Saturday, August 17, 2019
Alasdair Neale Reflects on 25 Years with Sun Valley Music Festival
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Alasdair Neale conducts the New Haven Symphony Orchestra and the Marin Symphony, in addition to the Sun Valley Music Festival. PHOTO: Nils Ribi
 
Sunday, August 4, 2019
 

STORY BY KAREN BOSSICK

PHOTOS BY NILS RIBI AND KAREN BOSSICK

Alasdair Neale had plenty of questions as his plane touched down at Friedman Memorial Airport in October 1993.

Would he and Sun Valley Summer Symphony board members be able to find a way to make it work? And, if so, how?

 
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Alasdair Neale’s “Upbeat with Alasdair” talks always draw standing room only crowds. PHOTO: Karen Bossick
 

The moment he saw the yellow aspen leaves quaking against the royal blue sky he knew he had to find a way to make it work

“That’s when I first saw Sun Valley in all its fall glory,” said Neale, who is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the symphony, now known as the Sun Valley Music Festival. “And I realized that this was a job in a beautiful place we all know it to be. And then I was really looking forward to it.”

“Friends” had just been introduced to TV audiences. Yahoo and Amazon had just been founded. And “Forrest Gump” had turned Sun Valley’s Tom Hanks into one of the biggest names in the movies with his line “Life is like a box of chocolates” when Neale took the stage as the Sun Valley Summer Symphony’s new musical director 10 months later.

He had at his command 35 musicians who took their seats under a tent on the lawn east of the Sun Valley Lodge.

 
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The tent served its purpose very well, said Alasdair Neale. But it was time for the symphony to take a leap forward “and, thanks to the generosity of the Holdings and the community at large, we were able to do that in spectacular style with the Pavilion.” PHOTO: Nils Ribi
 

“I remember thinking, ‘Well, the orchestra’s already good but I think we have the potential for making it even better,’ ” Neale recounted.

It wasn’t wishful thinking. This year 125 of the best orchestra musicians in North America will take their place under the Pavilion canopy. It’s a coveted position, fueled by Sun Valley’s beauty and the willingness of Neale to try innovative things, that keeps them coming back year after year.

The debut of the Sun Valley Pavilion in 2008—a marvel of Roman travertine rock under a 70-foot proscenium arch—was a game changer, Neale said. And the 14-by-25-foot LED giant screen that accompanied it lured music goers by the thousands.

“The Pavilion catapulted us into a different league and opened up an entirely new set of possibilities for the whole organization. For starters, it offered us fantastic natural and theater-like acoustics, allowing us to hear each other on stage much better. The lightning is better. In fact, every last thing that you can imagine concerning a concert performance is several degrees of magnitude greater in the pavilion than it was in the tent,” he said.

 
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The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang at the Pavilion’s opening. PHOTO: Nils Ribi
 

With the Pavilion under his feet, Neale and the symphony board plunged ahead with one innovative season after another.

Twenty-foot puppets evoking an African theme danced across the stage in Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” The symphony became one of the first in the country to perform John Williams’ musical score for “Star Wars: A New Hope” as the film played out on screen.

The symphony performed Ravel’s “Dapnis et Chloe” as part of a multimedia project designed by award-winning film director David Murakami. And it introduced a classically trained garage band named Time for Three to the Sun Valley audience as the trio worked with Blaine County music students and composed pieces for the Sun Valley Symphony.

Meanwhile, the symphony brought big-name stars, such as Audra McDonald, Renee Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Chris Bocce, Kristin Chenoweth and even Garth Brooks when the latter wasn’t touring.

 
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Alasdair Neale is credited with propelling the Sun Valley Music Festival to national status as the largest privately funded free admission symphony in America. COURTESY: Sun Valley Music Festival
 

“We’ve been fortunate in getting an absolute A-list of soloists--all of whom are thrilled to be here and all of whom would love to come back as often as we are able to bring them,” said Neale.

This year the symphony evolved into the Sun Valley Music Festival to illustrate that it had grown to include a new Winter Festival.

And the Winter Festival’s debut in the Argyros Performing Arts Center proved beyond expectations as audiences were treated to the hypnotic chants of the Grammy-nominated Seraphic fire, violinists strategically placed throughout the theater and a mesmerizing performance by two marimba and two vibraphone players.

Among the concerts that stands out in Neale’s memory is the horns concert performed on top of Bald Mountain.

“It was a trip. It was wild,” he said. “We had quite a lot of people that made the trek up there and they were rewarded by a terrific horn section playing a terrific repertoire. But I think we even outdid that a few years ago when we had 16 horns doing ‘An Alpine Symphony’ and an entire horns concert at the Pavilion.”

Several years ago ,a late afternoon storm rambled through the area, knocking out the power at the Pavilion.

“It kept getting darker and darker as the sun started to go down. And towards the end of the concert the musicians were playing from memory because the shapes of the notes on the music were so poorly illuminated,” Neale recalled “That was a real testament to the players’ abilities and willingness to continue in almost impossible circumstances. They went the extra mile because that’s what we do here.”

Neale could think of no better way to commemorate the symphony’s 35th season and his 25th anniversary with the symphony than with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, also known as the “Resurrection Symphony.”

“It’s a very intense study and a very intense, climatic end to the season. But what an easy and relaxing way to study,” he said, looking up from the score and out at a serene lake in Greenhorn.

The Mahler symphony will feature about 250 people on stage, including the Utah-based American Festival Chorus, which is “enormous,” Neale said.

“It includes a massive brass section and a full chorus of soloists, so yeah, it’s a huge amount of forces commensurate with the ambition of the piece. There are more people than we had for Mahler Three because it takes a full chorus, as opposed to a smaller group of women for the Mahler Three. But the record would still have to be when we had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir because the choir alone is something like 300 people.”

But, noted Neale, there are a great deal of concerts and a great deal of music between here and then.

That includes performances by two French stars—pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and cellist Gautier Capucon, as well as a residency of Mason Bates, who has redefined what a 21st century orchestra can do with his electronica sound.

While notes on a page clearly rock Neale’s world, there’s something else that means just as much to him. And that’s the network of friends he’s developed within the community and the orchestra that comes together for three weeks each summer.

“Myself and the orchestra have been able to establish some great long-term partnerships and relationships, and we all enjoy each other’s company greatly,” he said. “And the audience here is phenomenal. They are passionately supportive of the orchestra and our efforts on stage are rewarded with the most wonderful response.

“I think we have a dynamic between the orchestra and community that really doesn’t exist anywhere else in part because of the housing host program. That results in the orchestra forming really deep and lasting friendships with the community. They simply don’t have in their hometowns the situation where someone spots them at a restaurant or bars and comps them dessert or sends a bottle of wine over. And that happens regularly in Sun Valley. That makes the musicians feel very special, as a result.”

And what’s on Neale’s bucket list?

“Not much these days. I’ve been able to do almost anything I could imagine up here. So, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given. I’ve been able to do works that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do with this incredible orchestra. It’s just such a joy to make music all the time.”

Then he backtracked. “Of course, given the physical beauty of Sun Valley, I try every year to take advantage of it and hike. I love to hike to the top of Baldy. Every year it seems it’s successively harder to set aside the time to hike but it’s something I’m determined to do one way or another.”

 

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