Arts July 3, 2018

America’s All-Star Orchestra

Making music with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony

When asked why he keeps coming back to conduct the Sun Valley Summer Symphony (SVSS) year after year, music director Alasdair Neale said simply, “It’s utopia! If you sat down and devised a dream scenario for a summer music festival—and I’ve worked with the finest in the country—you couldn’t come up with a better one. The setting and the Pavilion, the unbelievable quality of the orchestra, the generosity of the donors, board, staff and a passionately devoted audience—it’s nothing short of miraculous!”

The Sun Valley Summer Symphony was founded in 1985 and has progressed from its humble beginnings as a mostly local chamber orchestra performing under a tent in Elkhorn to a world-class orchestra with 100 players performing in the Pavilion at the Sun Valley Resort. And thanks to the generosity of the symphony’s donors, this magical musical experience is completely free!

“When I describe the quality of the orchestra and the quality of the music to my colleagues, and mention the kicker at the end—‘oh, by the way, it’s all free’—they simply can’t believe what they’re hearing!” smiled Neale.

Maestro Neale, who is also the music director of the Marin (Calif.) Symphony, first picked up the baton in Sun Valley in 1995. I asked him and several of the musicians, who also keep returning every year, about their experience of making music in the Wood River Valley.

“It’s safe to say that the Sun Valley Summer Symphony is America’s all-star orchestra!” said Bill VerMeulen, principal French horn player with the Houston Symphony. He returns to Sun Valley each year with his wife, violinist Sylvia VerMeulen, who at that moment was rehearsing with the Houston Grand Opera. “We play five or six festivals each year, such as Aspen and Santa Fe, but Sun Valley is the one festival we consistently come back to and look forward to every year. When you become a member of the orchestra here, you feel the embrace of the community. And it’s the community and the friendships we’ve made that keep us coming back.”

It was in 1995 that VerMeulen received a call from the then-manager of the symphony to play in Sun Valley. “I didn’t know anything about Idaho or Sun Valley but was told to call Ray Kobler, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, who also played in Sun Valley. Ray told me, ‘The community is absolutely precious, it’s unspeakably beautiful, and you’ll love it here!’ And we did.”

Kobler was married at the time to Catherine Van Hoesen, also a violinist with the San Francisco Symphony. When Kobler needed a harpist in Sun Valley 25 years ago, Catherine suggested that he call her sister, Gretchen Van Hoesen, which is how Gretchen, principal harpist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, landed at SVSS with her husband, oboeist James Gorton—retired from the Pittsburgh Symphony—and their daughter Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton.

“For us, it’s always been a family affair,” laughed Van Hoesen. “Our daughter, Heidi, grew up coming here each summer and became friends with the children of other orchestra members.”

Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton

Heidi Van Hoesen Gorton. Photo courtesy Sun Valley Summer Symphony

Heidi followed in her mother’s footsteps and graduated from Julliard. Now she is a harpist with the Toronto Symphony and plays second harp with SVSS. “We love coming here,” said Gretchen Van Hoesen. “When we’re not playing, we like to spend time with our hosts or other musicians. Ninety percent of the orchestra is put up by host families.” Gorton interjected, “We’ve had the same hosts for 12 years! We do a lot of cooking and have dinner parties. We always ride our bikes to Hailey.” Often Van Hoesen will be in the middle of preparing her next music project for the coming year or rehearsing to start recording in September. (“I save hiking up Baldy for my days off so I can recover!”) She usually has to wait until 1 p.m. to start practicing when the outside temperature warms up sufficiently for the harps, which she named Baldy and Galena.

The musicians all agree that SVSS is unique among the country’s summer music festivals. For one thing, the orchestra rehearses just once—in the afternoon before the evening’s concert. “Before we come, we have a list of what’s being performed that season so we can practice,” said Gorton. “When we arrive for ‘The Rehearsal,’ the piece will be like second nature. It comes together so well because Alasdair has a great gift, and everyone in the orchestra appreciates him.”

“Alasdair is a delight,” added VerMeulen. “He’s a perfect fit for SVSS: a person of impeccable music standards and he’s incredibly trusting of the musicians. It’s a real collaboration. There’s mutual respect and adoration coming from both directions.”

Neale said the symphony is able to accomplish this feat because it comprises musicians at the top of their field in ability who know even the most challenging pieces by the time they assemble on stage. “They trust one another, they trust what they’re seeing from me and they trust what they’re hearing on stage, so the acoustics are important. Renee Fleming once told me that the Pavilion had the best acoustics of any she’d come across in the world!”

Gretchen Van Hoesen

Gretchen Van Hoesen. Photo courtesy Sun Valley Summer Symphony

Another unique aspect to SVSS is that there are no auditions. There’s very little turnover, and recruitment is based completely on personal recommendation. “This is the happiest group of musicians I’ve ever worked with and that’s communicated vividly across the footlights,” commented Neale. “The audience senses that enthusiasm and rewards us with our oxygen, which is applause. This is not an orchestra you audition for. My criteria revolve around musical ability and are they good citizens, generous musically to the people sitting around them? I have a term I plagiarized from Bhutan: Gross Domestic Happiness. That quality of happiness that the orchestra exudes is an important form of currency and must be tended to at all times. So all decisions I make revolve around ‘how does this affect our Gross Domestic Happiness?’

“I’ve had so many wonderful memories here over the years, but the standout was a performance of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony in 2016. It was the most unforgettable music experience of my life. We were playing a beautiful piece in a beautiful setting and it was the perfect encapsulation of generous music making—for which I’m still incredibly grateful.” 2


Orchestra Festival 2018

In Focus Series: Mozart Forever!
6–7:30 p.m.


29 Sonata in A Major, G Minor String Quartet

31 Concerto for Flute and Harp, A Major Piano Concerto


2 Overtures and Arias from 20 Operas

3 “Little” G Minor Symphony, Jupiter Symphony

Festival 2018
Performances start at 6.30 p.m.


5 Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

7 Beethoven’s Late Quartets: Opus 135

8 Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto

9 Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and Sibelius’ Symphony No.5

11 Family Concert: Symphonic Safari

This article appears in the Summer 2018 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.