Exuberant youth led the Philadelphia Orchestra Thursday night. The program practically guaranteed a volcanic reception from the Verizon Hall audience — the suite from The Firebird and Prokofiev’s symphony in awe, the 5th.
And this was, in fact, a notable conducting debut. Lahav Shani, 29, has energy, for sure. But he wasn’t brash, or perhaps he was just brash enough. Tel Aviv-born, Shani is principal guest conductor of the respected Vienna Symphony and takes over as chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in the fall. He is slated to become the next music director of the Israel Philharmonic, starting with the 2020-21 season.
As for Philadelphia, what you thought of his performance depends a bit on your priorities. The orchestra sometimes challenged his ensemble-keeping skills. In the sprawling Prokofiev, tighter leadership would have made for some more fluid transitions. Violins and trumpet lost each other in one brief patch of the third movement, slightly out of sync. And some of the piece’s more unusual textures weren’t realized to their greatest potential.
Still, Shani’s musical ideas are solid, and he brought the orchestra to the expressive brink more than once. It paid off in some fascinating ways. Without a score before him, he was warmly expressive in the opening movement. He didn’t even take a hair’s breadth between sections of the second movement, adding to the air of anxiety. This always is twitchy music, fleeing while nervously looking over its shoulder, but Shani cranked it up into a full-fledged anxiety attack.
Lovers of this piece may have allegiances to this recording or that, but neither veteran nor newbie should miss the chance to hear it live. The third movement is the beating heart of the piece, sharing some of its sweet horror with the composer’s Romeo and Juliet. Shani and the orchestra cradled its last minute or so beautifully.
No bold touches of individualism from the podium shaped the 1919 suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird, but several individual players shone — bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa and oboist Richard Woodhams chief among them.
David Bilger stepped into a formidable spotlight for Christian Lindberg’s Akbank Bunka, a 2004 concerto for trumpet and chamber orchestra that draws on eclectic sources for inspiration. The orchestra in its marketing materials suggests jazz as an influence (the last movement is called “Turkjazz.”) But don’t expect jazz.
Alternating between busy and lyrical stretches in the opening, the second movement ratchets up the intensity to a painful climax. When it gives way to the third movement, we are racing — racing, ducking away in some mysterious place, and then racing some more. Bilger’s fat, pure sound accounted for much of the appeal. But Lindberg has skills. If Indiana Jones ever finds himself again in Turkey getting chased, the soundtrack is waiting.
Additional performances at 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10-$158. Information: 215-893-1999 or philorch.org.