Thomas Søndergård, the Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales, speaks with Luke Owain Boult about his plans for the orchestra, engaging children with classical music, and finding comfort in music.
Congratulations on your extension as the Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales. What are your plans for the next two years?
When you spend so much time with a group, it’s because the relationship is really good, and we’ve explored all sorts of music together. Inspiring kids to start to listen to classical music has been a real high point for me, it’s really something extraordinary. On the top of that of course, we’ve started our Mahler cycle and we’ll be touring as well, which is one thing that I’m really looking forward to. Last year we had the Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson with us, and that was just… great. He was a new and welcoming inspiration.
What drew you to Mahler in the first place?
For me, Mahler was where I found most of my breaks. It causes mixed emotions, lots of emotions, and I guess that’s what drew me to it in the beginning when I was a very young man playing percussion with the European Community Youth Orchestra. That made a huge impact on me. Also when you’re young and searching for so many things in life, you experience lots for the first time. In the symphonies you can hear all of these things – the joy, the weirdness and the search for the meaning of life. I also lost my father when I was very young and the music of Mahler comforted me.
What is the best way of getting younger audiences interested in classical music?
It has to capture them at the right moment. There’s an idea that classical music is only for certain sorts of people, but it contains so many things that are hard to describe in words. You can’t really say to kids, “just go and listen to it” when they’re not touched by it.
There are many brilliant ideas about how to get young people to listen to classical music. One of them was letting them into a cinema then the lights shut down, and for one hour the music plays. The BBC’s project, Ten Pieces, lets kids interact with music through composing and performing.
Do you think your interest in classical music is because it found you at the right time when you were younger?
I think so. I grew up in a town that only had 40,000 people, and they invested a lot of money in art. They had their own experimental theatre and a huge music school. It was just accessible for me from an early age and being in this tiny town, you can’t really avoid seeing marching bands in the street or hearing a concert in the concert hall.
So I was presented to this already very early in my life before I knew anything else, and people should be taught about this other world. You can talk about working in music and making a living out of it, but it can add something to us as human beings.
What drew you to working in Wales?
It began with a cancellation. A conductor was ill and I was asked to work with the orchestra and we got on really well, incredibly well. That’s the makings of a really great orchestra, and we just clicked. Then just saw the potential of exploring a lot of great music together, and BBC NOW were very open to exploring new music. The range in the kind of music they do is different to orchestras around the world who are just used to doing very classical music and only that repertoire.
There’s something about the orchestra in Cardiff, they’re so flexible in the way that they work. When an orchestra plays as well as they do, they should be known, and the London audience as well as the Welsh audience, should know about them.