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Atherton Puts His Stamp On San Diego Symphony

November 01, 1985|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

San Diego Symphony: Symphony Hall

In 1981, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra was practically bankrupt. But on Saturday, the syphony will celebrate the opening of its new multimillion-dollar home and the kickoff of an exciting new season. This week, the people and events that came together to save the symphony will be profiled in articles in Part II, View and Calendar.

David Atherton, the San Diego Symphony's music director and conductor, has never been accused of reticence, on or off the podium.

Arriving amid the symphony's near-fatal financial disaster four years ago, the English music director made it clear that certain standards applied, even to the wealthiest patrons occupying the most expensive seats. At his first concert as conductor, Atherton established the rules of decorum by staring down late returnees after an intermission.

At that debut concert, he proffered an audacious musical calling card with Igor Stravinsky's acidulous arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a prelude to "The Rite of Spring," a demanding undertaking for most orchestras, played by the symphony that night with striking precision and stirring emotion.

He caught reporters by surprise at his first press conference, boldly stating as a new guy in town that the first priority for the symphony was to acquire its own hall. He had directed the orchestra at the Civic Theatre, its home for 20 years, as a guest conductor.

"That first performance was still fresh in my mind," Atherton recalled this week. "It seemed to me that the Civic Theatre was just the wrong place to be doing concerts. Acoustically it's not ideal, and above all, it's just too big . . . to make good, intimate music." Now the symphony has that hall.

In his four years as the artistic leader of the San Diego Symphony, Atherton has always considered music-making and music education his top priorities, eagerly--some might say, brashly--expanding the musical horizon of 20th-Century San Diegans with an unaccustomed dose of 20th-Century music. Critics have unanimously praised him for raising the musical standard of the orchestra and for stretching the ears of audiences.

Atherton stuck with the symphony through its darkest financial hours. "I came on board and they missed the payroll within about three weeks," he said. "The picture that I had been presented of the orchestra was far different than the actual picture. So I started looking into the bank accounts and how we did business.

"Since then the board has been being totally revamped. The administration is totally different."

And so are the concerts. Atherton, whose accent suggests his Blackpool, England, origins, quickly instituted themes for the symphony's regular subscription series. One season the audiences heard the complete symphonies of Sibelius; the next year all of the orchestral works of Brahms were played. The complete orchestral works of Ravel have been presented, as have the piano concertos and sonatas of Beethoven. Last year Atherton programmed some of the unusual pieces by Tchaikovsky.

"I like to have a scheme," Atherton said. "I like to relate things together, and where possible take a particular subject and examine it in depth. You have your interesting concerts, but you also have something a little meatier for those who want to delve a little more into some particular aspect of music."

This season Atherton and the symphony are offering a five-part great-composers series, special concerts in addition to the regular subscription season. Each of the five concerts will feature works by one composer: Beethoven, Berlioz, Stravinsky, Mozart and Dvorak. Diversity is important to Atherton in attracting new audiences to the symphony. This Christmas will include a holiday pops series, and a new festival is being considered for June.

As far as Atherton is concerned, the new Symphony Hall will be the orchestra's launching pad. "There comes a point that you can't develop the orchestra any further unless you have the flexibility to be able to perform when you want on the nights of the week that you want to," he said. In the past, the orchestra often could not rehearse at the Civic Theatre, and it held auditions in rooms at nearby universities.

Symphony Hall will give the music more "presence and immediacy," and a warmer, richer sound with greater dynamic range than did the Civic Theatre, Atherton said. "The loud things can be really loud and blow you out of your seat, and the soft things can be like pin drops. People are going to be staggered at the sound of the orchestra."

But the new acoustic qualities will take getting used to. "In an acoustic like the Civic, you get used to forcing the sound," he said. "String players get used to using more pressure with the bow to make more sound and make it project more. In this hall you just touch the string and the sound is out there. It'll take a long time--at least two or three years--to get rid of habits like that."

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