If Seattle Symphony Principal Guest Conductor and Music Director Designate (starting September 2019) Thomas Dausgaard wore his array of conducting posts as a series of medals on the lapel of his tux, it would weigh him down considerably. In addition to his Seattle duties, he is Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and Honorary Conductor of both the Orchestra della Toscana and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.

Thomas Dausgaard
© Thomas Grondahl

The program with which Dausgaard chose to regale Seattle Symphony fans last weekend without a doubt showed that the Symphony powers-that-be have made an excellent choice in their successor to current Music Director Ludovic Morlot. Music lovers’ overwhelming affection for and devotion to the music of Brahms notwithstanding, it is not easy to sustain the excitement in an all-Brahms program for an entire evening. Dausgaard proved himself capable of doing so.

To add interest to a lineup of works displaying both the composer’s introspective and lighthearted sides, and to accentuate what Dausgaard calls “chamber music on a bigger scale”, Dausgaard utilized a pared-down string section in order to open the minds and ears of the audience to a different set of timbres and textures. Interestingly, Dausgaard positioned the strings differently than is accustomed, with the first and second violins opposite instead of adjacent to each other, and the cellos and violas placed at the core of the two violin sections, thus emphasizing the feeling of intimacy that Dausgaard was trying to accomplish.

The two larger works, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a and the Symphony no. 2 in D major, Op. 73, bookended a cluster of Liebeslieder Walzer and Hungarian Dances. Dausgaard made an intriguing choice, crisscrossing the Danube from Vienna to Budapest to alternate three of each type of piece. In these works, Dausgaard showed an impressive sense of style; audience and musicians alike were swept up in the alluring ambience, evocative of the most appealing characteristics of each of the two countries’ most enduring music.

The Variations and Symphony show Brahms at his most noble, and Dausgaard played up that majestic characteristic to the fullest, with broad strokes, magnanimous gestures and a discerning sense of how to shape a phrase. Conducting the entire program without the benefit of a score, Dausgaard used a minimum of time-beating, merely raising his shoulders to indicate a crescendo or moving his head or left hand in a certain direction to achieve a desired turn of phrase. This indicates a belief in the orchestra’s abilities to execute his wishes: a very good sign of an effective potential working relationship between the musicians and their conductor designate.

The theme of the Variations, whose origins from Haydn are in question in current scholarly musical circles, may have started out modest, but Dausgaard emphasized its dignity in the initial statement and at the closing, while playing with the myriad of colors that Brahms employed in the set of variations with appealingly quick pacing and a keen awareness of the composer’s status as master of hemiola.

The Symphony no. 2 shows the influence of Mozart more than any of Brahms’s other three symphonies. The first and fourth movements, both in the ever-optimistic key of D major, and the lilting G major third movement, all portray the amiable Brahms. Dausgaard stayed close to the characterizations described in the names of each movement. The opening movement, which brings to mind the 2nd movement Andante of Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 15, K. 533, with its similar 3-note theme, was well paced, as per the Allegro non troppo description.

The second movement, Adagio non troppo, is in a more contemplative vein. Initially rhythmically similar to the second section of Ein Deutsches Requiem, “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras”  this Adagio maintains a positive outlook, which also brings to mind the third movement, Adagio non troppo, of Brahms’s Serenade no. 2 in A major. It was in this movement of the Symphony no. 2, however, that the limited number of strings was less effective: one really craved more cellos to bring forth the achingly beautiful opening theme. The third movement, Allegretto grazioso (Quasi andantino), was performed gracefully and tastefully.

Dausgaard stayed faithful to the tone of the Allegro con spirito, with its same three-note pattern, in the bright, lively finale. However, the tempo was perhaps too lively, especially in the Coda. The rhythmic urgency is exciting enough without having to push the tempo into a frenzy. One would have preferred to hear the trombones have more opportunity to make the most of their long-awaited chorale, and to enjoy the remarkable trumpet playing, which, as in the orchestra’s recent rendering of Handel’s Messiah, was a true pleasure to hear.