The Philadelphia Orchestra's search for a music director is, in all likelihood, over.

That doesn't mean a decision has been made, much less an offer extended or accepted. The search committees may dither for months or - damagingly - years. But all the relevant evidence likely to come in is, in fact, in. Vladimir Jurowski's last visit with the orchestra ended the need to look any further - if in fact he would accept the job.

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Is an unknown name still a possibility? It could happen, but that would mean a protracted search. Conductors are booked years in advance, so the danger of hiring one who hasn't even visited yet is that we risk watching the age of 80 creep up on Charles Dutoit. A decision is necessary this season, even with the unfortunate complication that this is playing out without a president whose political savvy, experience and wisdom equal that of James Undercofler, the former president, whom the orchestra has inexplicably let slip through its fingers at this crucial time.

The search is at a frightening moment, not because there are no prospects, but because time and time again in the last two decades, the orchestra has failed to cultivate meaningful, long-term relationships with guest conductors. The one long-term connection it has is with Simon Rattle, whose agent has signaled a strong no. All the other promising leads - except one - have been here only once and are scheduled for a single visit next season.

Which means that, at this time next year, the orchestra is only slightly more likely to be in a position to make a decision than it is now, since most of the promising returning guests will not have been heard in enough repertoire - still.

Here's another danger: If any one of those guests cancels, we're looking at the orchestra's making a decision in 2010-11, by which time any one of the young conductors being considered is likely to have been snapped up elsewhere.

Only one prospect already has been heard in three programs, and that's Jurowski, who just finished a run of rare Mahler and standard Berg. I heard three repeats of his five concerts here, plus two different programs in New York with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I also heard his Christmas Eve Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera last season, plus his previous two Philadelphia programs.

The search committees will do what they're going to do. But if the orchestra knows a more astonishingly expressive and technically complete conductor, great: That would at least be a declarative statement that music is the sole criterion in this search, and I can't wait to hear him or her. The bar has been set extremely high by Jurowski - a fact that is, happily, unrelated to the fact that the orchestra has no other realistic options.

Having heard Jurowski in moving, highly evolved interpretations of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, Mahler early and late, Berg, Mozart, Strauss, an opera score by contemporary Russian Vladimir Martynov, Wagneresque Humperdinck, and Stravinsky, it's hard to imagine that a Franck Symphony in D Minor led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin or a Tchaikovsky 4 with Stéphane Denève (both slated for next season) could constitute a convincing counterargument.

Denève returns for his second program next month, with the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5, "Reformation" - hardly an interpretive crucible - as its centerpiece.

Anyone who still suspects that Jurowski suffers from limited repertoire might fly to London in May to hear him do excerpts from Walton's Henry V, Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and some of Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. This at a children's concert.

It shouldn't be necessary to go elsewhere to get a full picture of any conductor. Not too many seasons ago in Philadelphia, conductors would settle in for three weeks of programs, sometimes more. Now, a two-week visit is considered a big commitment, so it's harder for musicians and audiences to hear talent in a spread of repertoire under various conditions.

Today, we prefer speed-dating, with all its superficiality and risks. Some musicians said it wouldn't hurt if Jurowski smiled more or said "good morning." Really? Can that be a criterion in this search? It might be better to have a cheery back-slapper with poor rehearsal technique and limited insight than a stern-faced genius? Is this the level of dialogue today in the orchestra?

Jurowski's visits elicited comments from musicians that were all over the map, and I am loath to commit them to print, since this ensemble darts one way, then another, like a school of fish. What does concern me is that many players are young and have never sat in a great orchestra with a great music director. Others have forgotten what it is to have a leader who works on the sound of the ensemble, who cares about the acoustics of the hall, and who drives them hard in the kind of detail work that separates great orchestras from good ones.

So, where is the president, chairman, or board member who understands the peculiar behavior of an orchestra deeply enough to sort out which observations are meaningful and which come from musicians who dislike all conductors on principle, or who are simply thinking out loud?

A promising development on the leadership front was Thursday's election of businessman Richard Worley - considered by many to be a knowledgeable and passionate music-lover - as board chair.

A few voices are calling for Dutoit to become music director for a short, finite period. This expanded caretaker role might work; his declared mission of inculcating the orchestra's tradition in young players is admirable and necessary.

Some musicians are afraid that with added authority, Dutoit would grow into an ogre. I, too, fear he might have a personality change on the podium - becoming not Dutoit the Ogre, but rather Dutoit the Disengaged. When he was passed over for music director in 1999, he pulled out of the Mann Center while his subscription concerts continued, and he seemed petulant and not entirely there.

Dutoit as temporary music director could achieve some useful things. He would have the authority to make some personnel changes that are badly needed; in particular, a number of principal desks need attention.

So it could work - under one condition: Make Dutoit music director for a two- or three-year period, but only if his successor already has been chosen. This would allow for an orderly transition, compel him to make decisions about repertoire and personnel in tandem with the long-term music director, and reassure funders of institutional momentum.

The orchestra has gotten itself into a state of unprecedented institutional chaos. It has an acting executive director, a new board chairman, and no music director. Can it regain its financial footing? Will it ever catch up to the pioneering online projects being pursued by other orchestras? Acting executive director Frank P. Slattery Jr. has articulated a vision that sounds like the Incredible Shrinking Orchestra.

"We have only a very, very simple mission now, and that is to put this orchestra on stage to play the music they've been playing and still be an international touring organization that is attempting to become the best orchestra in the U.S.," he said. "Anything else that gets in the way of this is extraneous now."

If that's really all, the mission statement turns back the clock considerably. "Attempting to become the best"? That describes the orchestra before Stokowski arrived. And aiming to "put this orchestra on stage" describes only the start of a great orchestra's responsibility. Education, a Web presence, and a heightened civic role are three important areas the orchestra has rightly recognized as the future.

The core institutional mission that makes everything else possible is the quality of the music-making, and this organization is still basically a patriarchy. When things are running smoothly on the podium, everyone's job becomes clear. Again, what's the criterion for hiring a music director? Is the orchestra looking for a nice guy? Christoph Eschenbach was a nice guy. It didn't work. It's about the music.

At the moment, this would mean only one conductor, and that's Jurowski. Players may decide on him, or roll the dice elsewhere. Before Jurowski's third visit, the burden of proof was on him to argue why the orchestra should offer him the job. Now, the onus is on the musicians to explain why it should not.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.