Although perfectly congenial, the Philadelphia Orchestra's high-concept program was up around the ozone Thursday when the Fauré Requiem was preceded by a succession of composers that spanned three centuries and as many nationalities - for no clear reason.
Not knowing the connecting thread isn't a bad thing: Such things can reveal themselves over time. Hitting so many musical bases, though, translated into less cumulative impact, despite superb performances under guest conductor Alain Altinoglu.
Brass fanfares (one thread) separated by centuries framed the first half, starting with Giovanni Gabrieli and ending with Paul Dukas. In between was Franck's Organ Chorale No. 1, with Michael Stairs pulling rich sonorities out of the Kimmel Center organ, even with his arm in a sling, and Maurice Duruflé's lovely Four Motets on Gregorian Themes, cut from similar cloth (and sounding remarkably like the fashionable American composer Eric Whitacre), forming a Gallic thread.
One wild card was Villa-Lobos' Latin American hybrid Bachianas brasileiras No. 5. Might that have been included so that the Fauré Requiem's underutilized soprano soloist, Susanna Phillips, would have more to contribute to the concert? Not a bad reason. Though the "Dança" movement seemed not fully worked into her voice, she gave a distinctive full-voiced reading with many beautiful phrasing flourishes, without which the concert would've been poorer.
The program was devised by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who had to withdraw from the show a few months back following health problems. He might have pulled larger rabbits out of the hat had he been here. But French conductor Altinoglu, in his debut between performances of Werther at the Metropolitan Opera, gamely stuck to the concept - I hope he soon returns with a program of his own making.
As in Werther, Altinoglu has a gift for finding deep meaning in music that might seem merely demure - specifically amid all of the unison vocal and instrumental writing in the Fauré Requiem. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale sang with extraordinary control, with particularly flavorful pianissimos - with detailed, intimate phrasing usually heard only in solo vocal performances. Among vocal soloists, Phillips was predictably alluring, while baritone Philippe Sly maintained dignity appropriate to the music but with highly personal use of color.