Thomas Søndergård in Conversation

Thomas Søndergård
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
at Venue Cymru,
Photo: Betina Skovbro

Thomas Søndergård enjoyed an exceptional first full year as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 2013, forging a creative partnership with the orchestra which was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. This spring season 2014, he has chosen for his first concert back in Cardiff to conduct a programme of two leading contemporary Danish composers, Poul Ruders (b. 1949) and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b. 1932). The programme will include two arresting and contrasting pieces: Ruders’ Kafkappricio from the 2005 opera Kafka’s Trial and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Symphony, Antiphony, which won the Nordic Council Music Prize in 1980. You can hear them both at the Millennium Centre’s BBC Hoddinott Hall on 28 January.

Just over a week following the Danish concert, on February 7, Thomas and the orchestra will appear at St David’s Hall for an eagerly anticipated performance of Gustav Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 9; the composer’s final complete work and one of the greatest, most intense and complex symphonies ever written. It is a work which exerted a profound influence on music throughout the 20th century – and it also has poignant meaning and association for the conductor, as Steph Power discovered when she spoke with Thomas about the two concert programmes in a wide-ranging conversation.



Steph Power: Early this season you will be conducting two concerts with BBC NOW which, on the face of it, involve very different kinds of music – the first will present recent Danish music and the second, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 from the early 20th century. Would you agree with Luciano Berio that ‘spiritually and emotionally modern music started with Mahler’?

Thomas Søndergård: Yes that’s not far off. I often think how similar the 1st Chamber Symphony of Arnold Schoenberg is to the expression that you find in the 9th Symphony of Mahler. And actually, because I enjoyed Mahler so much when I played him many years ago as a percussionist, I arranged to conduct the 1st Chamber Symphony with my colleagues at the Royal Danish Opera so I could learn more about the whole period, the Second Viennese School and so on. And I loved it. This is the piece which was composed I think one or two years before Mahler’s 9th?

Yes, in 1906 [Mahler 9 was written in 1908-9].

There are many similarities in the counterpoint, especially in the third movement of the symphony. They are masterpieces, both of them – although funnily enough, most people that I speak to about this – even musicians – don’t really like the Chamber Symphony! But there are also many similarities between Mahler and the painter Gustav Klimt. The last time this struck me was in a museum in Venice when I stood in front of a Klimt painting. He was a Viennese contemporary of Mahler of course – and maybe you see similarities because you’re looking for them, I don’t know. But the way that Klimt uses gold and colours, Mahler also does in his score I think. He uses something that’s easy for the listener to absorb, which is Ländler or dances that we are familiar with, and then he just squeezes in these experiments with counterpoint around the colours and the gold, which makes you think deeper thoughts. That combination for the audience at that time must have been a bit over the top – too emotional – he was criticised for that. Which I can see even now, even if we are at a distance. I can still see the afterwaves of that.

It’s quite extraordinary isn’t it? That parallel – and the new approaches to colour and line which Mahler also inspired in other composers. There is an important link there with the idea of Klangfarbenmelodie [or ‘sound-colour-melody’] that Schoenberg in particular was exploring, which would come out in his Five Orchestral Pieces, composed around the same time as Mahler 9. But that intense emotional expression of Mahler’s really does reach an apotheosis in the 9th Symphony doesn’t it?

Oh yes. And it actually had a real live effect on me. I’ve experienced some devastating things in my life – when I was 10 my father died. It was terrible for years following that. I moved to Copenhagen and one of my biggest experiences was to perform in Mahler 9 in my final tour after two and a half years with the European Community Youth Orchestra as it was then called. And what struck me about Mahler’s music – and this is why I’d love to conduct it with youth orchestras if I work more with them – is that it contains all these incredible hopes, full of energy. You know Mahler’s world is right there in front of you, not just a little bit – and not held back. And for me, that just fitted incredibly well with the experience of being young. As a young person, you’re ready for anything – from the first sexual experience to the happiest hours with your friends, to testing how much you can drink, or how you can treat your friends or how love can bring you to the edge – things like that. But also the sorrow. Which of course I had in huge amounts when I was playing this piece. It was the last tour, and the last movement of Mahler 9 is of course a farewell in many ways. It just hit me like no piece of art had ever done in my life. Half the orchestra was crying on stage because we knew that it was maybe the one and only time that we would experience something like it – we all spoke about it together. We were going on from there to enter the profession, which is so much better in many ways – I wouldn’t change it! But the experience and the fun we had playing in the ECYO with the great conductors, the tours and the wonderful halls we played in. We knew it was the end of that.

