You'd never know it, talking with David Atherton. You'd never guess that such a mild-mannered, often bemused Britisher could actually be at--or at least close to--the center of a lengthy crisis that last week finally forced the San Diego Symphony to close its doors.
As music director of the orchestra, Atherton now finds himself out of a job. In fact, it has been five months since he last conducted the ensemble. An endless series of fund-raising drives, heated labor negotiations and finger-pointing had continued unabated through much of 1986, culminating in the cancellation of the fall season.
And since last summer, the 43-year-old musician has purposely kept the lowest of profiles.
"Actually, I've enjoyed the last two or three months. I haven't been dashing around for a change," he commented on Jan. 12--the very morning, ironically, that the board of directors voted to cease orchestral operations.
But, now that the remainder of the San Diego season has been wiped clean, surely Atherton must feel some degree of uneasiness. Not a chance. "As it happens, most of my guest conducting (for '86-'87) was scheduled for the latter part of the season," he responded matter-of-factly. One of those engagements occurs this week, when Atherton leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the L.A. Music Center four times, beginning tonight.
The conductor may have been relaxed and open-minded about his personal calendar, but when queried on the specifics of the collapse of the San Diego Symphony--and any involvement he may have had in same--Atherton suddenly became guarded and closed-mouthed: "Since June, I have made no comments to the press. I certainly won't start here."
Atherton remained tight-lipped about claims from orchestra musicians that it was their music director's demand for control over the hiring and firing of players--not management's proposed pay cuts--that prevented both parties from reaching an accord. He said, "I have not been present at the negotiating sessions. I've been out of town much of the time. Labor relations law is such that, once negotiations begin, they are between two parties. Any interference is in violation of the law."
(These words, of course, were spoken prior to the board's decision to dissolve the orchestra. Subsequently, the conductor failed to return numerous telephone calls from The Times.)
Atherton did open up, a bit, however, when asked to trace the history of how the organization sank to such financial depths that a 10-day campaign in March that brought in more than $2 million from the private donors could not resuscitate the orchestra.
Atherton puts the blame for the symphony's financial troubles on the previous administration of board President Det Merryman and Executive Director Richard Bass. "When I first arrived here (in 1981), audiences came to hear Stern and Horowitz and Rostropovich. The orchestra was merely a backing ensemble for a series of expensive soloists."
Last March, "a chaotic meeting was held to discuss Chapter 11 (bankruptcy proceedings). The board asked me to play another two weeks," Atherton said. "It was a long shot, but they felt that if they could raise the $2 million, they would stay alive.
"Envelopes began arriving. Money was pouring in like you wouldn't believe. Later, it transpired that we had not been given totally accurate information." Atherton said he was "despondent" when the truth came out. But more than that, he felt humiliated.
"I was not the only one put in an awkward position, of course. Now I'm not pointing a finger, but when you go public and make pleas of that enormity, you feel as if your reputation has been damaged."
During the drive, Atherton made numerous radio and television talk show appearances on the orchestra's behalf and was instrumental in raising $2.4 million. Now, the orchestra faces $1.3 million in debts.
With the departure of Merryman and Bass last summer, and the arrival of current board President Herbert Solomon and Executive Director Wesley Brustad, things began to look up, the conductor said. "Mr. Brustad and I hit it off immediately," Atherton said. "He's a very able man. He and Mr. Solomon made it clear to the public what the facts were--they didn't pull the wool over anyone's eyes.
"Maybe if they had come aboard six or nine months earlier we might have had a different scenario."
Atherton seemed content with his sudden change in job status from music director to traveling maestro (he remains principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony in London). In fact, the future seemed to bother him hardly a whit. "As far as the (San Diego Symphony) is concerned, I'm in the same boat as everyone else," he noted. Not exactly, since he remains on the payroll and is expected to receive half of his $237,000 salary for this season.
Looking down the road, the conductor has no worries about finding work: "My manager sounded pleased when we discussed my upcoming calendar.
"Actually, there are things I'd like to do that I haven't had time for in the last 20 years. I like to read a lot. Now I'll have time to read more about music history."
Atherton even hinted at a possible career change. "I've always been interested in computers," he said.