Wanamaker organist Conte brings thrilling color to mostly drab Philadelphia Orchestra program

Organist Peter Richard Conte at the Wanamaker Organ in Feb., 2017.

If many of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concerts this season have come with a dash of event status, the orchestra this past weekend slipped into a program that was merely pleasant, if a bit dull. Little of the repertoire presented Saturday night at Verizon Hall really grabbed attention, with the notable exception of Stravinsky’s striking ancient-modern suite from Pulcinella.

Some of the playing, too, contributed to the routine air, though nothing ordinary passed from the hands of the evening’s soloist. The infusion of $5 million over five years from local philanthropist Frederick R. Haas and the Wyncote Foundation for organ-centric programming might raise concern about the influence of money over programming. But the appearance of Peter Richard Conte in Handel’s Organ Concerto in F Major, Opus 4, No. 4 was a thrill.

Conte — known as the grand court organist for the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s— was front and center at the on-stage console for the Dobson pipe organ. This wasn’t the occasion to listen for its full capabilities, but rather for shrewd coloristic choices.

With a small ensemble backing him (no brass, just three woodwinds), Conte took obvious joy in filling in the orchestral voids. He pushed the tempo in the first movement, adding some edge. Three distinct organ voices emerged in the second movement — a breathy flute sound, a fuller French horn, and a small-corps trumpet color.

Nearly the entire program, led by Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan, was about eliciting the sound of something “other.”

In Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances for the Lute, Suite No. 1, lute is only intimated, with Respighi wrapping his orchestral sound around works by other composers between four and five centuries in the past. What resulted has a wallpaper-ish quality to it, and it is probably all right that the orchestra last performed this piece in 1943.

These concerts marked the orchestra’s first-ever performances of Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso in F Major, Op. 7, No. 4, and it served an instructive purpose, with some of it referring back in the program, stylistically, to the Respighi and ahead to the Stravinsky (which has its melodic sources in 18th-century Italy).

Another Italian, Rossini, was represented in a fine if not sparkling performance of his Overture to La Cenerentola.

But for truly committed playing, we had to wait for the Stravinsky. Scored for chamber orchestra, the piece functions as something of a concerto grosso. It was a night of solos brief and more substantial for concertmaster David Kim, and you often wished for greater presence and charisma from someone in a position of such visibility.

But others soared. Double-bass player Joseph Conyers seized his solo moment with some individualistic moves. Oboist Richard Woodhams had the gift of subtlety early on when he tapped a sound so softly that he seemed to barely touch the note. Wind-heavy sections featured stylish, fleet playing by bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa, hornist Ernesto Tovar Torres, and trombonist Nitzan Haroz.

The music from Pulcinella leaves individual musicians exposed, and, for all the economy of the scoring, these players responded by finding ways to fill the hall with personality.