If the idea of a festival is to present out-of-the-ordinary concerts, the Philadelphia Orchestra's opening Thursday of its three-week Paris Festival only half-qualified.
Joseph Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne and Florent Schmitt's La Tragedie de Salome were definite pluses — partly because the performances went so far inside the music. Though these songs from the rural Auvergne region of France are anchored in their time and place by tradition and dialect, they can seem self-consciously picturesque without an authentic presence like Susan Graham.
She brought to the music her rich mezzo-soprano, a strong relationship with the language, and the kind of animated personality that projects truth and humor in these songs about soulful shepherds and the nature that surrounds them. The most important ingredient in the seven selected songs — including the popular "Bailero" — was Graham's underlying sense of loss, whether it arose from abandonment or the geographical separation that stands between possibility and fulfillment. Graham portrayed these everyday people with less-than-operatic vocalism that was intended to create intimate moments and often did. Unfortunately, the Verizon Hall acoustics — at least from my first-tier seat — didn't particularly cooperate, favoring the orchestra's brighter instrumental voices at the expense of Graham's dark-hued instrument.
The Schmitt orchestral suite from his larger ballet score isn't as lurid as the Richard Strauss Salome opera that somewhat inspired it, but it is no less orchestrally sumptuous, has intriguingly brooding undercurrents, and treats the demise of St. John the Baptist with plenty of percussive gravity. The Philadelphia Orchestra was at its best, both in its collective force and in the many delicious incidental solos. In the tradition of Leopold Stokowski, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted without baton, and, coincidentally, drew a particularly rich Stokowskian sound from the strings. What kept this from being a landmark performance was the absence of the offstage singers in the third movement: They're optional, it's true, but the truly magical effect would have helped give this alleged Paris Festival a needed sense of occasion.
The rest of the concert was what the British call "down-market." The concert started with Chabrier, a great composer requiring an orchestra and conductor of this calibre to tap the quicksilver wit in Joyeuse Marche. Too bad it's such a short hit-and-run piece. Other short works on the program included Fauré's Pavane (which is perhaps out of the ordinary, as it's so often heard in dentist offices), Ravel's undercooked Minuet antique, and Saint-Saëns' flashy but trashy "Bacchanale" from the opera Samson and Delilah. I suppose the juxtaposition of Saint-Saëns and Schmitt furnished a contrast between two composers and how they dipped into biblical legend. But this listener goes to classical concerts for some sort of sustained arc, not bits and pieces that have only superficial appeal and that can be heard in so many other places. The sophistication of the Philadelphia community was underestimated, which may explain the unusual number of empty seats.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.