MUSIC : Conductor’s Got Haydn’s Numbers

Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition

Poor little Symphony No. 90. Who’s going to remember you, since you lack a striking moniker like those attached to some of the other Haydn symphonies--"The Clock” (No. 101), “Military” (No. 100), “The Hen” (No. 83) or even “The Queen of France” (No. 85)?

Not to mention half a dozen or so symphonies with other fanciful names. . . .

“It’s true,” says conductor David Atherton, who has programmed the work for his guest stint with the Pacific Symphony on Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 8 and 9, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

“With Haydn, there are so many works in a field of 104 numbered symphonies, plus a few others without number, that people tend to remember only the symphonies that have a name. The same is true with Mozart, to a degree. It’s much easier if there is a catch-name attached to a symphony.


“The truth is, most average concert-goers wouldn’t be able to differentiate between Symphonies No. 90, 91, 92 or 93. With Mozart, it’s more clear-cut in going from Symphony No. 39 to 41. But go from Mozart No. 17 to Symphony No. 18, and most people don’t know the difference between the two.”

Born in Blackpool, England, Atherton, who will be 48 on Friday, is music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the London Sinfonietta. He also was music director of the San Diego Symphony from 1980 until its ill-budgeted demise in 1986. (The orchestra was resurrected a year later.)

Since 1989, he has returned to that city each summer, however, to direct the Mainly Mozart Festival, a series of outdoor chamber music programs devoted mostly to music by the namesake composer.

But that doesn’t mean that Atherton necessarily sides with the master of Salzburg.


“I find many people consider Haydn an underrated composer,” Atherton says. “If they had to take sides between Mozart and Haydn--which I hope they wouldn’t want to do--most would side with Mozart.

“But you have a wealth of musical material in Haydn that you rarely hear. No. 90 is a wonderful score you don’t hear that often.”

The symphony was written in a set of three, Nos. 90-92, by the 56-year-old Haydn, who hoped to piggyback on the success he had had with an earlier set of six symphonies (Nos. 82-87) that premiered in Paris.

“Haydn’s writing is so unpredictable,” Atherton says. “It has a freshness about it. It has an individuality that is pure genius.

“There also is tremendous clarity in Haydn. His thought process is very, very clear, even if there are things at times that are unexpected.”

Along with the Symphony No. 90, Atherton has programmed Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”

“They are works from three different (musical) periods which fit together neatly,” the conductor says.

“Mendelssohn doesn’t end with a big bang; it ends as it began, with a beautifully soothing effect. It’s the same kind of thing that is in the Haydn. . . . All three works have a cleansing effect. There is nothing in any of the works that cloys.”


What: David Atherton conducts the Pacific Symphony in works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Stravinsky.

When: Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 8 and 9, at 8 p.m.

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to Bristol Street exit. North to Town Center Drive. (The Center is one block east of South Coast Plaza.)

Wherewithal: $12 to $36.

Where to Call: (714) 474-4233.