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IN DEBUT : ATHERTON IS PLEASANT POPS BONUS

As waiters scurried to the strains of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and other such tuneful morsels, the San Diego Pops launched another summer season on Mission Bay on Wednesday night. Although the format was familiar--cabaret seating, a fireworks finale and planes taking off during the most poignant pianissimo passages--there was a major, welcome change.

The presence of San Diego Symphony music director David Atherton on the podium restored a significant measure of musical credibility to the San Diego Pops Orchestra. In his opening salvo, essentially a concert of overtures and encores, Atherton understandably did not re-create a typical winter program in the damp night air of Hospitality Point. But he did demand from his players a musical polish and sonic brilliance that three seasons of previous Pops conductors either did not attempt or could not produce.

In his new role as Pops host, Atherton took awhile to warm up to his audience. By the evening’s third set, however, the cool Englishman relaxed and even indulged in some jocular repartee, although he’s not likely to be asked to write monologues for Johnny Carson.

The only extended fare Wednesday night was an athletic reading of Bernstein’s symphonic dances from “West Side Story,” complete with near-unison finger-snapping by the orchestra members. Rossini’s overture to “The Thieving Magpie” was as vibrant, driving and disciplined as Grieg’s song transcription, “Last Spring,” was romantically affecting.

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English horn player Sidney Green’s suave account of Dvorak’s “Going Home” theme was nestled in a curiously plodding traversal of the “New World Symphony” second movement. But most of the evening’s fare, notably Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” and Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” proved upbeat and spritely.

Every San Diego Pops season brings forth a new sound system, and this year’s attempt to solve the vexing problems of amplified outdoor sound traded last year’s crackle and fuzz for a persistent, low-pitched hum. The new system’s fidelity is truer, but its operators had the sonic balances of a rock band in mind opening night. They made the orchestra sound like 60 brass instruments with a sprinkling of a dozen strings, rather than vice versa.

The Pops management has added a second intermission to this season’s format--no doubt a boon to concessions revenue--that adds an extra half hour to the evening’s proceedings.

The best Pops innovation, of course, is Atherton at the helm. Atherton has taken over Pops programming and direction in his capacity as symphony music director. From the sometimes rambunctious Pops audience, the maestro elicited almost rapt attention. The opening night audience filled about 70% of the 3,600-seat Hospitality Point facility.

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This Pops program will be repeated at 7:30 tonight and Saturday at Hospitality Point. Atherton also will conduct an all-Tchaikovsky program with the Pops in early August.


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