Two towering masterpieces, a stage full of musicians on their mettle, an amazing piano soloist and an inspiring conductor. The cheers rang out long and loudly for the first subscription concert of the Seattle Symphony’s Thomas Dausgaard era on Thursday evening.
The program’s two major works were composed in the same decade (the 1880s), and though they share a certain similarity of tonality and musical gesture, they are surprisingly different from each other. The Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 pushes the envelope of that medium — four movements instead of the usual three, and a wider than usual emotional range. The Mahler Symphony No. 1 is on an even grander scale: a vision of life and death, with musical representations of burgeoning springtime, a peasant dance, a funeral march, and a triumphant finale that sounds like an ascent into the pearly gates.
The evening’s piano soloist, Yefim Bronfman, took the stage after a sassy little orchestral hors d’oeuvre: the hyperactive “Flounce,” a five-minute curtain raiser by the Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski.
Now 61, Bronfman is famous not only for his spectacular technique but also for the depth of his interpretations, and both these factors were in evidence during the Brahms. The grandeur and power of this concerto were fully realized, yet Bronfman also drew back for lyrical, sensitive playing: delicate, quicksilver arpeggios, as well as keyboard thunder and lightning.
Closely attuned to his soloist, Dausgaard turned frequently on the podium to watch Bronfman and to fine-tune details of their ensemble. The concerto offers a great third-movement cello solo, and the orchestra’s principal, Efe Baltacigil, stepped forward with a beautifully judged performance. The ending of the concerto can sound a bit perfunctory, as if Brahms suddenly figured it had gone on long enough, but this performance was measured and unhurried.
The applause was so lengthy and so thunderous, and Bronfman and Dausgaard were recalled to the stage so many times, that it was a little surprising that the pianist didn’t play an encore. (Perhaps the length of the concert was a consideration.)
For this program, Dausgaard rearranged the orchestra’s usual configuration, with the second violins trading places with the cellos. Placing the first and second violin sections at opposite sides of the stage is advantageous in some repertoire, but here the result sometimes seemed to make the cellos a little harder to hear. In the Mahler, though, the sheer numbers on the stage ensured that every section could be heard: there were extra players galore, an enormous phalanx of French horns and brass, and even two piccolos.
As the first movement of the Mahler unfolded, Dausgaard made the silences just as important as the sounds, drawing the listeners in as the music slowly awakened and blossomed into the thrilling brass fanfares and the full range of orchestral colors. The enormous variety of Mahler’s scoring came vividly to life in passages full of both snarling energy and radiant lyricism.
For the conclusion of the exuberant finale, Dausgaard had the oversized French horn section stand, their sound lifting above the orchestra and straight into the house, where you can bet no one was snoozing. But it didn’t take extra volume to keep this audience involved; all that was needed was a terrific conductor and the orchestra that outplayed itself for him.
Fortunately, this concert will live on, in more ways than one: two more live performances, a KING FM 98.1 rebroadcast at 9 p.m. Oct. 4, and the Mahler portion of the concert now posted on YouTube.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Dausgaard, conductor, and Yefim Bronfman, piano soloist, Thursday, Sept. 19 (repeated noon Friday, Sept. 20, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21); Benaroya Hall, 200 University St.; tickets from $24; 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org