Seattle Symphony’s new conductor in an auspicious debut

United StatesUnited States Wennäkoski, Brahms, Mahler: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Seattle Symphony / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 21.09.2019. (ZC)

Thomas Dausgaard (c) Thomas Grondhal

Wennäkoski Flounce

Brahms – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.2 in B-flat

Mahler – Symphony No.1 in D

The Seattle Symphony has a new maestro at the podium. Thomas Dausgaard, who succeeded Ludovic Morlot as music director, made his subscription debut this past weekend. From his predecessor, Dausgaard inherited an orchestra in exceptional shape that is rightly generating national buzz.

With any new leader, change is inevitable. When Morlot took over from longtime director Gerard Schwarz, he cultivated more subtlety and color. Orchestral execution improved substantially, but too often performances were drained of the type of visceral passion that Schwarz had delivered. But on this occasion, after eight years of Morlot’s cooler and more introverted style, Dausgaard put forth his case for a more extroverted approach with two massive symphonic works: Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2 and Mahler’s Symphony No.1 — an unforgettable evening.

Even before the performance started, attentive attendees noticed changes. Dausgaard has rearranged the orchestra, dividing the first and second violins and filling the middle of the stage with the low strings. The effect was immediately noticeable. Anchored by the double basses and pronounced contributions from the brass, Brahms’s concerto oozed rich, burnished timbres. This is what Brahms should sound like: emanating feeling from start to finish and illustrating the conductor’s talent for communicating myriad emotions without sacrificing musicality.

Dausgaard’s partner was the esteemed pianist Yefim Bronfman, who matched the conductor with poetic keyboard power and finesse. By itself, the concerto is a workout challenging the soloist with physical and emotional demands that, at its 1881 premiere, were new for the concerto form. For nearly 50 minutes, Bronfman explored the extremes of the Romantic idiom, powering through thundering passages and caressing loving ideas. Principal horn Jeff Fair’s arresting solo in the first movement, and an affecting cello solo by Efe Baltacigil in the third, testified to the orchestra’s hard-wrought ability to imbue even the tried-and-true with skill, sensitivity, and emotional gravity.

After the audience caught its breath at intermission, Dausgaard and the orchestra returned for some memorable Mahler, his inaugural symphony — the ‘Titan’.  As with many of his predecessors, his first is arguably not his best. The whole is weaker than the individual movements. Yet, Mahler reveals all the hallmarks that would come later: rusticity, expansive form, unconventional orchestrations, chamber-like interplay, and his klezmer touches.

With Dausgaard’s guidance, the symphony burst with energy, with wild color and cogent urgency. Success with Mahler depends on a conductor’s ability to make sense of the programmatic intentions and his varied musical components. Even the final movement, which at times can seem out of place, was connected deftly through careful attention to the effect of the false coda, as well as the pages that follow, which recall the opening movement. If this was an indication of how Daugaard will approach these massive and intricate works, then Mahler fans are in for a treat over the next few years.

In a nod to new music, the concert opened with Lotta Wennäkoski’s effervescent Flounce. At five minutes — and in an evening already packed with two blockbusters — the work doesn’t offer much beyond orchestral pyrotechnics. Seattle audiences are capable of digesting the new and unfamiliar, but hopefully will receive more challenges in the future.

Zach Carstensen

1 thought on “Seattle Symphony’s new conductor in an auspicious debut”

  1. Can we please stop referring to Mahler’s 1st as the ‘Titan’, that is a name that he only used for the first two performances of an earlier 5 movement iteration of the work where he called it a symphonic-poem in 2 parts. He dropped the name after that and never used it with the definitive 4 movement symphony.


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