With Johnny Depp's menacing

Sweeney Todd

stare greeting you on the program page adjacent to the Philadelphia Orchestra's Thursday concert lineup, you wondered to what depths of desperation the search for a future music director has taken us. The answer was shockingly agreeable: conductor Antonio Pappano, whose main post is music director of London's Royal Opera, is a man whose original musical viewpoints lie within the bounds of mainstream music-making.

The implication from the first half, featuring Prokofiev's

Piano Concerto No. 3

with Simon Trpceski, is that Pappano is about solidity with style, not unlike Charles Dutoit. But the second half's Rachmaninoff

Symphony No. 2

performance implied far more, that Pappano and the Philadelphia Orchestra can indeed achieve greatness.

Though Rachmaninoff is still taken a bit for granted as a he-is-what-he-is figure, the symphony's masterpiece status is confirmed by what hugely different experiences it can be, from the bare nerve endings of Hans Vonk with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in seasons past to the gratuitous Hollywood gloss of Ivan Fischer's pretty but not very meaningful recording.

Under Pappano, the music's tiny building blocks that germinate into huge symphonic canvases unfolded with Bach-like clarity. Though Rachmaninoff tended to linger with an almost Germanic compulsion to draw one more mutation out of a given motif, Pappano gave each shift an inner logic of near-seismic importance. Part of this quality came from Pappano's refusal to go for the short-term whiplash climaxes that are certainly possible in this score. He kept a lid on certain passages, building each movement out of a series of plateaus - so decisively that only the sleepiest listeners were left behind.

The "Adagio" movement defied easy explanation. The famous clarinet solo was marvelously rendered by Ricardo Morales with seamlessly shifting pitches. As the movement progressed to a Parnassus-like serenity and stayed there - a difficult emotional state to sustain without stasis setting in - Pappano had a particularly transparent version of the Philadelphia string sound, using timbre as a way of creating a gateway to the spiritual state that this music wants to inhabit but rarely achieves. It was mesmerizing.

Many listeners were knocked out by the Prokofiev. I was impressed, and liked the Gallic rationality and precision that pianist and conductor brought to the work. Tempos were surprisingly moderate; no cheap thrills here, but thrills nonetheless, even if the episodic final movement didn't entirely hang together. Though I'd hear Trpceski anytime, anywhere, the performance didn't give me anything to take home. Trpceski's encore,

Prelude and Pajduska

by Macedonian composer Zhivoyin Glishich, was a dense melange of familiar notes bundled in unfamiliar ways.

For audio of an interview that David Patrick Stearns conducted with Antonio Pappano for WRTI's "Creatively Speaking," go to

. It will air at 11 a.m. today.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

The Philadelphia Orchestra program is repeated at 8 tonight at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.