Any other conductor would test an audience's loyalty with a Philadelphia Orchestra program featuring particularly bizarre modern music.
But Simon Rattle knows his people. And though he programmed György Ligeti (as might Christoph Eschenbach), and, at one point, swiveled around and yelled toward the audience (as did Riccardo Muti), there was no loss of good will and, in fact, a standing ovation on Thursday for Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre.
A significant ingredient was Barbara Hannigan, the Canadian new-music diva whose charisma, voice and unreserved sense of showmanship were put to great use in a scene from the Ligeti opera Le Grand Macabre, in which she plays a police chief hysterically, nonsensically warning that the end of the world is near.
Her costuming was that of a different kind of chief - a dominatrix in the highest heels I've ever seen. Maybe this is a new key to success. In a town like Philadelphia, where you're judged the minute you walk in the door, the best way to overcome that is by giving people the opposite of what they expect. In Verizon Hall, a dominatrix fills that bill.
Thus, what promised to be a furrow-browed modern piece turned out to not be serious at all. One section calls for the conductor to have a nervous breakdown, prompting Rattle to yell at Hannigan to shut up. Since her unintelligibility was intentional, you didn't feel stupid for not understanding what she was singing. Best of all, the scene was such a set piece in the opera that it stood alone easily. Absurdity doesn't require much context. Just a black Louise Brooks wig, an imperious manner, and you're set.
Hannigan sang with a light, pinpoint coloratura soprano with amazing clarity of intention. The voice was a bit light for the Three Fragments from Wozzeck (the opera about a mentally ill soldier and his faithless wife), taken mostly from the role of Marie that composer Berg wrote for near-Wagnerian pipes. Her theatrical fierceness telegraphed specific mood shifts even when the large orchestra was in full cry.
But this suite may have outlived its usefulness. Though Rattle wisely preceded Berg with Webern's Passacaglia, Op. 1 (which employs similar gestures in more conservative form), diving into isolated sections of the opera is tough for musicians and audiences. Why settle for fragments now that the full opera is often in evidence?
In fact, a poster advertising Wozzeck on Ice! made the rounds on the Internet last year but was a hoax. I'll bet Rattle could make such a thing happen - and should if he hopes to top his Ligeti outing.
The concert ended with Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral"), the feel-good symphony of the nine, though its placid repetitiveness can be a long yawn. But Rattle had a plan. Though he fearlessly observed the symphony's sometimes-ignored repeat markings, every restatement of a given musical idea had a different tinge - sometimes quieter, often with the instrumental balances reorganized - with climaxes so skillfully built that they didn't need to be overplayed to anchor the movement. Rattle isn't just smart; he's a wizard.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.