The Philadelphia Orchestra's music-director-to-be walked out on stage Friday night with a microphone instead of a baton, drawing a partial standing ovation before his first beat.
"Wait and see if you still like me after the concert," Yannick Nézet-Séguin said.
It was a charming rejoinder, but there was really never any doubt.
In his third program with the orchestra - and his first since being named music director beginning in 2012 - the 35-year-old Montrealer showed his new public what it might expect from the Nézet-Séguin era.
He turned in assured, if not revelatory, interpretations of Haydn and Mahler. But perhaps more important was the mutual bear hug that reached across the footlights. The orchestra - the organization, not the ensemble - is in an extremely fragile state, and you could not escape the feeling that Friday's full Verizon Hall audience was there to fight back. It had been a while since I'd heard the kind of roars that greeted individual players when Nézet-Séguin singled them out for applause at the end of the Mahler.
Afterward, the conductor, grinning ear to ear, signed autographs in the lobby and had a few one-on-one words with fans. Hundreds waited in line, and he stayed until every one was sated - well over an hour.
Emotionally, this was exactly the night this orchestra and its city needed to spend together.
It was also only the beginning of a musical exploration. As the conductor said: "We are now just starting to consume our love." (Even his malapropisms are cute.) He and the orchestra are already a powerful marketing team. Will they back it up with an equally potent musical partnership? Players were on their mettle, which can only be seen as a promising sign.
The program, assembled before Nézet-Séguin's appointment was announced in June, drew a connection between Haydn's Symphony No. 100, the "Military," and Mahler's Symphony No. 5. In his comments to the audience, Nézet-Séguin only hinted at their common DNA. But both composers expanded symphonic horizons enormously, and the pieces share the same triplet figure played by the trumpet.
Using a healthy-size string section, Nézet-Séguin drew unusual refinements from the Haydn. He is not by nature a micromanager of phrasing, and when his beat goes slack, it is sometimes to the benefit of the ensemble, sometimes not. The last movement was less than crisp. But this is a symphony that gives freedom of expression to individuals, and he was generous in granting it. In the second movement, principal percussionist Christopher Deviney went wondrously long on quality of sound in his gentlest of cymbal work (bringing the same timbral sensitivity to the same instrument in the Mahler), while a velvet of blended winds benefited from clarinetist Ricardo Morales, oboist Richard Woodhams, and bassoonist Mark Gigliotti.
Interpretively, Mahler's Symphony No. 5 historically is a vehicle of remarkably wide range, especially the "Adagietto," which, at its most powerful, can lead to transcendent realms. Nézet-Séguin avoided the dangers of trying to arrive at profundity through sloth, and he decided not to over-manipulate phrasings and tempos. If it seemed more like a space holder for the stronger opinions of someday, it was a reading that still sighed, whispered, and wept, measuring out its emotion in simple, heartfelt doses.
Earnestness and care - rather than the presence of a lot of layers - were the primary characteristics of the first and second movements. Plotting emotional forecasts for conductors is folly, so it's impossible to know whether there's more there there. This much was apparent, though, on this happy night at the orchestra: Nézet-Séguin's general air of confidence reached principal hornist Jennifer Montone and principal trumpeter David Bilger, whose substantial solos melded polish and chance-taking; this is a conductor who knows how to manage tension in pursuit of an emotionally satisfying climax, as he did magnificently near the end of the Mahler.
We have in our midst a conductor - his self-effacing thumbs redirecting audience cheers to the ensemble - who is in the right place at the right time, with unerring instincts about how to gather up love for an ensemble that has perhaps decided it has operated on the margins of relevance long enough.