Spring's advent in San Diego is seldom noticed, much less celebrated. But when San Diego Symphony music director David Atherton programmed his orchestral salute to spring, he clearly had in mind a more violent vernal transition than that usually experienced in the British conductor's adopted city.
Between his taut, percussive presentation of Stravinsky's violent "The Rite of Spring" and his majestic, robust reading of Robert Schumann's Spring Symphony, Atherton portrayed the arrival of spring in convulsive, emotional terms. With the orchestra playing in top form, it made for a highly satisfying evening at Symphony Hall.
Principal bassoon Dennis Michel's assured traversal of the treacherous opening solo augured well for the performance of the entire Stravinsky piece. His pianissimo notes in the bassoon stratosphere sounded pure and flute-like until they descended deep into the bassoon's mid-range. Atherton coaxed similar delicate, almost Impressionistic timbres from the other woodwinds in between the spasmodic fortissimo eruptions of augmented full orchestra.
Atherton's formula for the "Rite" stuff included a careful balance of the visceral and the analytical, finding a varied complement of textures and emotional hues to compensate for the sonic mayhem of the composer's raw pagan dances. Now, if only the percussion section could learn to tone down its drumming to an appropriate level for Symphony Hall's live acoustics.
Not everyone dotes on the Schumann symphonies, but in his tenure here Atherton has shown a certain affection for this repertory. In Schumann's First Symphony he drew from the orchestra a vigorous but highly cohesive ensemble. He deftly tailored the rhythmic progressions of the finale to distract the listener from its repetitious structure and indulgent length. A performance full of conviction and clear-cut purpose, it had the potential to woo even those unsympathetic to the Schumann symphonic aesthetic.
The idiom of Vivaldi's "La Primavera" from "The Four Seasons" no doubt better depicts spring in more temperate climes. Concertmaster Andres Cardenes outlined the composer's gentle zephyrs with virtuoso skill, doubling--in authentic 18th-Century fashion--as both soloist and conductor.
Leading a select group of the orchestra's strings, Cardenes and his colleagues exuded a buoyant sound, both solid and propulsive in character. His solos were stylish and comfortably secure. It is one thing to espouse proper 18th-Century performance practices, but Cardenes makes them work. His understated direction with a nod of the head or dip of his bow gave the music an appropriately unforced quality. His leadership in this area has added a welcome dimension to the orchestra's profile.