.
I had already typed in Thomas Dausgaard’s name several times on January 7, before news broke that the conductor had suddenly resigned as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony. I was writing a review of Dausgaard’s last recording: an interpretation of Mendelssohn Symphonies 1 and 3 with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra which exudes all the clarity, freshness and intensity that have characterized the Dane’s work with this ensemble for decades. Another Dausgaard winner, I signed. Then I started browsing the Internet.
Dausgaard’s reign at SCO Örebro is now one of the only spells in his career that has not ended under a cloud. His departure from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 2011 was friendly but undeniably the result of a certain tension, although he has conducted brilliant concerts with the ensemble since (he remains honorary conductor of the orchestra). In the wake of the Seattle debacle, an opinion piece in The Scottish hinted, with no qualms about kicking an already dejected man, that Dausgaard’s Chief Conductor of the BBC Glasgow Orchestra would pass away rather pathetically even if he had the temerity to cross the North Sea and to finish it (therefore, a lose-lose for Dausgaard).
I was never in the same room when Dausgaard conducted the BBC Scottish (BBCSSO) or the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. I also did not have to play an instrument under his orders, as the musicians of all these ensembles regularly do. But I saw him rehearse with three orchestras in Sweden and Denmark and came away with the impression of a musician whose intensity is inspiring and generous, even exhausting. On the rare occasions we have met, I have found Dausgaard to be a thoughtful, honest and warm person – someone who drives her own career seems rooted in a larger, more holistic view of the world and its cultures. And yes, perhaps also the one who constantly buzzes with personal art projects a certain fragility.
Seattle’s nomination may have gone awry, but the biggest news story about the breakup – this deeply contextual piece by Douglas McLennan – opens with the thoughtful and reasoned assessment that the Seattle Symphony Orchestra “never sounded better” than under Dausgaard. Reading McLennan’s investigative reporting, it’s easy to conclude that Dausgaard was simply a victim of Seattle’s “toxic” management culture. But then the BBCSSO didn’t exactly rush to the defense of the conductor, whose contract they extended for another three years in 2019.
Dausgaard may have rubbed his Glasgow colleagues the wrong way by choosing not to visit them for 20 months and counting (there is hearsay about other dissatisfactions). But nowhere on his original contract did it say the bandleader would be forced to run the gauntlet of traveling to lead them, often without an audience, amidst the chaos and danger of a global pandemic. Furthermore, it seems very clear, even to an outside observer, that this is a man who has been in some degree of distress, no doubt in part due to the dumpster fire. garbage that raged in Seattle.
This was clear from hearing Dausgaard speaking to the Danish equivalent of Radio 3 Allowed Last week. When asked what implications the mid-season resignation might have on his reputation and future career, he seemed completely bewildered, admitting after a significant silence that it was not something he had considered “of this way”. He is not a career strategist, much less a man versed in political machinations.
The urge to lead still lingers, Dausgaard told Swedish radio station P2, but his current priorities include “managing his ears”, “listening to me better” and “hearing the grass grow” (a Danish turn of phrase, suggesting to take a step away from the rat race). He was also candid about the “totally different work culture” introduced at the Seattle Symphony when it changed management in September 2018, a culture in which the principle of listening did not, he said, extend beyond from the concert stage.
Dausgaard told P2 about his desire to grow and eat his own vegetables and re-establish a personal connection with nature (all in his mind before the pandemic, as the logistical madness of an international conducting career came to an end regularly) – a classic Nordic retreat into the natural world that is found again and again in the art and literature of the region and its creators. His return to the country also echoes the experience of other artists who have found their way back to a safe and consensual Scandinavia after stays in countries where the arts are less rooted in society and more subject to market pressures ( aka “the real world”).
More than anything, Dausgaard’s fermata and openness to discussing it parallels the experiences of those athletes who have decided, after years of traveling the world to perform under the gaze of the press and public, that enough is enough. They took a break for the sake of their own sanity. Nobody blamed them for that.
From the perspective of a listener and a critic – not someone who fell victim to Dausgaard’s musical leadership or the intense playing style he so obviously demands of his players – I can’t wait to see him again. to manage. I also can’t wait to see him build idiosyncratic programs again. Fascinating and contextual programs were a clear manifestation of Dausgaard’s idealism, naïve or not. Another was his desire to escape. He is a man who has lived with tribes of headhunters in Borneo and on a remote island in the South Pacific.
Dausgaard’s career trajectory as an international conductor will seem equally unorthodox after the end of his two most important jobs this year. But I doubt he cares much. That’s not really the point. Concluding his interview with P2, Dausgaard described himself as “very grateful for the opportunity” to reset. So whether you like his direction or not, he can’t be faulted for seeing the big picture when a lot of us apparently can’t.