SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Pops may be only 3 years old, but maestro David Atherton thinks the popular summer series is ready for a face lift.
"We're changing the programming so that we reach a wider audience--not just the Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein crowd," Atherton said. In addition to beefing up the classical offerings at the Pops, the acclaimed British conductor is lending his own prestige to the outdoor series on Mission Bay.
Atherton will conduct the season's opening concerts--Wednesday through Saturday-- and an all-Tchaikovsky program in early August. He will then take the Tchaikovsky program, along with guest pianist John Lill and the San Diego Pops, to the Hollywood Bowl. The Aug. 22 and 23 performances will mark the local orchestra's debut in Southern California's premier outdoor venue.
The post of San Diego Pops resident conductor, held by symphony principal tubist Matthew Garbutt for the first three Pops seasons, has been temporarily put into mothballs. As part of his design to merge the identity of the orchestra's summer and winter guises, Atherton has taken over both Pops programming and direction in his capacity as symphony music director.
"I think that what happens in the summer should have some relevance to what happens in the winter," he said. "Our long-term aim is not to have pops concerts only during the summer, but to introduce them into the winter season as well. But also during the summer, we will gradually work towards having some 'serious' concerts.
"I don't see why we should go from May until October with essentially light fare. That's not to say we will be doing 12 weeks of Stockhausen during the summer, either."
While Atherton appeared typically confident about his own notions of programming, he was careful to justify this season's changes. "We have analyzed what has happened over the last three years. We have looked at the mailbag in terms of people writing in and saying, 'We come to your winter concerts, but we would like to have more serious fare during the summer.' "
Adding Pops responsibilities to his already heavy conducting schedule during the San Diego winter season is also a sign of his confidence in the orchestra's sound fiscal future, in spite of its recent troubles.
"If the board were talking about cutbacks, I would quickly lose interest," he said. "When an orchestra starts to stand still, it goes backwards."
Atherton's time commitment to San Diego is atypical for a modern conductor with orchestras in both Europe and America. "I'm doing many more weeks of conducting here than any other major director in North America spends with his own orchestra," he said. He was quick to credit the quality of the orchestra's musicians--"players who are really keen, enthusiastic and interested in what they're doing"--as his reason for spending so much of his time conducting the San Diego Symphony.
When his tenure as principal guest conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic is completed in August, the workaholic conductor will be left with just two orchestras, San Diego and the BBC Symphony. With an almost apologetic air, he added that guest conducting will fill up the rest of his schedule.
"I still have a close connection with the London Sinfionetta, an orchestra I founded, and I do tours and recordings with them. And I go back to the Royal Opera Covent Garden, where I conducted some 12 years, to do a Ravel-Stravinsky double bill regularly."
Concerning the recent financial crisis and the board's flirtation with bankruptcy, Atherton said with cautious confidence he believes that history will not repeat itself. "I don't think what we've experienced over the last three months will ever happen again. We now have in place at highest levels people who simply will not allow it to happen." He indicated that the resignation of general manager Richard Bass and the early retirement of board president M.B. (Det) Merryman were evidence of the symphony's efforts to set its house in order.
According to Atherton, the orchestra did not lose any of its contracted players because of the crisis, but he admitted that two high-caliber, guest first-chair players he was wooing, hoping they would decide to continue with the San Diego Symphony, have left for more stable orchestras. In addition, the crisis has made it harder for the orchestra to attract better musicians to audition.
"The crisis set us back two or three years, having worked hard to build up confidence with New York managements. Because we're the farthest geographical point anywhere in this country, it's extremely expensive to come here to audition. So if there's any shadow of doubt about the stability of the orchestra, that is bound to affect the quality of people who are willing to come here. The personnel who do come, however, are impressed without fail with what they find here."
Curtain for the gala Pops opening concert, which includes symphonic dances from "West Side Story," "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from "Peer Gynt" and "Chrysanthemums" by Puccini, is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hospitality Point on Mission Bay.