Thomas Søndergård
Thomas Sondergard and BBC National Orchestra of Wales,
in Venue Cymru, Llandudno
Photo: Betina Skovbro

Mahler famously spoke – to Sibelius as it happens – about a symphony needing to contain the whole world. If ever one did, surely it would be his 9th!

Definitely yes. All the experience that a human can come across – that is what it really contains to me.

Many people have noted how this symphony seems both to look backwards to an intense romanticism, but also forwards to the new modernism of Schoenberg and others in response to the crisis in artistic expression at that time. It’s as if, on many levels, Mahler holds contrasts and dualities opposed without necessarily resolving them. How do you find the 9th yourself, preparing the score? Because it’s so volatile.

Well, I’ve noticed this too. But I don’t find it so much in the 9th as in, for example the 8th and 7th symphonies which also have those things. For some reason, the 9th falls more into place for me – and I find there is a real sense of finality. Except the [Rondo-] Burlesque, the third movement, which I think contains so much of a struggle, even if you really try to ‘force’ it into place, to make the structure very clear. And I’m not sure that’s the best way of actually performing it! Of course I will do my best with the BBC NOW and hopefully it will stand as it’s written! They are excellent players. But that’s not to say that the architecture of the movement is possible to hear very clearly.
I also think that Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony is similar in a way – certainly having slow movements at either end, which is a strange way of thinking about a symphony. So I don’t know. To me, maybe Mahler came to a point in life where none of that mattered so much. The 9th really is a piece of epic history, where he wants to tell us his view of life. And my God he must have felt so terrible also, as his daughter had died just the year before!

Yes indeed! And then he’d been diagnosed with a heart problem – and had to leave his beloved Vienna Opera for political reasons to work in New York! That parallel with Tchaikovsky 6 is interesting. Both works are often held up as examples of composers coming to terms with mortality and death. On the other hand, the letters Mahler sent to his close friend Bruno Walter from New York are actually quite cheerful and positively looking forward! As you say, both elements are there in that symphony, of sorrow and of embracing life – and yet, at the same time, of farewell.

I think when you read music like the 9th symphony – the score of it has followed me for many months now and whenever I feel like it, every day I go through some of the movements – it just makes me think about fate. Maybe I’ve done that all my life in a way, given what happened to me when I was young. But I realise now that I’m no longer young! Hopefully I’ll live a long time still, but if it’s going to feel like that when you know that death is not far away, as Tchaikovsky and Mahler both did, for me it’s so fantastic that there are artists out there that can actually describe how it feels. It actually calms me down and I’m very grateful for being able to take that in; what other artists can express of how it must feel when you’re close, to say goodbye. Because to me the 9th feels very at peace with things, ultimately. Even if you are desperate and afraid that death is going to happen now – or, like Stravinsky, afraid that you are ill all the time – what do you call it in English?


Exactly, yes. We all have that kind of stress, whether we compose or if we are workmen on the street, we know we’re going to die some day. But artists like Mahler and Tchaikovsky could express something that makes me rest more in life about getting to that edge. Of course, being composers, their response gets very brainy at times! It gets a little crowded shall we say, with so much information, and for the listener it’s probably not that easy. But for the analysts and a nerd like me – whatever – a conductor! – it’s just excitement! Because it’s amazing how he just makes it all fit.

It seems to me that one of the great excitements about the 9th is precisely that question of ‘where is the subject’? Can you hear it? Is it a colour, is it a theme? Is it a rhythm? What happens to that motif that seems to dive underneath and then pop up again somewhere else? It’s full of that kind of activity. Even in those outer movements, the slow movements,  they’re full of lines and colours treated in that way.

And when you study these lines – this is really interesting, really well pointed out – because I don’t know how many times that middle voices have interested me! For example, with second wind players, even if they’re often told ‘don’t cover the first wind player’ – I remember in my bringing up with Paavo Berglund, he often talked about how he wanted second wind players to support the principals – but they often have the most interesting lines you know! And these lines as you say, that dive down and come up again. By studying scores so intensely as we do, you actually hear them also when colleagues perform them in concert, even if they’re really covered up way inside the texture. When I first turned to conducting from being a player, this made me afraid that I would be too focused and too much at work when I should just enjoy listening to a concert sometimes! And that was very much the case at the beginning, but now that I have so much experience, I can actually sit in a concert and just enjoy it.

