La Scala.

Those words conjure an image of the world's most famous opera house, the glittering jewel of Italian vocal history in otherwise gray, gloomy Milan.

The house's orchestra has toured America before, supporting operatic productions and Verdi's Requiem, but its last visit to Philadelphia as a symphonic entity was led by no less than Arturo Toscanini way back in 1921.

Expanded into an ensemble for playing orchestral repertoire as well as opera 25 years ago by Claudio Abbado, and more recently by Riccardo Muti, the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala will visit tonight with Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly at its helm.

Chailly (pronounced Shy-EE) has been a frequent guest with the Philadelphia Orchestra and collaborated with them in a 1996 CD of Shostakovich film music.

Chailly led Amsterdam, Holland's, ultra-conservative Concertgebouw Orchestra for 16 years. Dutch audiences, and some musicians, didn't always appreciate his programming of unfamiliar - though worthy - works by Varese, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and others.

His current affiliation is with Leipzig's famed, more flexible Gewandhaus Orchestra, considered the oldest in Europe, which visited here last March.

Chailly's father, Luciano, was a well-known composer, and at an early age he was exposed to many renowned musicians as house guests. Understanding of the creative spirit was in his blood, and Chailly's recordings probe the innovative and once-revolutionary aspects of repertory works that often have been smoothed over through familiarity.

Chailly also led operas in his early years at the Teatro Communale in Bologna and will soon complete a three-year commitment at La Scala with Puccini's "Il Trittico."

Chailly has chosen an unusual program, bringing the superb tenor Ben Heppner to demonstrate the orchestra's operatic tradition in music by Wagner. Chailly also leads the Act III Prelude from Wagner's "Lohengrin" and Respighi's familiar anthem to his city, the stirring "Pines Of Rome."

In between is a more unusual choice - the ballet music from Federico Fellini's 1953 film "La Strada" by the marvelous, neglected composer Nino Rota (1911-1979).

We spoke by phone with Chailly, traveling in Illinois, about this unusual tour.

Q: How did this tour come about?

A: I've known this orchestra for 25 years while they have developed their own sound and repertory, and they asked me to do it. We decided on having Ben, this great tenor, show the theatrical and operatic side . . . It's a very busy eight concerts in 10 days. It will be a crescendo until our visit to Philadelphia and, the next day, to the finale at Carnegie Hall.

Q: Do you need extra symphonic players to add to the opera pit orchestra?

A: No, because La Scala has the largest opera pit in the world. Almost 100 players can fit, much larger than even the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We have a huge orchestra of 130, with slightly different programs for our tour. And we have symphonic encores of Puccini and Verdi - and I hope the response allows us to play them!

Q: How close are you to Rota's music?

A: I once led one of his piano concertos, with Rota playing the solo part, and his delightful trombone concerto. He was a very introspective man, a master of orchestral color and an inner sense of rhythm, and I called him the Italian Prokofiev. This ballet music, mostly from "La Strada," was commissioned by La Scala for a ballet in 1966, so the orchestra is identified with the piece.

Q: What is the political situation for the arts in Italy?

A: At this time, the government doesn't show enough flexibility to understand culture, surprising in a country with so much art. In recent years, they dropped funding for the radio orchestras in Rome, Milan and Naples, and the youth orchestra I founded, Orchestra Symphonica Giuseppe Verdi, is always on the edge of bankruptcy. I've become very spoiled in Leipzig, because they're very proud of their cultural tradition, which is their flag in the world.

Q: It sounds like your Leipzig situation is ideal!

A: The Gewandhaus includes 185 musicians, so they play orchestral concerts as well as the Leipzig opera. And they also perform sacred music at Thomaskirche, where the present cantoris the 16th successor to Johann Sebastian Bach. So, for me, it's a perfect fit. *

Send e-mail to dinardt@phillynews.com.

Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce streets, 8 tonight, $33-$115, 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org.