Only some sort of music-appreciation extremist would say the only way into a piece of music is knowing the story behind it.
Still, you had to wonder how many listeners in Verizon Hall on Thursday night had told their Valentine’s Day dates in advance what Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin was all about. It has quite possibly the most horrific story line this side of David Lynch.
Thursday’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert wasn’t billed as a Valentine event — the program is repeated Friday afternoon and Saturday night — but the hall was filled with couples.
They were lured perhaps by Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, known for the use of its brightening opening notes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But when the listeners got there, guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen took them for a wild ride, through the Strauss and on to not one but two meaty Bartók scores.
It was heartening to see the hall full, and that everyone stayed to see how it all turned out.
Salonen, who takes over the San Francisco Symphony with the 2020-21 season, connects to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s more extroverted side.
He likes brisk tempos and doesn’t linger even when the music might benefit from a little time. In that great string-section episode near the start of the Strauss where the music expands sweetly like the opening folds of a flower, Salonen kept it moving quickly.
Still, he knows how to generate heat, and his partnership with the orchestra brought out an edge in Strauss that was salutary.
There was greater edge to come. He led The Miraculous Mandarin in its concert suite form, which leaves out about a third of the full-ballet music. But the violence of the story — a group of tramps who force a girl into luring potential johns into a room so they can rob them, eventually murdering one of them — is everywhere in this score.
Bartók invents instrumental effects of great cunning. This orchestra, virtuosic under Salonen’s incisive direction, heightened these effects to staggering impact. Nothing can make a snarl like a group of trombones pushing as much sound out into the hall as they can with their buzzy mutes stuffed up their bells.
The suite (which uses no chorus) is a chance to show off both individual instrumental voices as well as the colors of strange instrumental doublings. Brief solos were expert and many: clarinetist Ricardo Morales, timpanist Don S. Liuzzi, and English hornist Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia.
One bit of interplay was brief but telling. When a prominent passage played by bassoonist Mark Gigliotti was followed by flutist Patrick Williams, the music passed from one to the other with the same color, shaping, and character. This is the kind of sophistication and sensitivity that distinguishes art from assembly line work.
Williams — who started as the orchestra’s new associate principal flutist at the beginning of the season — has a silky depth very much welcome to the orchestra’s special concept of blended woodwind sound. It was an impressive piece overall for the orchestra’s winds.
So, too, in the Viola Concerto by Bartók completed by Tibor Serly. The soloist was Choong-Jin Chang. The question that always arises when the orchestra plucks a concerto soloist from its own ranks is why: Why use someone who spends most of his or her time thinking inside an ensemble rather than a full-time itinerant soloist?
Chang, the orchestra’s principal violist, had a fine solo voice, especially at the work’s start. Unless you already knew, however, how deeply expressive, urgent, and emotionally penetrating this music can be, you might not have realized it from this performance. Chang was admirable, though. This is music of the most formidable kind.