Thursday, August 13, 2020
Sun Valley Music Festival Brings Tears to Eyes with Unbelievably Complicated Editing
The violinists wore masks as they performed the Allegro’s to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Wednesday, July 29, 2020


Sun Valley Music Festival officials had promised surprises during this summer’s virtual season.

But even they were surprised when Time for Three’s Charles Yang sang a charming Sun Valley ditty the trio had composed and inserted into the middle of the Hungarian gypsy-flavored “Czardas.”

"Sun Valley, we wish we could be with you. Your mountain tops and your coffee shops, there's just so much to do. Sun Valley, sunshine valley, the rivers flowing free. We wish we were together but we can sill remember all the good times we had with you."

Yes, there was picnicking just as in the good ol’ days.

“Those of us watching the recording last week in New York over Zoom from Sun Valley and other places, we were completely surprised and delighted when they did that,” said the Festival’s Executive Director Derek Dean.

The Sun Valley Music Festival launched its 2020 summer season Monday night in the midst of the COVID pandemic by live streaming across lap tops and two jumbo lawn screens, including a temporary high-definition lawn screen that Festival Director Derek Dean noted was 12 years superior to the older permanent screen on the lawn.

And many of those watching from socially distanced spaces on the lawn had tears in their eyes by the time the 45-minute presentation was over.

“It certainly brought tears to my eyes,” said Margie Gould. “I especially loved Meditation from ‘Thais.’ They did a beautiful job—it was so professional. And I’m so glad the musicians had a chance to play.”

Principal Horn player William VerMuelen “picknicked” on the big screen—something he’s not accustomed to doing during a Sun Valley Music Festival performance.

The thousand lawn seats were snapped up within two hours of reservations being taken. But many pods were left unclaimed, perhaps because of threatening clouds that blew in right before showtime.

The few sprinkles that ensued ended and the sun peeped out from behind the clouds right as Music Director Alasdair Neale popped up on the two jumbo screens on the Sun Valley Pavilion Lawn. And two large V-shaped flocks of geese flew overhead like fighter jets calling the audience to attention.

“Each concert will be different…not to mention the occasional surprise,” said Neale, decked out in a blue-green shirt and sporting a wavy COVID hairstyle as he was filmed in front of a local lake.

Principal Horn player William VerMeulen, violin player Sylvia VerMeulen and their two children welcomed the audience into their Houston home in a segment reminiscent of a 1950s or ‘60s TV show.

Donors seated in folding chairs in front of the Pavilion, which had a black curtain drawn across it, stood for the Star Spangled Banner played by a lone trumpeter.

There, William VerMeulen prepared some French Onion Soup—(if only the Music Festival had figured out a way to beam smell and taste from the big screen!) And, the family proceeded to eat it before William VerMeulen joined a horn quartet in performing Bizet’s Suite from “Carmen.”

“We look forward to next summer when we can be with you in Sun Valley,” Sylvia VerMeulen told the audience.

Yes, there was a commercial, with Associate Conductor Sameer Patel telling the crowd they could be introduced to more symphony families at the Aug. 8 Family Concert.

Violinist Juliana Athayde and Pianist Orion Weiss’ moving Meditation from “Thais” followed.

“If showing up is 90 percent, the Sun Valley Music Festival scored 900 percent,” said Rae DeVito as she snapped this picture. “Beethoven must be ecstatic! I have tears in my eyes.”

Then came a mind-blowing Allegro (Finale) from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which commentator Jan Swafford called one of the most joyous symphonies that Beethoven ever wrote.

The symphony, which features the famous opening Da Da Da Dummmm, was about the struggle with suffering in one’s life. Beethoven wrote it as he found out he was going deaf—a process which took 16 years.

Sun Valley Music Festival musicians recorded their parts in the weeks leading up to the performance, said Dean. Those at home had a click track in one ear and a recording of their colleagues playing the piece in the other and a video of Neale conducting it in front of them.

Neale had conducted an ensemble onstage at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to produce the video. Images of the musicians at home and other locations were superimposed on a green screen.

“The idea was to replicate the experience on stage as much as possible,” said Dean. “The Festival sent them ‘care packages’ of recording equipment and our sound engineers helped them hook everything up via Zoom. They recorded their parts at home and sent us the files.”

The post-production editing was an “unbelievably complicated task” working to sync all those files together, Dean added. Neale was intimately involved in adjusting timing and volume levels.

“When the musicians were recording alone at home, they didn’t have all the usual cues to follow, such as the breathing and bow movements of their colleagues right next to them. So, Alasdair worked with the sound team to bring them together electronically the way he would work with them live in a rehearsal. It was a fascinating and very time-consuming process,” Dean said.

It worked, with the donors in folding seats in front of the permanent jumbo screen rising to their feet in a standing ovation.

“Awesome. Absolutely awesome,” said Roger Gould, as he watched the credits roll at the end showing the many places the musicians had been taped and the hundred or so videographers and technicians involved in producing the piece. “I loved the Beethoven piece and the way they did the composite of all the players.”

“Having the second screen is very special,” added Margie Gould. “We always sit on the lawn so when the cameras zero in on the musicians we feel like we know them. All we needed to make this night any more special was the comet going over.”

Amie DiRienzo noted that her family had come from San Francisco, Los Angeles and North Carolina for the Music Festival last year. All of them were watching Monday’s livestream concert from their homes.

“This took a little of Sun Valley everywhere,” said David DiRienzo. “It was a very special evening. It was incredible, very personal, genuine. Touching and emotional, too. And we’re learning more about the musicians than we normally do during the season.”

R.L. Rowsey said he was blown away by the number of musicians and technicians out of work that this project put to work.

“We just decided in May to do this so they’re working tonight to finish up tomorrow’s program,” he said.

Rowsey said the symphony had spaced pods for groups of two, four and six nine feet apart rather than the suggested six feet to provide an extra measure of safety. And it had created an aisle of 20 feet. Some of the pods on the edge of the lawn have been left unreserved so that people can move from the center if they would feel safer there.

That said, he added a note of caution that the Music Festival is poised to close the lawn down if conditions warrant.

“What’s nice about this is that the musicians will be able to watch themselves," he added.

Dean was very pleased with the opening concert. About 1,300 tuned in online, according to Google. And with some groups as large as 10 incidicating they were watching, Dean figures the headcount could have been as much as four times that, or 5,200.They had expected 600 on the lawn.

“Everything ran smoothly in terms of people coming and going, wearing masks, staying safe,” he said. “I think we’re off to a great start!”

The Sun Valley Music Festival season runs through Wednesday, Aug. 19, including concerts at 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday of this week. Learn how you can livestream the concerts into your living room or reserve a spot on the lawn at


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