Thomas Dausgaard returns to Seattle Symphony

The applause last year for Thomas Dausgaard’s Sibelius-symphony cycle was so tumultuous that at several points, the audience appeared poised to charge the Benaroya Hall stage and hoist the Danish conductor to their shoulders. In a program of three symphonies, you don’t often get a rousing standing ovation after merely the first one. But there was the audience, shouting and cheering and leaping up to applaud with the zest of people who know they have heard something quite special. This seems to happen whenever the Dynamic Dane is in town, though the audiences were especially appreciative during the Seattle Symphony’s 2014 nod to Sibelius’ 150th birthday.

Now Dausgaard, who holds the principal guest conductor spot at the SSO (in addition to several other posts), is returning to Seattle for a trio of concerts with the orchestra on March 10, 12, and 13. The program is an enticing one: a little Mozart (the lovely Piano Concerto No. 23), some Haydn (the Symphony No. 88), and the wild card, Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht.”

Except that the Schoenberg isn’t really a wild card. Don’t expect 12-tone rows; instead, this is a late-Romantic minor masterpiece, full of lush harmonies and beautiful melodic lines. Originally a string sextet but later orchestrated, “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”) is a programmatic work exemplifying a poem by Richard Dehmel, about a couple’s troubled journey to acknowledge their love in a wintry landscape. Positively Wagnerian in its surging, unresolved harmonies, the Schoenberg work dates from an early period when the composer had not yet sensed the “Luft von anderen Planeten” (the “air from other planets,” or serialism, the twelve-tone school of composition).

The soloist in the Mozart concerto is Boris Giltburg, a Moscow-born (1984) pianist who won first prize in Belgium’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition. Giltburg, who grew up in Tel Aviv, is a dynamic pianist who also is a thinker: fans of the keyboard may want to check out his blog, with his ruminations on what makes a good piano or a bad one (https://borisgiltburg.wordpress.com).
Here is Giltburg describing the moment when a concert pianist first encounters the instrument he’s going to be playing in concert: “So, the promoter stands beside you, waiting politely, hopefully, expectantly, and you, fully aware of the importance of the moment, finally play something on the keyboard: a chord, a passage, a few bars from one of the works—and the piano immediately ceases being a generic and unknown something, a specimen of the grand pianos genus, and becomes the most concrete, tangible, real thing there is. This is the piano you are going to play on tonight, and your encounter has just begun.”

This 2015-16 season is Dausgaard’s second as the Seattle Symphony’s principal guest conductor, a job he combines with the post of Chief Conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Conductor Laureate of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Fans who enjoy Dausgaard’s athletic and adventurous approach to music will not be surprised to hear that he is similarly adventurous in real life, where he is intrigued by the life and culture of remote communities: He has visited head-hunting tribes in Borneo, volunteered as a farmer in China, and stayed with villagers on an island in the South Pacific. If you don’t know his work and are expecting a buttoned-down, reticent Scandinavian on the podium this weekend, Dausgaard will prove an exciting surprise.

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