It Happened in Sun Valley

SVSS frees classical music


The Sun Valley Summer Symphony could only happen in Sun Valley. Well sure, there is the name, but also figure in the free time (an hour almost every night for three weeks) and the financing (over $800,000 annually) necessary for a populace of under 10,000 people to support America's largest privately funded free admission symphony series and it becomes clear: this is a resort-town treat created by and for the super rich. That is one way to view it. Another is that by featuring world-class classical musicians performing complimentary concerts of formidable material a mere three-hour drive from Boise, the SVSS is a gift from the super rich to me. Or to a lesser extent, you.

"It is very surprising, because of what a small town it is, how large the audiences are," says Alasdair Neale, SVSS musical director and conductor since 1995. "We regularly draw 2,000 people, and sometimes as high as 3,500--that's a significant number of the people who live around here. There is really nothing quite like it." Neale has played with the New York Philharmonic, numerous national orchestras across Europe and Australasia, is a former director at Yale and the current musical director of Marin Symphony and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music--suffice it to say, he has seen and directed enough high quality classical music that it takes something significant to get his attention, and the SVSS does just that.

"There is a special sort of electricity and spontaneity to the [SVSS] performances," he admits, "because we usually only get one rehearsal between performances. We look at the music, look again, and then all of a sudden it is the day of the concert. That keeps us on the edge of our seats, and makes for some exciting playing." Incorporate the occasional virtuosic guest soloist like tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (Aug. 5), Japanese violinist Midori (Aug. 8) and French piano prodigy Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Aug. 10) and the pressure on the symphony crescendos even more. Luckily, this is a custom-crafted orchestra of Frankenstein-like proportions.

Principal and section players from the symphonies of Boise, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, St. Louis, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C. and even Lisbon, Portugal comprise the bulk of the full-sized orchestra, and are boarded in local homes during the 15 program series. Some, like renowned cellist Steven Honigberg, have been with SVSS almost since its birth. Others, like trombonist James Markey, have become regulars after years in other symphonies. In either case, nobody comes to the SVSS without proving him or herself twice over in non-Blaine County locales, and many take on local celebrity status during the days of the concert series.

"The synergy that happens between the audiences and musicians is wonderful," says Neale. "There is a real connection, and [the musicians] are regularly recognized and greeted in the street. Sometimes members of the audience see them and spot them a drink in the bar. That is very special, and the musicians definitely pick up on it and reciprocate."

The series, which began with a stately Joseph Haydn String Quartet on July 26 and ends with Gustav Mahler's flamboyant Symphony No. 1 on August 16, features a balanced catalogue of classical, romantic, and modern composers that is heavy on the B's: Beethoven, Brahms, (contemporary composer Benjamin) Britten, and Ravel's Bolero. The last, along with Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, are the centerpieces of the symphony's Gala Benefit Dinner and Concert on Aug. 4. Neale explains, "The idea for our 20th anniversary was to put the musicians front and center. In both pieces there are plenty of big solos and showcases for individual musicians, and they really celebrate the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument."

In keeping with his soft-spoken, gentlemanly manner, Neale declines to pick one of the handful of remaining outdoor programs as the one worthy of a drive from the Treasure Valley. He admits, though, that the final program, comprised entirely of the Mahler symphony, holds special appeal for him. Two other Mahler performances have proven to be career-defining moments for Neale--one in 1999 when he substituted, with little advanced notice, for the ailing conductor of the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of Symphony No. 5, and the other a conclusion to his 12-year stint as head of the SFS Youth Orchestra with a triumphant rendition of Mahler's No. 2. "I personally respond to so many things in his music, especially his idea that the symphony should embrace everything in music," Neale explains. "Mahler isn't afraid to take you to places that other composers flinch away from--to dark places, and to wonderful blazing passages."

Symphony No. 1 in particular is an exercise in stylistic leapfrogging, alternately threatening as a central Idaho blizzard and playful as a snow bunny. It portrays the exuberant mind of a 29-year-old composer, trying to cram a lifetime's worth of moods and styles into a single musical statement. In that, it is the perfect capstone to a celebration of 20 years of furious and demanding SVSS concert schedules: ambitious both in premise and scope, but mature beyond its years. Respectfully, Neale reports that the symphony will be allowed two rehearsals that night.

Performances begin at 6:30 p.m. in an immense outdoor tent on the Sun Valley Lodge Esplanade. Each program lasts approximately an hour. For more call (208) 622-5607 or visit