Whether Beethoven was the first of the wild-eyed Romantics or just an overripe Classicist is a conundrum that has kept music-lovers debating since the last century. Were the verdict left in the hands of pianist Andre Watts, the debating would cease. Watts' unbridled gallop through Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the San Diego Symphony Thursday night easily placed the heroic work in the Liszt and Brahms league.

Watts' keyboard fireworks ignited the Symphony Hall audience, and the sold-out house was no doubt due to his presence on the program. Over the last five symphony seasons, no soloist has proved as dependable a box-office draw as Watts.

If the concerto posed no imposing digital challenges to Watts' formidable technique, neither did it appear to pose any probing intellectual questions. Watts turned the rondo finale into a demonic waltz, delivered with accelerating abandon. His detached, almost idling, middle movement obbligato contrasted with conductor David Atherton's profound, hymn-like interpretation of that movement. Watts' impassioned attack on the piano brought out its most brittle timbres. While it is not the most refined of instruments, many a guest soloist has coaxed from it more agreeable tones. If Watts' showy, extroverted Beethoven rankled some, they were a distinct minority Thursday night.

Symphony music director Atherton ended both the concert and the current subscription season with a sonically brilliant presentation of Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique." Atherton's results in the Berlioz were even more stirring than Watts' gallery-pleasing Beethoven.

If the "Symphonie Fantastique" was the orchestra's final exam, the players passed with flying colors. While the overall sound was notable for its integration and cohesion, each individual section amply proved its laudable solo capabilities. The orchestra's musical progress, as evidenced by its stellar Berlioz performance, must be measured against an entire season of extra-musical distractions and disruptions over which the musicians have had little or no control.

From the incessant carping about the refurbished hall's acoustics to the gauche attempts of the board to solve its financial problems by slashing the musicians' already modest pay, the players have not only kept their musical house in order, they have matured as an ensemble. The strings have acquired a more polished finish, leagues away from the strident character that was their unfortunate trademark when the orchestra played in Civic Theatre. Part of this transformation is clearly the influence of this season's new concertmaster, Andres Cardenes.

Over the season, the orchestra has made significant adjustments to its new hall. The percussion players showed Thursday that they can make their point without rattling the hall's Baroque woodwork. And a full Symphony Hall was less beset with distracting echoes and excess reverberation than the hall only half-filled.

While noting the above improvements, some caution is necessary. Over a Pops-filled summer, the new three-year contract for the musicians will have to be negotiated, a challenge not to be taken lightly.

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