Arts July 17, 2020

Giving Shape to Sound

Alasdair Neale’s Proverbial Bolt of Lightning Benefits the Sun Valley Music Festival

Alasdair Neale, music director of the Sun Valley Music Festival (formerly known as the Sun Valley Summer Symphony), still remembers his first “aha” moment—the turning point when he knew that music would be his lifelong passion.

At 15 years old, already immersed in music education, Neale—who was born and lived in England for 10 years before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, which he still considers his hometown—joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as a flautist. The massive orchestra was rehearsing for a production of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.

“I remember, at that first rehearsal, there was a moment when the music died away to the barest whisper, and then the next part of the Firebird Suite came in; it was a massive chord like a bomb going off,” Neale said. “I had never imagined a sound like that was possible, and it was like a proverbial bolt of lightning going through me. I realized, at that moment, that this had to be my future: it was not only what I wanted to do, but who I was.”

That feeling never let go of him.

Beginning with music composition studies at age 11, Neale said he has always been interested in the underlying theoretical basis of making music.

“I’d always been interested in getting underneath the hood of the orchestra, so to speak—tinkering with the engine,” Neale said.

With wonderful influences from his musical family and teachers, Neale’s early education flourished; at 16, he was regularly conducting his high school’s youth orchestra.

“None of this had an endpoint in my mind of becoming a career at the time. I wasn’t thinking that far ahead,” he said.

He went on to earn a degree in music from the University of Cambridge, where he played cello and flute and continued conducting. It was during his senior year that he decided to pursue conducting as his career, moving away from making the music himself and instead shaping it around him.

After graduating, he made his way across the pond to Yale, where, on the recommendation of a friend, he applied to study conducting. Neale said his original plan was to finish his two-year program and return to the UK.

“Things didn’t work out that way, as you can see,” he said.

Upon graduating from Yale, Neale directed the Yale Symphony Orchestra for a few years before heading west in 1989 to become associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, a position he held for 12 years. During that time, he also took over as music director for Sun Valley’s symphony from Carl Eberl, the symphony’s co-founder and previous music director.

Since then, his days have become a series of “aha” moments akin to that first moment playing flute for the Firebird Suite—although he’s no longer the one producing the sound.

“It’s a pretty amazing feeling to be in
the middle of all these glorious waves of sound,” Neale said, adding that the conductor’s challenge is reacting to and shaping the sound at once. “It’s hard to describe, because you have to be in front of an orchestra to understand how to make this improbable thing work.”

Yet he continues to make that improbable thing work, despite some unforeseen challenges.

Like most other people, this spring saw Neale cooped up in his home in San Francisco under lockdown orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, other than some small changes, he has spent his time as he otherwise normally would this time of year: coordinating the sounds of his constituent symphonies.

“Right now, the rhythms of my life are revolving around three different orchestras in three different time zones,” Neale said. “The question now is: what happens next?”

While this summer’s festival is still scheduled for July 27 through Aug. 19—with a special emphasis on Beethoven, in celebration of the German composer’s 250th birthday—the pandemic could still throw a wrench in those plans.

But if Neale has learned anything in his decorated career, it’s that the key to improving and evolving as a conductor and a musician—and building your self-confidence in such endeavors—is rolling with the challenges and understanding how much one still has to learn.

“You can only start to feel reasonably well-educated once you’ve come to terms with the depths of your own ignorance,” he said.

And yet, there’s nothing else that brings him as much joy as making that improbable thing work year after year—except, perhaps, the special atmosphere surrounding the Sun Valley symphony that, he said, is difficult to find anywhere else.

Neale said that the Sun Valley community’s constant enthusiasm and support for the symphony is something he looks forward to every year: from meeting old friends in the grocery store and being invited into people’s homes to seeing them at the pavilion night after night, the Sun Valley summer symphony is always a joy to return to.

“There is such an extraordinary bond between the orchestra and this community,” Neale said. “There’s something in the air when we get together up here that transcends the normal act of making music.”

This article appears in the Summer 2020 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.