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Last December Ludovic Morlot paired the Seattle Symphony’s traditional year-end offering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with music by Astor Piazzolla. This year instead the music director yielded the Benaroya Hall podium to a guest conductor from just down the road, who presented by contrast a program devoted exclusively to Austro-German classics.

Carlos Kalmar, who was born in Uruguay to parents from Austria, now lives in Portland, where he is in his 11th highly successful season as music director of the Oregon Symphony. A prodigally gifted conductor, he has a stylistic range that stretches impressively from those classics to various areas of the contemporary repertoire, encompassing such special enthusiasms as the 20th-century Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams, two of whose symphonies he has recorded.

Kalmar’s program opened with a work about as distant in style as possible from Piazzolla. But Brahms was no less inventive in the field of rhythm than the Argentine tango master. Given his penchant for metrical flexibility, it was natural that he should have chosen to base a set of variations on a theme (formerly attributed to Haydn, but now known just as an anonymous composer’s “Saint Anthony Chorale”) that is laid out in five-measure phrases rather than the more familiar fours.

Brahms added copious rhythmic variants of his own to those of the theme itself, and all of these were expertly negotiated by Kalmar. He drew some subtly fined-away phrases from the orchestra, along with irresistible verve and delicacy in fast and slow music alike.

After intermission, his deployment of a classical-looking string section of only about 30 players – unusually small forces for a modern performance of Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony – served to remove conventional big-orchestra mystique from the work, without stripping it of mystery. The modesty of the forces onstage revealed a good deal of textural detail that often goes for nothing. The conductor took plenty of risks, demanding extreme pianissimos at times and setting some uncompromisingly rapid tempos, but in performing Beethoven of all composers the sense of danger is a value in itself. In the finale, Kalmar’s highly individual phrasing of the low-strings recitatives that “reject” earlier themes to prepare for the arrival of the famous “Ode to Joy” tune was vividly and aptly operatic.

With five string principals absent, the string playing demonstrated the Seattle Symphony’s strength in depth. Graceful horn solos from Jeff Fair, Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby’s whirling piccolo scales, crisp timpani incursions by Michael Crusoe, and much incisive work from the trumpets and trombones provided orchestral thrills in abundance. The vocal soloists did well enough, though their four voices didn’t blend effectively (which it’s very hard to know when you’re hiring them may turn out to be the case), and Joseph Crnko’s Seattle Symphony Chorale coped splendidly with Beethoven’s near-impossible vocal demands.

Altogether, this was a fresh and stimulating take on a work whose interpretation can too easily decline into routine. Allowing art to be a product of its time, created by recognizable and individual human beings, enhances rather than diminishes universality.

Bernard Jacobson: