SSO principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard presided over a program of heartfelt interpretations of passionate works by Rachmaninov.

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You can tell by the wild cheering emanating from Benaroya Hall: Thomas Dausgaard is back in town.

The Seattle Symphony’s highly popular principal guest conductor led the first of three all-Rachmaninov concerts on Thursday evening, galvanizing orchestra and audience alike with heartfelt interpretations of passionate music. The program offered two works: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (with the dynamic soloist Alexander Melnikov) and the Symphony No. 2, both huge in scale and long on beautiful melodies.

That some of those melodies were inspired by Russian Orthodox chant was made clear by short selections sung by the vocal ensemble Cappella Romana (Alexander Lingas, music director) that preceded each of the two works. These brief but highly atmospheric chants were an innovative and thought-provoking entry into Rachmaninov’s musical world.

CONCERT REVIEW

Seattle Symphony

With Thomas Dausgaard, conductor, and pianist Alexander Melnikov, repeats 8 p.m. Saturday (April 1), Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $22 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).

Why does Dausgaard connect so powerfully with the audience? Partly it’s a tremendous enthusiasm for the music, manifest in the conductor’s every gesture and expression. And it’s also the clarity with which he shows both the orchestra and the audience how the music should go: how it waxes and wanes, how the melodic line blooms upward into a crescendo and descends to a whisper.

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Every movement is a drama whose plot is unveiled from the podium. Dausgaard reaches beseechingly into the orchestra as if to grasp the sound and coax it from the players, and he brings out less obvious details: Who knew the violas were so important in the interior movements of the Symphony No. 2? The players outplay themselves for him, and the excitement onstage is quickly transmitted to the audience.

In the Piano Concerto No. 1, an early work by a teenaged Rachmaninov already beginning to realize the height of his powers as a composer, Melnikov proved an impressive and impassioned interpreter. He knows how to command the keyboard thunder power this concerto requires, and Melnikov has the technique to make it all sound easy instead of effortful. The audience, clearly thrilled, brought him back to the stage again and again, and Melnikov finally played an encore: the most exquisitely dulcet account of Rachmaninov’s ethereal Prelude in G Major (No. 5 of Op. 32). A greater contrast to the mighty concerto could hardly be imagined.

The orchestra gave Dausgaard its best in the familiar Symphony No. 2, with a performance full of drama and contrasts. The “big moments” of the rambunctious fourth movement were highly impressive, but what lingered in the memory was Dausgaard’s lovely shaping of the wistful Adagio movement with its subtle solos by several of the principals (most notably, clarinetist Ben Lulich). This is a don’t-miss program; catch it if you can.