David Atherton and the San Diego Symphony were clearly playing for time Thursday night at Symphony Hall. And if Atherton were an alchemist capable of transmuting the quality of the orchestra's playing into gold, Thursday's performance of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony would have erased the symphony association's life-threatening debt in a single stroke.

Although Atherton appeared drained from a week of nonstop fund raising as he mounted the podium, he found some inner reserve of strength to craft a powerful, heroic, yet polished version of this venerable symphonic icon. The orchestra's strings, especially the violins, have never sounded more cohesive. Except for a momentary lapse of focus in the Third Movement, they maintained elegant phrasing and a sleek, warm timbre.

After last week's revelations of financial peril, Atherton scrapped the evening's scheduled programming of contemporary composer Jacob Druckman's "Auriole," Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto and Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, and substituted an all-Beethoven program. While symphony management claimed it was in no position to pay either Druckman to guest conduct his controversial work or pianist Alexander Toradze to play the concerto, it was clear enough that at a time when the orchestra was wooing much-needed funds, it was propitious to play more familiar, meat-and-potatoes fare.

Under such conditions, one might have expected a heaven-storming attack on the Fifth, one to set new decibel and speed records. Fortunately, even under pressure, Atherton kept a sense of equilibrium about the work, cherishing its quicksilver contrasts and moments of mystery. Seldom has the finale sounded more triumphant.

As the hastily drafted soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto, concertmaster Andres Cardenes was decidedly less victorious. With only a week to prepare the work--before the crisis, he had doubtless been practicing the Vivaldi concerto he was slated to perform March 20-23--his caution was excusable. Compared to his own exuberant performance of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata at San Diego State University last month, his interpretation of the concerto was surprisingly small scale, almost rococo. It was also at odds with Atherton's more assertive, rhythmically propulsive concept of the piece. Certainly the orchestra's accompaniment was fastidious and opulent in sonority.

Cardenes played with the score in front of him and at times appeared to be more involved in realizing passagework than following the conductor. He did, however, indulge some delicate filigree in the highest register.

Atherton opened the program with the Overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus," a staple of the orchestra under his tenure. The tempo was sprightly, albeit a trifle impatient. The musicians have played it with greater ease and finesse.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World