WHEN Riccardo Muti took the helm of the venerated Philadelphia Orchestra from the legendary Eugene Ormandy six seasons ago, he came in with metaphorical guns blazing -- aimed at tradition. It seemed as if an enfant terrible of ominous proportions was being let loose on an unsuspecting orchestra and public. Muti's handsome but serious features, his generous thatch of dark hair, and his litheness on the podium won him instant converts.
He gave interviews in which he implied that the Academy of Music was an inferior concert hall, that the orchestra was not going to have a Philadelphia sound, but rather, the sound of the music at hand. In all, he sent out signals that, to a fair number of people, sounded ominously like war on tradition.
Traditionally, the sound of an orchestra was cherished: That sound was the legacy of a great conductor. Ormandy spent his entire career in Philadelphia honing the orchestra into an ensemble beloved for its rich string tone, its smooth brass, its glorious blends, that fit the main romantic repertoire ideally.
To generations of record buyers, simply the name of Ormandy and the Philadelphia was enough recommendation for any new release. Recording companies did battle royal for the privilege of taping this ``team.''
Thus, when Muti came in, I recall using the word ``dismantling'' to describe what it appeared he was up to. But nothing so drastic occurred.
In those early years, as he tried to instill a chameleonlike flexibility to the sound, he tended to enforce a general anti-ripe tone on everything, which is why so many thought the Philadelphia was losing the very sound that made it special.
The orchestra today -- be it in Carnegie Hall or in the Academy of Music -- bears little resemblance to Ormandy's. Whereas Ormandy would adapt one basic sound to suit all music, Muti thinks first of the sound of the piece and then elicits it from the orchestra.
Muti's is not always the lush and hedonistic experience Ormandy offered, but it is musically more appropriate and more stimulating. And on occasion, Muti has mellowed enough to allow that old-style lushness to take effect in the right scores.
Muti has cultivated an ensemble that can mold itself to his will and musical needs, yet can accommodate a guest conductor's utterly different approaches. Thus, when Charles Dutoit did Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, he demanded a lighter, less textured sound than Muti would have requested. Eugen Jochum performed Bruckner's Ninth in an expansive, massively textured fashion. When Muti offered Bruckner's Fourth later in the same season, he used a transparent, lean, highly detailed sound.
Muti has had to fight the label of Italian maestro with some vehemence. When he does Hindemith -- the Symphony in E flat -- he proves that he can bring this sprawling, dark-hued Germanic piece thrillingly to life. His Beethoven is fleet, somewhat over-driven, and exciting in an external sort of way. But he is not uniformly accomplished. At the Academy, he tackled Bruckner's Fourth in such a tame, subdued manner as to rob the piece of its mystery and otherworldly beauty.
In general, when music calls for introspection and an almost spiritual vision, Muti tends to resort to textual accuracy and clarity of inner voicings. It is beguiling, yet adds little to the interpretive impact of the work.
His Philadelphia recordings, all on Angel Records, have chronicled his major steps forward interpretively. Muti's reading of Berlioz's ``Symphonie Fantastique'' is one of the best new recordings of that descriptive work -- reaching thrilling peaks in the vivid scenes of demonic passions and mayhem. Scenes from Tchaikovsky's ``Swan Lake'' and ``Sleeping Beauty'' reveal a new-found expansiveness and suppleness of line that make the performances especially appealing.
Most of the recent recordings have been done in the lush acoustics of Memorial Hall in Fairmont Park. Unfortunately, the Academy of Music proves to be a liability acoustically. One likes to think that a great orchestra is part and parcel of a great acoustic. In truth, the orchestra always sounds best in Carnegie Hall, not the Academy. This has to be a constant frustration for Muti.
The music director does not shy away from unfamiliar or potentially unpopular music. He is committed to new works; he is learning a good share of American music, something most of his European colleagues have shirked over the years.
Muti has programmed an annual concert opera, which is now a major event in Philadelphia. He participates in a special symposium, in which he quite literally sells the opera to come, and ends up being the star of the occasion, conducting the audience with as much skill as he conducts his orchestra.
His performance does not always live up to his own advance work for it. Last year's ``Rigoletto'' -- in the new critical edition -- took all the fun out of the work. In striving for rhythmic accuracy and musical fidelity, he failed to bring the drama to life. And his hand-picked cast was as drab and uninteresting as could be.
Ironically, he let Dennis Russell Davies perform Debussy's ``Pell'eas et M'elisande'' -- a work Muti could have done quite brilliantly. As it turned out, Mr. Davies seemed so awed by the orchestra that he forgot to conduct. Thus, Benita Valente's ravishing M'elisande and Wolfgang Schoene's strong Golaud went for naught; it was no surprise that patrons fled in droves.
Muti remains something of an enigma -- a man of ideas who can get them across at so many unexpected moments. His is a bold podium presence, and he seems the object of adulation in his ``home'' town. But Muti's accomplishment in reshaping this great orchestra is beyond cavil. It continues to be one of the great orchestras of the land, an achievement not to be taken lightly.