Review: After 20-month absence, Seattle Symphony music director back to conduct before a pumped-up crowd


In the end!

After more than 20 months of absence due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Thomas Dausgaard, Danish music director of the Seattle Symphony, is back on the podium at Benaroya Hall – much to the cheers of the inflated, fully masked concert goers and orchestra that gathered Thursday night for his first concert of the season.

It wasn’t a full house; the symphony officially sold 1,194 of the 2,500 seats. At large gatherings, music lovers are apparently still a little cautious. All were masked and presented with vaccination cards, but there was no social distancing.

But the chance to return to Benaroya Hall with an inspiring conductor, an eager orchestra, and a great program made minimal risk very worthwhile. It was even exciting to see some of the hall’s shops reopen, and it was even more exciting to walk into the concert hall and watch the entire orchestra gather on the stage.

The long-awaited concert made a powerful musical statement with Beethoven’s noble overture “Egmont” and the mighty Symphony No. 1 by Brahms. In between came the soloist Alessio Bax, in a lyrical and incredibly light-fingered performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Saint-Saëns. The COVID-19 pandemic also affected the concert soloists: Bax was a replacement for the originally planned pianist Nicolas Hodges, whose work visa was delayed due to pandemic-related travel issues (like Dausgaards).

Dausgaard entered the stage to a standing ovation and gave a short, but obviously heartfelt speech about the joy of making music with the orchestra again: “Music shows us what it means to be human,” he remarked. The orchestra played with eager energy and brilliance: apparently these musicians spent the pandemic months practicing. Their commitment showed in every phrase in the music.

The audience seemed thrilled to be back in the hall listening to the entire orchestra, with its music director and a top-notch soloist performing great music.

Although the symphony is now producing concerts with full audience capacity and printed programs are available again, it is not entirely “business as usual” in the hall. Staff need to quickly check concert-goers’ vaccination records (or recent negative coronavirus test) before entering the large lobby. The breaks are back too; Viewers can move around freely (unlike previous pandemic-era performances).

Fortunately, conductors and soloists can move more and more freely around the world. The Seattle Symphony was one of several performing arts organizations to open their fall concert season without key personnel, according to a New York Times story. The backlog of visa applications at American embassies and consulates has particularly affected classical music, with its focus on the top international stars who tour the world’s leading concert halls and opera houses.

At Dausgaard’s direction, the Seattle Symphony offered first responders and health care workers free tickets to Thursday’s concert in gratitude for their efforts on behalf of the community.

Meanwhile, the symphony continues its online streaming service Seattle Symphony Live for many (but not all) of its concerts; the Dausgaard concert is not available online, but next week’s concert with the world premiere of a double harp concert will be streamed.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that this was not the Seattle Symphony’s first live subscription concert this season.

Melinda Bargrün:; since 1977 Seattle Times reviewer, composer and author.