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Behind the Scenes

The New Characters in Town

Michelle Miller Burns and Thomas Søndergård in the Target Atrium
President and CEO Michelle Miller Burns and Thomas Søndergård at the July 2022 event introducing Søndergård as music director designate. | Photo by Chase Hentges

In May 2001, when the Minnesota Orchestra announced that Osmo Vänskä would be the ensemble’s tenth music director, a quick-witted music fan from Minnetonka, Ron Parker, dashed off a tongue-in-cheek Star Tribune letter to the editor, alleging a “dot conspiracy.” The dots in question were in Vänskä’s last name—four in all, one-upping the three in the first name of his predecessor Eiji Oue. Parker proposed that the conspiracy involved decades of past music directors: “Antal Dorati had one, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Neville Marriner each had two, Eiji Oue has three and now Vänskä joins Dimitri Mitropoulos with four.” (Left unaddressed was how Edo de Waart and Eugene Ormandy managed to evade the dot conspiracy—and that Neville Marriner seemingly became even more enmeshed during his tenure by achieving British knighthood and taking the honorific title “Sir.”)

Twenty-one years after Vänskä brought the Finnish letter ä to the forefront of the state’s classical music scene—making them among the most popular dots in Minnesota outside the city limits of Lindström—the Orchestra has a new music director designate, Thomas Søndergård, and we can put Parker’s conspiracy theory to the test. At a quick glance, it doesn’t hold up, since there’s not an i, j, umlaut, overdot or underdot in sight. Rather, we can see a plot that contains some new characters: specifically, the linguistic characters ø and å, previously unseen in a Minnesota Orchestra music director’s name.

These aren’t simply a “slash through the o” and “ring above the a,” as one might describe their appearance. Rather, they are separate letters in the 29-letter Danish alphabet with their own usage and pronunciation. Søndergård approves of a pronunciation of his last name he began using professionally in his time with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales—SUN-der-guard—but demonstrated the correct Danish pronunciation at his introduction event at Orchestra Hall in late July, to which President and CEO Michelle Miller Burns quipped “Thank you, Thomas.”

Søndergård is now the third of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 11 music directors whose name uses a letter not included in the English alphabet—Osmo Vänskä and Stanisław Skrowaczewski being the others, as the ł in Stanisław is one of the 32 letters in the Polish alphabet. In addition, Antal Doráti’s last name is sometimes rendered with an accent, which is a diacritic symbol rather than a separate letter. The spellings Doráti and Stanisław, however, are not generally used in the Orchestra’s historic programs, recordings and other publications for reasons that are not not well-documented. It's noteworthy, though, that Doráti and Skrowaczewski’s consecutive music directorships spanned 1949 to 1979, an earlier age of typography before digital advances brought more inclusive fonts, keyboard shortcuts and autocorrect functions.

For dedicated Minnesota Orchestra fans who are well-accustomed to seeing names such as Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Lutosławski and Valčuha—and in a state whose most famous musician, Prince, once changed his name to the unpronounceable “Love Symbol”—Søndergård is sure to ease quickly into the lexicon. And we may well see more of the Danish letters æ, ø and å as it becomes clear which composers, music and soloists Søndergård will champion when his music director tenure begins officially in September 2023. In the meantime, join us at Orchestra Hall from October 20 to 22 to hear his first concerts as the Orchestra’s music director designate, when he will conduct Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose and Lili Boulanger’s Of a Spring Morning. The October 21 concert is also scheduled to be part of This Is Minnesota Orchestra, our broadcast and online streaming series.