Johannes Brahms loved his coffee (as he did, more famously, his beer). So it's fitting that the coffee flowed freely Thursday morning at Orchestra Hall as the Minnesota Orchestra embarked on its latest mini-festival, dubbed "Bravo Brahms!"

Over the course of nine days, the band, mostly under Osmo Vänskä's baton, will offer a fair sampling of the composer's work: both of the early serenades, three of the four concertos, half the symphonies, a smattering of the music for chorus and orchestra (led by the Minnesota Chorale's Kathy Saltzman Romey), and, as hors d'oeuvre, the unsinkable "Variations on a Theme by Haydn," already heard in these parts this season in both its two-piano and its orchestral get-up.

But wait. Isn't "Brahms festival" an oxymoron? Festivals, generally mounted with at least one eye on the box office, are upbeat and affirmative; Brahms' music, largely occupied with death and renunciation, is characteristically melancholy. To read his correspondence -- dip into Styra Avins' deftly edited "Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters" -- is to encounter one of the most despondent souls in the history of music.

Forged in the teeth of an enduring depression that would have reduced a lesser man to silence or suicide, Brahms' work, though it finds much poetry in the human predicament, is essentially tragic, shunning the heroic stamp that Beethoven bequeathed to the 19th century. And amid the inevitable ovations of the next week, festival-goers would do well to ponder what this gruff, reticent, often self-deprecating man really had to say.

The "Haydn" Variations, which opened Thursday's generous, gorgeously played program, are Brahms at his most sanguine. The piece discovers unsuspected grandeur in a tune that at first seems merely charming. Vänskä, alive to the variations' playfulness and mystery, gave each a distinct physiognomy; textures were uncommonly transparent.

Brahms' lone Violin Concerto -- he abandoned a second -- combines romantic songfulness with symphonic breadth. Soloist James Ehnes didn't dig quite as deeply into the Adagio as the great violinists of old, nor did he take full advantage of Vänskä's wonderfully quiet orchestra. But the outer movements were stunning, the rondo overflowing with exuberant virtuosity. Basil Reeve's oboe solo was heavenly.

The Third Symphony, with what musicologist Carl Dahlhaus calls its "chamber-music tendencies," is the most elusive of Brahms' four. Vänskä's engrossing account built to a ferocious final movement, its last moments suffused with sublime resignation.

Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.