Is the Thomas Dausgaard era at the BBC SSO 'as good as over'?

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard had resigned from his post as music director at the Seattle Symphony, following a long-running dispute. The BBC SSO's chief conductor since 2016, he has also cancelled key January dates in Scotland, where he hasn’t been seen for 20 months. With his SSO contract due to expire in the summer, Ken Walton wonders if we’ll see him in Scotland again
Thomas Dausgaard PIC: Per Morten Abrahamsen/BBC/PA WireThomas Dausgaard PIC: Per Morten Abrahamsen/BBC/PA Wire
Thomas Dausgaard PIC: Per Morten Abrahamsen/BBC/PA Wire

“Seattle Maestro Resigns by Email and Says He’s ‘Not Safe’”, ran last week’s sad and shocking headline in the New York Times (NYT). Scotsman readers will recognise the maestro in question as Thomas Dausgaard, the current chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Until that abrupt and immediate US resignation two weeks ago he was also music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Prior to the NYT revelations – a biting exposé of a rift that has, it transpires, been eating away at the relationship between the Danish conductor and his Seattle management and players for some time – all had seemed outwardly rosy. With Dausgaard due to leave the BBC SSO this summer, a career leaning more towards the US had looked likely.

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He only took on Seattle in 2019, having stepped up from the principal guest position, and was just midway through a contract due to run until 2023. So what happened that precipitated his premature US departure, and what does the debacle signify for Dausgaard’s final months with the BBC SSO?

There’s no question now that mutual bitterness had long set in at Seattle, and that Dausgaard had considered leaving even before the pandemic. “I felt my life is too precious to be in such tension,” he told the NYT. The article claimed “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”. Dausgaard told the NYT “I felt threatened”. The Seattle management denies the allegations.

As far back as February 2020, the article says, “Dausgaard brought a list of grievances to the board, which investigated his accusations but found they did not have merit”. When he was finally able to travel to the US in November he then cancelled his concert citing illness. “In late November the board privately decided not to renew his contract,” the newspaper reported.

Even before the NYT disclosures, it was becoming clear that the pandemic had taken a psychological toll on the conductor. In a published interview in November with Seattle’s own communications director Dinah Lu, available on the orchestra’s website, Dausgaard alluded to personal turmoil arising out of the global shutdown.

“I never wanted to be governed by fear,” Dausgaard told Lu, “but soon I realised the world was turning upside down”. His response was to retreat to his home near Copenhagen and contemplate “how he wanted to be in the world”. “I constantly had hope that we would round the corner,” he explained in the article. “All the programs we had planned... they were taken off [out of necessity], and it was painful.”

Enforced cancellations early on also affected Dausgaard’s BBC SSO commitments, where he hasn’t been seen for 20 months. Even with travel restrictions eased in the early 2021-22 season – as evidenced in numerous appearances by fellow Dane Thomas Søndergård with the RSNO – call-offs continued.

The latest was last week, affecting the first concert in his last major project as chief conductor, a series featuring all of Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies. In a BBC press release, Dausgaard said: “Unfortunately it is clear the world in 2022 is not yet as stable as we might have hoped, and with the continuing health risks and responsibilities we must all face, travelling at this moment in the pandemic is sadly not an option for me.”

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Who knows whether he will feel more inclined to travel for his next scheduled appearance in March, or the three concerts in May that will complete the Nielsen Cycle? The SSO had to replace him last week with the young English conductor Geoffrey Paterson. It seems likely that potential substitutes will be being lined-up for the remaining concerts. There could also be a question mark over whether Dausgaard will get a traditional farewell BBC Proms date in August. He called off last year.

In truth, the BBC SSO’s Dausgaard era is now as good as over. It hasn’t been an especially distinguished one. The SSO’s focus must surely now be on securing a successor who can recapture the spark and reliability that characterised the successive previous reigns of Osmo Vänskä, Ilan Volkov and Sir Donald Runnicles.

Let Dausgaard, if he wishes, play out his few final dates. But like Seattle, it’s time for the SSO to move on.

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