Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin substituted for guest conductor Jaap van Zweden Thursday, thereby reviving a tradition from the Philadelphia Orchestra's Ormandy era.
On short notice, Nézet-Séguin stepped into a subtly crafted program based on a historical query, but altered it to shape an orchestral showcase with emphasis on a whooping good time.
Van Zweden had lined up Brahms, Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss to ask the question raging at the time of the Philadelphia Orchestra's birth in 1900: "Where is music heading?" By dropping Schoenberg and adding more Strauss, Nézet-Séguin mooted the question, heightening the program's color and virtuosic gloss.
The basis for The Question was Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1. The young Brahms took heart from Mozart and from the piano revolution stirred by Chopin. For a mammoth work - in the Romantic mold - he used a Mozart-like orchestra, devised thoughtful counterpoint and even fugue, and sculpted music that honored the newly expanded piano capacities while remaining classically pointed toward an expressivity based on reason.