When most conductors go to the cupboard for some Stravinsky, they pull out one of the big, showy ballet scores--"Petrushka" for circus high jinks or "Rite of Spring" for its shock appeal. San Diego Symphony music director David Atherton, on the other hand, is a bit of a Stravinsky connoisseur--earlier in the decade in London he conducted the complete works--and doesn't appear to be tempted by the obvious.
Thursday evening he featured the Hungarian-born violinist Gyorgy Pauk performing the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, an infrequently programmed work representing the composer's most bristling neoclassicism. Atherton's command of the piece was striking, his expression of its architecture unforced and generous. From the orchestra he drew sparkling contrapuntal clarity, in spite of Stravinsky's dense, compacted textures. To this tight ensemble Pauk added a disappointingly slender solo voice. For his ability to delineate a shapely, well-accented line, he could not be faulted, but his timbre was thin and raspy, at times more friction than discernible pitch.
Only in the lyrical third movement--lyrical, that is, by Stravinsky's standards--did Pauk bring a touch of poetry from his fiddle. Atherton accommodated him by holding the orchestra at the threshold of audibility.
After the intermission, Pauk and the orchestra returned with Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending," a lush, romantic chaser to the Stravinsky. Again, Atherton indulged in opulent washes of orchestral color while Pauk manufactured his delicate traceries. He was quiet, careful and precise. But no hushed rapture and no mystical transports: "Lark" took flight, but did not soar.
Atherton opened this Civic Theatre program with the Webern transcription of the Ricercar from Bach's "Musical Offering." The maestro's ideas about this quaint exercise in orchestral pointillism, however, were several steps ahead of the orchestra's realization. When Atherton called for muted understatement, he received hesitation. When he begged for melodic continuity, the line was strained and halting. Unlike its deft reading of the Stravinsky, the orchestra communicated little understanding of what Webern was up to.
Benjamin Britten's Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, also known as "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," proved a delightful end to the evening. Atherton received articulate, robust responses from every section as they paraded in virtual review. Spread out across the stage in full battle array, the orchestra flaunted its virtues with panache and an almost immodest vigor. Encore!