San Diego County Arts Writer

David Atherton, the acclaimed music director of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, has renewed his contract for three years, it was announced Thursday by Symphony Assn. President M.B. (Det) Merryman. Atherton's new contract, which will extend through the summer of 1989, is the first multi-year pact that he has reached with the orchestra since he signed on as music director in 1980 for four years.

The new agreement ends speculation that the British conductor, whose star has risen dramatically since he joined the San Diego orchestra, would move on to fresh pastures at the conclusion of his present contract, which extends through the 1985-86 season, the orchestra's inaugural year at its new Symphony Hall (currently the Fox Theatre). Previously, Atherton extended his contract twice for one year each time. In the last few years, Atherton, 41, has won high praise from American critics not only for his work with the San Diego orchestra but also for guest conducting stints with the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Financial details of Atherton's new contract were not revealed.

"David Atherton has drawn international attention to the San Diego Symphony, " said Merryman. "This will make sure that the major orchestra status we've achieved will continue not just in word but in our presentation."

Atherton recalled that the orchestra's financial crisis began in 1981 and explained that until now he had not felt comfortable making "an open-ended commitment" to conducting here.

"Now I feel virtually all the right pieces are in place," he said. "Morale is 1,000% up, and all the indications are very positive. Only five days into our subscription renewal campaign, and ticket sales (for the upcoming season) are considerably up. You're going to see 'Sold Out' notices posted at the Fox."

Atherton noted that the Symphony Hall project, the extensive reorganization of the orchestra board and staff, the orchestra's determination to become a "52-week" unit, and the active involvement of community leaders have "led me to believe we've got tremendous potential and can continue to break down barriers musically and at the box office."

Atherton also acknowledged that a new principal clarinetist had been selected after a recent daylong audition of 87 applicants. But he withheld the musician's name pending the singing of a contract. He also said that the post of associate conductor, recently vacated by Richard Hickox, remains unfilled and that Matthew Garbutt would be vacating his assistant conductor post after Sept. 1. In answer to a query about the orchestra's development staff --its last two fund-raising directors were fired within three months of each other--Merryman said that the orchestra would announce "a new approach to our (Symphony Hall) capital fund drive" very shortly.

Atherton will conclude the 1984-85 orchestra season with pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the orchestra June 6 through 8, then travel to Australia for a concert tour with the Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane symphony orchestras. That will be followed by performances in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic--both of which he also serves as principal guest conductor--and the London Sinfonietta, which he founded. Returning to the United States, he'll conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October.

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