The Seattle Symphony’s annual opening-night concert is always a special occasion, but Saturday evening’s opener was particularly significant: the inaugural concert of the Thomas Dausgaard era. The dynamic and affable Danish maestro, who has succeeded Ludovic Morlot as the orchestra’s music director, commanded the rapt attention of both the musicians and the audience in a program launched by a high-powered “Star-Spangled Banner” (with plenty of audience participation).
The program itself began and ended with short pieces by Danish composers: Carl Nielsen’s festive “Maskarade” overture and Hans Christian Lumbye’s lively “Champagne Galop.” In between came two works on a grander scale: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (with soloist Daniil Trifonov), and Richard Strauss’ mighty orchestral tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
Trifonov, who has won several of the piano world’s biggest prizes (including the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions), was recently accorded Musical America’s 2019 Artist of the Year award, and was called “the most astounding young pianist of our age” by The Times of London. In Seattle, he fully justified those accolades. The Rachmaninov Fourth is not an easy sell; it’s the Second and the Third that thrill more audiences, with their straightforward romanticism and soaring melodies. Trifonov’s performance of the Fourth was a real mind-changer: subtle, fluid, brilliantly executed and technically stunning, while Dausgaard leaned toward the keyboard to support and respond to every nuance. No soloist could ask for a more attentive conductor.
A rousing ovation brought Trifonov back to the stage for a remarkable encore: his own glistening transcription for solo piano of Rachmaninov’s “Silver Bells” (from the orchestral work “The Bells,” Op. 35).
The iconic opening of Richard Strauss’ massive tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was made considerably more famous in the soundtrack of the Stanley Kubrick film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Grandiose and mercurial, the Strauss score was inspired by his readings in the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s a spectacular orchestral showpiece, beginning with the wonderfully rumbly bass tones from Benaroya Hall’s Watjen Concert Organ (played by Joseph Adam), and demanding virtuoso musicianship from every section in the orchestra. Dausgaard seemed to interact with every player as the mammoth work gradually unfolded on a stage crammed with extra musicians in nearly every section. The excellent solo work from all the principals (notably concertmaster Noah Geller, trumpeter David Gordon and cellist Efe Baltacigil) emerged from the vast tapestry of this score with particular distinction.
The “Champagne Galop” encore, announced by a jubilant Dausgaard, put the final festive notes on the program — and many of the concertgoers went on to raise Champagne glasses of their own in the post-concert gala event. Here’s to the start of a most promising new era for Seattle music lovers.