Oh that’s a delight – may you never lose that!

Exactly – because that’s what it’s about – you should also enjoy it! But of course there are different layers of enjoying. I do sometimes listen to the quality of what I’m hearing in concert, but try not to judge – and if I’m in the perfect mood I will just let it stream.

Backtracking a little to your Danish concert in January, there is a book on Carl Nielsen with an essay [by Colin Roth] entitled: ‘Stasis and Energy: Danish Paradox or European Issue?’ [Carl Nielsen Studies I: Ashgate 2003]. Certainly, a kind of simultaneous stasis and energy seems a feature of Nielsen’s music and that of some later Danish composers perhaps. But what struck me as so interesting, is that you could argue that stasis and energy are also big structural features of Mahler’s 9th Symphony – in completely different ways, in a different musical universe!

Well it’s funny you should say this. If we just go to Nielsen first, this is interesting because I’ve long had trouble – and still have trouble – with Nielsen’s music, which is of course in a way the summit of the Danish way of composing as he was number one. Rued Langgaard [1893-1952, who only began to be recognised several years after his death] of course had a long fight to get acknowledged as well as Mr Nielsen, who he really didn’t like – partly of course because of his success, whilst Langgard couldn’t get through! But what Nielsen is known, loved and hated for is his way of stumbling over his own legs in terms of harmony changes. There are people that have written about how amazing it is that Nielsen really double-surprises us by not only going to this tonality but changing into that and so on. But, to my ears, sometimes it’s not surprise, but really an empty disappointment. Though at other times – and also the older I get – it’s not quite that any more because he does it with a real twinkle in the eye actually.

But Mahler does the same! And especially in the bass lines I find, where the foundation is. I don’t know if it’s because I came as a timpanist from the percussion section, playing so much together with the basses, which made me very aware of the bass line. But there’s so much of what’s on the top of the bass line that I think we’re partly not aware of and I believe that composers are very conscious about how they build their sound. So if it’s not quite settled in the bass, it won’t work. I’m sure you also know of music where you have just one note and the harmony changes around that? Well, Mahler’s bass lines are full of these – and there’s a lot of sforzandi which feel somehow like a damaging experience of your soul. So there are real similarities with Nielsen in terms of strange harmony changes where you think: What?! Where is he? – Is he anywhere now?! Mahler actually eliminates the tonality and just forces us to listen to the elements on top of the bass line – the counterpoint that goes mad like a little firework that has no colour really. Or, at least, he asks us not to think about the colours or anything – he just forces us to listen to the elements.

Of course Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen and Poul Ruders are not Nielsen copiers or anything like that.

No, not at all.

Pelle’s piece I came across on a recording a long time ago. I never heard it live. But I was so taken by it that I knew I would love to programme it at some point. We actually programmed it in Copenhagen at the beginning of December last year but had to cancel the concert because of a storm. We’d got so far with it and Pelle had been in the hall and loved it, so I’m really glad to be doing it with the BBC NOW – I hope there won’t be any more storms!

No, I hope not!

It’s an excellent piece and I understand why he won the Nordic Council Music Prize for it.

That was in 1980 wasn’t it?

That’s right. It contains all sorts of funny layers – I don’t know if you’ve heard it?

I have, yes. It has an extraordinary structure where he squashes the ‘symphony’ into two and a half minutes at the beginning of the piece, followed by a series of six ‘antiphonies’ or responses to that. Do you think that’s his way of critiquing the hallowed view we have of the symphony as a form or genre?

I think so yes – there must be a twinkle there!

Pelle’s said all sorts of wonderful things like: ‘I have the definite impression that at times I succeed in curling the toes of the lay and the professional, which is an exquisite honour.’ He also has a refreshing attitude to music as embracing all sorts of sounds. How might you describe the soundworld of the piece? Because I don’t think many people in Wales will have come across Pelle’s music.

