Among the things I've discovered at the orchestra over the years is that a good way to engage your seat mate is to say that the next piece is about a man punished by strapping him naked to the back of a horse and sending him through the countryside.
Fortunately, on Thursday night, this was actually the case. It might be surprising, but Franz Liszt's Mazeppa, inspired by the Victor Hugo poem, ends happily, which the Philadelphia Orchestra did, too, performing the tone poem for the first time since 1983.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda led the 16-minute work, most interesting because its sound universe borrows, at the end, from Berlioz's orchestration, and, in the mystery of the middle section, from a spare Wagnerian aesthetic. Here, hornist Jeffrey Lang was an aptly shadowy figure in gorgeously muted tones. Noseda, an excitable type, found convincing contours through pacing and phrasings to tell the story.
It was terrific to hear Leonidas Kavakos in the Sibelius Violin Concerto - it is, in fact, terrific to hear him in anything. That immediately present tone that toggles so easily between secure whispering and secure meatiness was all there. Interpretively, he sometimes failed to go deep, especially in the first movement, whose layers of meaning offer tremendous riches to risk-takers. Kavakos played it safe expressively, though his technique was, as always, off the charts. He found great soulfulness in the encore - a particularly stylish "Gavotte en Rondeau" from Bach's Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006. His manipulation of tone, combined with a well-ordered sense of structure, made Bach soar.
Occasionally, a piece that might not be, bar for bar, first rate finds a conductor able to heighten its first-rate qualities enough to make you think differently about it. But this was not quite the case in Noseda's take on Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, "Winter Daydreams." It's easy to hear why the piece is done as often as it is. The first movement's main theme (in its major-key guise), with its brief and thrilling unexpected harmonic drop, tracks like a merry sleigh ride. Tchaikovsky here is often at his balletic best, but it does grow corny, and so the work awaits more convincing leadership. Still, the fact that the piece is as string-heavy as it is makes it a natural here. With the orchestra beautifully tapping deep reserves of sound, it was well worth hearing.
Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $10-$147. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.