In charge, beautifully In his first concert as podium potentate Charles Dutoit makes the Philadelphia Orchestra his own.

Posted: October 04, 2008

In some cities - Los Angeles and Chicago come to mind - a music director gets hired after leading a program or two.

In more risk-averse Philadelphia, things can take a little longer. Charles Dutoit has conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra more times than anyone else in its history save Eugene Ormandy, president James Undercofler told Thursday night's Verizon Hall audience. In fact, that's not true, an orchestra spokeswoman said yesterday, but Dutoit has visited the orchestra hundreds of times, which earned him the right, finally, for the first time, to take the podium Thursday as the orchestra's new - well, we'll get to that title in a moment.

The point is, this is Dutoit's orchestra now. He arrives not merely as conservator but as active restorer, with a stated purpose of initiating the orchestra's newest members, who might not have been born in 1980 when Ormandy finished his sound-building days.

Whether Dutoit will be able to parlay his fine ear and the orchestra's institutional memory into a second (or third, counting Sawallisch) golden age of the Philadelphia Sound is questionable. What mattered Thursday was the fact that the ensemble is very tight under his direction; that he is able to manipulate color, especially in the strings, to wonderful effect; and that under his leadership the orchestra produces an unfailingly beautiful sound.

He never forgets the audience. Look at the program he put together, everything to a purpose. Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales showed off his fluency in French repertoire. Two piano concertos spotlighted an exquisite Martha Argerich. And Pictures at an Exhibition put the orchestra on its mettle. No one can say Dutoit doesn't give the audience its money's worth.

Argerich is a collateral benefit of Dutoit's next four years. Once married, still performing partners, they bookended intermission with the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1 and Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 (with trumpet and strings). Argerich was her usual miraculous self. It seems to me she has at least two qualities no other pianist possesses: No one else can produce so many colors without any of them being percussive, and no one has hands that lead lives so completely independent of each other. Her Shostakovich had almost three-dimensional qualities, her left hand producing dullish thuds while her right sketched out a more agile idea. Trumpeter David Bilger was a crisp, fine presence.

The Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures held a few small flubs and some spectacular effects, notably Christopher Deviney's cymbal rubs near the end that evoked menacing sharpening of knives. A more ideally lockstep, muscular lower-brass section might not be possible. Dutoit's role was more supportive than interpretive.

But his hand was strongly sensed in the Ravel Valses, where the string colors obviously had been honed to a number of startlingly distinct varieties.

This kind of obvious ensemble work is what you want in a music director, or, in Dutoit's case, chief conductor and artistic adviser: someone who knows the sound he wants and puts in the work to get it. These musicians respond well to a disciplinarian, and whatever else he achieves in his four years here, Dutoit as conscience of the orchestra is already taking a thrillingly beneficent form.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611.

No additional performances of this exact program, but today's 7 p.m. opening-night gala at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets, is the same sans the Shostakovich. Tickets are $25-$140. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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