Returns and Exchanges : Conductor Atherton Comes Back--This Time to Introduce His Hong Kong Philharmonic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time conductor David Atherton came to Orange County, he came alone, as a guest conductor for the Pacific Symphony. This year, he's bringing his whole family--the Hong Kong Philharmonic, which he has headed since 1989.

When he led the Pacific in 1992, he and the orchestra drew mixed critical reactions. Now he's hoping his home team will hit the ball out of the park.

"It's a very good program that shows the orchestra off exceptionally well," Atherton said in a recent phone interview from San Diego, where he spends summers leading the Mainly Mozart Festival he founded in 1989. "We have some wonderful individual players."

The Philharmonic Society-sponsored program Saturday--Hong Kong Philharmonic's first at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--includes Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, with 1993 Ivo Pogorelich International Piano Competition co-winner Edith Chen; the Suite from Stravinsky's "Firebird" (1919 version), and Rachmaninoff's final work, Symphonic Dances.

Chen, a recent guest with the Pacific Symphony, picked the concerto. "It's a very exciting piece," Atherton said. "The piano never stops. It's probably his best-known concerto. It's not an easy work for the orchestra, either. It's quite thickly scored and needs great care to make sure the piano can be heard. But it's great fun to play."

Because Atherton and the orchestra are making a series of four Stravinsky CDs for Virgin/EMI, "we thought it would be fitting to include Stravinsky on the program. Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, on the second half, are not played a lot. They're more a showpiece for orchestra--like a miniature concerto for orchestra."

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Like most music directors nowadays, Atherton spends a lot of time traveling.

"The life of a conductor is a strange one," he said. "I spend about five months of the year in Hong Kong, split up over three or four visits a year, basically. The rest of the time I'm guest conducting. This means you're continually working where you don't live. I try to get around that by having a house in London and San Diego and Hong Kong. Living in three different cities gives me a semblance of some normal life."

That sort of adaptability also suits Atherton well when he encounters new orchestras as part of his guest-conducting duties.

"If it's an orchestra I've never been to before," he said, "you want to find out what the orchestra is like, where its strengths and weaknesses are, and they want to know about you. I usually play an entire movement before saying or doing anything. With an orchestra you know very well, you might not do it quite the same way.

"You have to vary your rehearsal technique according to the material you programmed too. Your instrument is the people sitting in front of you. Your job is to get that orchestra to play at its best, at a particular point in time, i.e., at the performance. The question is how you get there, given the conditions you're working under. You have to prioritize, to use that awful American word, in such a way that you maximize every minute."

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Atherton makes it sound as if Hong Kong audiences enjoy every minute of their orchestra's performances.

"The most encouraging thing there is that the average age of our audiences is under 30," he said. "That also means I can program with a flexibility that is quite unique. I did Gorecki's Third Symphony several years before it got popular, along with the Faure Requiem. People will come even without knowing the music."

That sort of audience-orchestra relationship can take generations to develop. It's unusual for a group that, according to Atherton, "only became a professional orchestra 20 years ago." Although it traces its origins to the beginning of the century, it's only been since the 1970s that the orchestra transcended its part-time, amateur status. "The changes have been quite remarkable."

One of the changes involves playing in a cultural complex, including three theaters and administrative offices, built by the government in 1989. The orchestra also is "very heavily funded" by the state, to the tune of about $9 million (U.S.) annually.

"So you don't have that ongoing, continual headache of always going out with a begging bowl, never knowing what you're going to do five years ahead," Atherton said.

Five years for any group would bring some degree of uncertainty; for one in Hong Kong, which is going to revert from British rule to Communist Chinese rule within that time, it would seem to raise significant questions.

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Yet the imminent takeover of Hong Kong by China doesn't seem to worry Atherton. "The key date is July 1, 1997, when the switch-over takes place," he said. "Basically, all the omens of the moment indicate the transition will be remarkably smooth. A majority of things already seem to have been happening.

"As far as the orchestra is concerned, all discussions to date, we don't expect there to be any major changes. The whole of Hong Kong will be an SAR--a Special Administrative Region--a part of China that's going to be run almost as separate enclave, basically.

"It's not the big issue that the outside world would deem it to be," he said. "Simplistically, [it would appear that] you have this, per-capita, the greatest monetary center in the world, where money reigns, being taken over by this brutal Communist regime. That's not the scenario. At least, not at the moment. Anything could happen. But I think the worse is behind us. They're now bickering about various details. I've just extended my present contract to go through September 1997."

* David Atherton will conduct the Hong Kong Philharmonic in music by Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Pianist Edith Chen will be the soloist in Prokofiev's Third Concerto. The concert is sponsored by the Philharmonic Society. $10 to $47. (714) 553-2422.

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