Well it’s very tricky to pin down. I’m thinking of the beginning, which is like a piano-percussion fanfare, and then you have three notes, boom boom boom, and it goes mad with chords on top of that. If I was to mention another composer, I don’t know, it would be Per Nørgård actually – but I’m sure Pelle would not like me saying that, even though I think they are very good friends. But that doesn’t really help your question in terms of audiences because they probably wouldn’t know Per Nørgård either! But Per studied Balinese gamelan music a lot and there are also many of those ideas from the ‘70s and ‘80s in this piece of Pelle’s. But actually, in Denmark around that time everything was Uendelighedsrækken… I wonder how you would say that in English? [Very broadly speaking, this word refers to an ‘infinity series’ or type of serialism whereby melody, harmony and rhythm are generated by use of mathematical mirroring]. It’s a structure with no end based on rows. If I take a line of notes left to right then mirror those backwards right to left, then mirror those four lines, and then mirror the result of that and so on. Those ideas became really important, especially in Per’s music. But it’s a hard question really, because I don’t think it’s easy to say what Pelle’s music reminds me of in terms of other composers.

No, I believe both he and Per Nørgård are very much individuals – like many Danish composers? At any rate, they didn’t form themselves into ‘schools’ as happened in Central Europe around figures like Boulez and Stockhausen for example. It strikes me that in Denmark composers absolutely went their own way at the start of the 20th century in response to that crisis of artistic expression we spoke of – which continued post-World War II. That individuality is terribly exciting I think.

I think so too. And, in a way, it’s very positive that we can’t really say who Pelle sounds like! There’s something in the tutti maybe where you can find similarities to other composers but in general, for example, just to have the courage to have the solo violin play entirely without the bow [makes a pizzicato sound]! He or she would play like that as you know for two minutes or more. And then you have the whole string section playing the same thing with these ‘stars’ sounding on top [makes bigger, popping sounds]. And then this honky-tonk piano that plays in its own time. You know, who else does that? It’s very much ‘70s, ‘80s, it’s true. But actually, you find composers that write very much like this now, today! So I really look forward to seeing how the BBC NOW reacts to it, because I hope that they like the piece too. Pelle is surely very proud of it. I gave him a lot of credit for it when I saw him and he was, ‘yes – I know, I know!’

And of course Poul Ruder’s music I know very well. As I’m sure you’re aware, I conducted the premiere of his opera Kafka’s Trial in 2005, from where his piece Kafkappricio comes. So therefore I know the material of the piece very well and it makes sense that I would do this too in the BBC NOW concert. Wow, 2005 is already nearly ten years ago!

Indeed it is! I suspect that people might be more familiar with Ruders’ music – it’s better known in the UK for sure than that of many Danish composers. Of course, you recorded the opera itself on CD too. But they’re very different composers aren’t they, Ruders and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen?

Yes. Actually the way Poul sometimes talks – or even the way he emails me – reminds me a lot of his music because, in the middle of a sentence you can have just a little flute you know – I mean, like a drawing – what do you call it in English – a little series of drawings that you get in newspapers. What do you call Donald Duck?

A cartoon?

A cartoon, exactly, cartoon music. And then on the other hand, one of the first experiences I had of Poul’s music was the opera he made of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. That is the most amazing piece of staging that I’ve seen, one of the strongest impressions I’ve ever had in an opera house. Now that music is something completely different from Kafka’s Trial. So that also shows that Poul really has a feeling for music-drama – and that was the bigger success I must say. Kafka’s Trial was also a success but the introduction was a little too long. It was 20 minutes, with the letter exchanges between Franz Kafka and his two lovers. But when it started, the actual process of the opera, then it really became alive, the whole drama – that was great.

In terms of his concert music, Ruders once described himself as being like ‘a film composer with no film’ – so perhaps he’s referring to that sense of drama; the cinematic quality of his music?

I’m fascinated he said that actually. Because I can imagine that many composers would not like to be described like that!

No, but it’s actually a great positive I think.

Yes – because it’s not easy to write music for film!

No indeed. I think it will be fascinating to present his music alongside Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s to a Cardiff audience.

I think so too – these two gentlemen mean a lot to me.

And clearly, Mahler also means a lot to you, for very personal reasons. So thank you for talking with me so frankly. I am very much looking forward to these two, very different concerts.

Yes, so am I, very much!

Thomas Søndergård
Rehearsals at BBC Hoddinott Hall
Photo: Betina Skovbro

Banner photo by Betina Skovbro