Positivity on the podium

With Charles Dutoit conducting, the Philadelphia Orchestra is now a distinctly happy band.

Debut: In his first appearance since being named conductor last week, Charles Dutoit leads the Philadelphia Orchestra at sold-out Carnegie Hall Thursday.

NEW YORK - Fifteen minutes before rehearsal at Carnegie Hall Thursday afternoon, Charles Dutoit is already on stage chatting up the players. He's a hugger, and if you're not careful, a triple-smack cheek-kisser. Back in the woodwinds, his elegant right hand takes flight for a moment to make a point about phrasing. He is smiling from ear to ear.

The players of the Philadelphia Orchestra aren't exactly unhappy either. No ensemble of 100-plus musicians will express unison like or dislike for any one conductor. But there is an undeniable air of contentment in the orchestra, on the board and among staff over last week's appointment of Dutoit as chief conductor and musical adviser for a limited run of four years starting in 2008-09.

"Dutoit probably has a larger plurality of support than any other person we have a long-term relationship with," said a two-decade veteran orchestra member. "He programs like Ormandy," said another who has been in the orchestra long enough to know.

Thursday night's Carnegie concert was Dutoit's first with the orchestra since he and president James Undercofler agreed to the new position's parameters. The Swiss-born conductor's influence is already strongly felt. Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade and Sibelius' Finlandia sounded like living history, the strings reaching deep into their reserve of vibrancy and resonance, and many of the winds at their virtuosic best. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Martha Argerich - particularly the delicate second movement - was so good it suggested an endorphin.

It always helps a partnership when both sides stand to achieve something. The orchestra gets breathing room, time to develop a relationship with its as-yet-unknown eighth music director. Dutoit gets the job of his dreams with a little less responsibility than the full title would confer - music director lite.

"I didn't want to become a music director as such," he said backstage at Verizon Hall after rehearsal this week. "I am 70, so to be a music director, a serious one, . . . you need 10 years. You need to build the place, not only with the orchestra but also with the public.

"With this mentality it would take me to the age of 80. I see all my colleagues around 80 years of age, you know, I don't know why they work so hard. At 76 I think I will take an early retirement, you understand?"

Because his augmented relationship with the orchestra fell into place so quickly, Dutoit says he has just started forming his ambitions for the next few years.

"I would like to do a cycle of Sibelius, a cycle of Debussy, a cycle of Ravel. Shostakovich has been overplayed recently. Christoph [Eschenbach] has done this Mahler cycle, so I think the orchestra needs to get out of this. Mahler is played and overplayed."

When you add up his weeks, it's not an insubstantial commitment. He will lead eight subscription weeks in the main season, three more at the orchestra's summer home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., three more during the tours of 2010, 2011 and 2012, and possibly dates in Vail, Colo., where the orchestra has a new summer residency.

"It's a lot of work, but it's just right," he said. "Being with the orchestra means also concern about the sound, the style. Also I need some time to do that.

"The orchestra has changed in the sense that there are so many young people - fantastic young people, but they need to be led into that tradition. . . . [T]here is no other orchestra in the world playing like this."

Dutoit has said similar things to the orchestra in the last week.

He told them of hearing Eugene Ormandy and the orchestra in the 1950s in Geneva and how important it was to the development of his musical thinking.

"They opened the concert with [the overture to Rossini's Semiramide]. And you hear this balance - tikitikitikitiki - and the flute on top of it. The 30 violins were the shade of the flute - it was unbelievable, the balance. I remember that as probably the greatest experience in my life. That is the way one should play, the quality one has to achieve. And that's why I have always been so close to the Philadelphia Orchestra."

If Dutoit had crawled into the musicians' psyches exactly what they needed to hear at this moment he couldn't have come up with better talking points.

"The orchestra responds to me, or I respond to them, this kind of chemistry has been built over the years, many years," he said. "Now I feel like I am driving a Rolls-Royce or playing the organ. . . . where I pull the stops and so I can choose the colors and they react immediately. And it's an exceptional thing. You know, not many orchestras and conductors have this kind of flexibility. So I love this orchestra."

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@philly


For a full review of Thursday night's Carnegie Hall concert, see www.philly.com/mld/philly/