Opera conductors listen for stories. The best of them find tales in scores and know just how to pace the telling or make characters leap from the page.
Fabio Luisi is in that league. The principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera led the Philadelphia Orchestra on Thursday night at Verizon Hall in a program of standard issues: Weber's Overture to Oberon, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Franck D Minor Symphony. Traditional repertoire and traditional format, and yet revelation was everywhere.
The pianist in the Beethoven was Lise de la Salle, stepping in for an old friend of the orchestra we hope will be back soon, André Watts. Here, the conductor deferred to the spirit of his soloist. In her encore, the French-born pianist was a technical wonder. Rachmaninoff's Études-Tableaux, Opus 39, No. 1 in C Minor is a thicket, and de la Salle impressed. In Beethoven, too. She passed through any number of passages with a pearly gloss in the concerto's last movement, and slowed the second to achieve a grim intrigue that was not without its appeal. The first movement, though, was a bit cold, not quite arriving at an interpretation to convey its liberating humanity.
Luisi operates at a sophisticated level. He gets a plush, but taut, sound from the ensemble, and radiates a level of faith that makes the orchestra move as one. Upon that foundation, he layered an unusually well-developed set of details -- dynamic contrast, thoughtful pacing, shaping of phrases. These were especially finely calibrated in the Oberon, to make points puckish, elfin, or noble. Especially satisfying emotionally was the way he differentiated textures ranging from silken warmth to fairy dust.
Franck came with a Wagnerian majesty and lurking wonder. Luisi played the long game, building sections slowly over stretches so that when we reached a point of arrival, it packed a punch. Rattle and Jurowski have this same kind of wisdom (as did Sawallisch), and it paid off in a Franck D Minor of startling depth and beauty. He drew out the best from the players: flutist David Cramer, and two exceptionally fine substitute players, hornist Kevin Rivard and harpist Helen Gerhold.
It would represent a deepening of this orchestra's artistic life if Luisi could come back soon and often. The Met, after all, found its new music director here, in Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and an exchange of some kind seems an apt expression of gratitude. Fair is fair.
Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday, Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Sts. Tickets are $10-$152. www.philorch.org, 215-893-1999.