Atherton Brings Mozart Success Back to San Diego

Unlike movie stunt men, who know theirs is a high-risk profession, orchestra directors court a more subtle kind of uncertainty. David Atherton can attest to that.

When he was music director of the San Diego Symphony from 1980 to 1987, the struggling orchestra’s fiscal profile was a continuous roller-coaster ride that finally derailed in the canceled 1986-87 season, leading to Atherton’s abrupt departure. Now, after taking the helm of the Hong Kong Philharmonic as its music director, the impending return of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 casts an ominous shadow of doubt over that orchestra’s future.

“It is and will become an increasingly big problem,” admitted Atherton, who took the post last year. “The people who are leaving (Hong Kong) and who I think will continue to leave are middle management and upwards who can get their hands on a foreign passport.”

Atherton described how this exodus included the orchestra’s assistant manager (and resident computer whiz) who managed to acquire a Canadian passport and quickly emigrated with his family to North America.


“The undercurrent of uncertainty extends to the orchestra as well,” Atherton continued. “When I go to Chicago and New York to hold auditions for the orchestra, the first question everybody will ask is, ‘What about ’97? What future will we have there?’ Of course, we don’t know the answer to that. There are no certainties.”

Last year, Atherton gambled again when he re-entered the San Diego music scene with his Mainly Mozart Festival, a 10-day festival of chamber music at the Old Globe’s outdoor Lowell Davis Festival Stage. The Old Globe did not have much of a track record playing host to musical events--both the La Jolla Chamber Music Society and San Diego Opera abandoned series at the Globe--and some locals wondered whether Atherton would be welcomed after the acrimonious events surrounding the symphony’s demise in 1987.

Atherton’s 1989 Mozart festival, however, proved an instant box-office success and ended in the black. The second installment of Mainly Mozart opens today at 8 p.m. at the Old Globe.

“In our first year we played to 80% houses overall,” Atherton noted with evident satisfaction. “I see this year as a year of consolidation.”

The shape of this year’s festival follows last season’s successful pattern. Atherton will conduct four orchestra programs at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre (tonight, Saturday, Wednesday and next Friday), with each concert repeated the following night. Most of the 35 players from last season’s festival orchestra will return. Each year Atherton has imported most of his festival instrumentalists, although this season he has included five local players.

The festival’s single chamber music offering, the Monday program featuring the Mendelssohn Octet and pianist Gustavo Romero in Mozart’s Piano and Wind Quintet, will be moved indoors to the Old Globe main stage. Last season, critics and some patrons complained that noise from the park and adjacent zoo were too distracting for chamber music with only five or six players. Moving the chamber concert indoors is what Atherton likes to call, “tinkering a little at the edges.”

“Moving the chamber concert indoors will help from a purely artistic point of view,” he added. “No outdoor location is as good as a concert hall from the sound point of view, but the ambience that people love in an outdoor theater is something very important.”

When Atherton is not in Hong Kong attending to his philharmonic duties or in San Diego planning his annual Mozart festival, he can be found in London conducting productions for the English National Opera or directing the London Sinfonietta, a chamber orchestra he helped found in 1968. Although Atherton had left the chamber orchestra in 1973, he agreed to resume its musical direction last fall after the death of Sinfonietta music director Michael Vyner.


With domiciles in each city where he has regular conducting duties, the British-born maestro diplomatically stated that, even though he may be here for a total of two months of the year, San Diego is his home.

“I like to think of San Diego as home, although it becomes increasingly difficult to spend the amount of time I would like here. I have protected about four weeks next Christmas, so in the middle of the winter I have a break from the pressures.”

And though he calls San Diego home, his old symphony holds no allure for him.

He said he has not attended any performances, nor is he curious about the orchestra’s musical condition.


“When I’m here for just 10 days, the last thing I want to do is listen to music--even on the record player,” he said. “I watch the Sockers, watch some television, swim. I get my computer organized.”