The Danish conductor is back in town leading the Seattle Symphony for his first time since last October’s announcement that he will take over the post of music director from Ludovic Morlot starting in the 2019-20 season.

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For a glimpse of classical music’s future in Seattle, head down to Benaroya Hall this weekend to experience Thomas Dausgaard in action.

The Danish conductor is back in town leading the Seattle Symphony for his first time since last October’s announcement that he will take over the post of music director from Ludovic Morlot starting in the 2019-20 season.

The fare on Thursday evening’s all-Brahms program was, to be sure, firmly planted in the 19th century. But the performance offered a bracing illustration of the special chemistry that already exists between Dausgaard and the orchestra — a chemistry that will likely shape Seattle Symphony’s identity in the coming seasons across a wide swath of repertoire.


Seattle Symphony: ‘Dausgaard Conducts Brahms’

Thursday, Jan. 25, Benaroya Hall.

More performances: “Brahms Untuxed” (Second Symphony and Hungarian Dances only) at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26 ($13-$55); complete program repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27 ($37-$122; 206-215-4747 or

Dausgaard brings an impressive reputation as a sought-after conductor in Europe. Earlier this month, the BBC Scottish Symphony extended his contract as chief conductor until 2022. In recent seasons, Dausgaard has earned particular acclaim for his Sibelius cycle in Seattle and has garnered enviable reviews for a pair of releases recorded live at Benaroya for the orchestra’s in-house label (two Carl Nielsen symphonies and Mahler’s Tenth).

But last night, the spotlight was directed entirely to Johannes Brahms in a meat-and-potatoes program — the Second Symphony and Variations on a Theme by Haydn — spiced with some lighter fare by way of the “Liebeslieder Waltzes” and Hungarian Dances: essentially works familiar from the standard repertoire. Yet Dausgaard, leading the entire program without a score, sustained a level of intensely focused collaboration with the players that resulted in a consistently animated evening of music-making and left no room for a sense of the routine to tarnish its pleasures.

Even with a focus on the same composer throughout, Dausgaard’s interpretive strengths ensured ample variety. Most important, the conductor paid apt attention to the emotional complexity of the Second Symphony, a mature masterpiece too often diminished by blithe assertions of its allegedly “sunny” disposition.

The Haydn Variations were a kind of test run for the Brahms as Dausgaard paved the way toward staking his claim as a symphonist in the Beethoven tradition. Their built-in repetitions gave Dausgaard space to engineer slight shifts of color and rhythmic emphasis, while the protracted final variation unfolded like a Russian nesting doll, concealing multiple delights. The only disappointment was a slightly underwhelming statement for the glorious reprise of the long-submerged main theme.

It was a lovely idea to intersperse Brahms’ own orchestrations of nine “Liebeslieder Waltzes” with three Hungarian Dances. The orchestrations have their own flair, demonstrating how a composer sometimes accused of being long-winded was also a master of the miniature. Dausgaard elicited a succession of distinctive, vivid atmospheres within these condensed frameworks, finessing the waltz tempo like elegant taffy and allowing the passion of the G minor Hungarian Dance No. 1 to smolder in the strings.

The most fulfilling experience of the program arrived with the Second Symphony, filling out the second half. Taking advantage of necessity — some of the orchestra is currently engaged in duties at Seattle Opera for the final performances of “Così fan tutte” — Dausgaard downsized the usual full complement of strings for this program, in keeping with his view that the orchestral music of Brahms “is really chamber music on a bigger scale.”

Like a painter splashing generous strokes here and gingerly filling in a detail there, Dausgaard presided over a vibrant, overall briskly paced account that made it clear he knew exactly what he wanted, along with having the magnetism to persuade the players of his vision.

He tapped into the score’s contradictory, two-faced personality without exaggerating it. Matt Decker’s timpani rolls early in the “pastoral” opening, for instance, added shadow without necessarily being ominous. The Adagio in particular was a study in alternating, undecided shades of emotion. When the conductor unleashed the brass for the most ecstatic music Brahms ever wrote, in the symphony’s final measures, the hair-raising sense of jubilation felt justly earned.