The Philadelphia Orchestra had it just about right months ago, when it started billing James Levine as legendary. The conductor seems destined to retain that status, though he may be more mythical than legendary in these parts after canceling his first dates with the orchestra in two decades.
His replacement Thursday night at Verizon Hall could not have represented a more different approach to the job of conductor. If Levine uses a less-is-more stick technique that nonetheless produces outsize results, Michael Tilson Thomas hopped, crouched, and deployed his lanky frame to elicit sounds the orchestra might have produced without such visual prompts.
Indeed, an institutional memory of saturated sound reared its head in parts of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, "Little Russian," while other passages and notes cried out for it. Tilson Thomas did not have a particularly strong point of view in the work, which was his own choice to replace the Saint-Saëns "Organ" Symphony Levine was to have led.
Tilson Thomas kept the rest of the program. The repertorial point for both conductors was the flexibility of the symphonic form. Charles Ives' "Decoration Day" movement from A Symphony: New England Holidays is astonishing for its dissonance (this was 1912-13, remember), and it fell with tender assurance within the orchestra's string-deep sound.
Tilson Thomas does not micromanage. This is a brand of leadership that has its pros and cons. If Tchaikovsky could have used more personality and cultivation of sound, Brahms' Serenade No. 2, with just 33 players, exposed the ensemble's best qualities. Tilson Thomas emphasized the famous lack of violins in this piece by leaving the violin side of the stage empty, creating a visual quarter-moon of an orchestra. Not all of it clicked, but players largely took loving ownership: lyrical solos by oboist Richard Woodhams and clarinetist Ricardo Morales, plus a double bass section of just four (Harold Robinson, Joseph Conyers, John Hood, and Robert Kesselman), who endowed the work with great warmth and security.
The subtle arrival points and pauses Wolfgang Sawallisch etched into the piece - notably his way of making the middle movement seem more nocturnal and menacing - were not to be found here. Still, Tilson Thomas pushes phrasing in ardent and emotionally satisfying ways.
Levine deserves credit for programming the Ives and Tilson Thomas for keeping it. There is a palpable sense in this work of Ives saying, "Come, walk with me. And listen." Strange smears of sound, a warm gust and disturbing rumble, taps, and a passing military band. Then it all evaporates, death inevitable.
Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $10-$172. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.