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Sawtooth Sound

The Sun Valley Summer Symphony's free classical music concerts


In 1985, the Elkhorn Music Festival orchestra was founded in Sun Valley by Dr. Carl Eberl and his wife, Julianne. The goal of the venture was to expose people to classical music by offering performances for free, and in the beginning, attendance averaged around 200 people per concert. There were 22 musicians then, and over the next few years, the orchestra grew to 55 members, was renamed the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, and in 1995, acquired a new music director in Alasdair Neale. Now in its 22nd season, the symphony boasts over 100 musicians and entertains 20,000 people each year. These free seasonal concerts are held in a tent on the Sun Valley Lodge Esplanade, but a favorite activity among concertgoers is to have a picnic dinner on the lawn outside the tent while listening to the orchestra inside, via the sound system.

Soprano Christine Brewer. - PHOTO BY KEN HOWARD.
  • Photo by Ken Howard.
  • Soprano Christine Brewer.
Musicians from such major orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic--just to name a few--have made the Sun Valley Summer Symphony the largest privately-funded free-admission symphony in the United States. The impressive list of guest artists continues to grow, and this year, includes soprano Christine Brewer, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and a special pre-season benefit fund raiser on July 30 that will feature Tony Award-winner Bernadette Peters. Executive Director Mary Jo Helmeke says the symphony has become nationally known. "People plan their vacations around [the performance schedule]," she says. Helmeke also credits much of the symphony's expansion and popularity to the addition of maestro Alasdair Neale, saying Neale "helped build the orchestra up to the level it is today."

Neale spent 12 years as associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and as the music director of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra. Neale is currently the music director of the Marin Symphony in San Rafael, California, and the principal guest conductor of Miami Beach's New World Symphony, in addition to being the music director of the Sun Valley Summer Symphony. His upcoming guest-conducting schedule will include performances with the Florida West Coast Symphony, Columbus Symphony, San Antonio Symphony and the Seattle Symphony.

Neale speaks about the Sun Valley orchestra with an enthusiasm that is contagious. He calls the symphony "first class" and believes that it "provides a wonderful service to the residents of the community." He describes the concerts as a mixture of orchestral and chamber music showcasing a great variety of styles. He believes that there is an "intensity to the experience" of this series because of the limited rehearsal time. With such a bare minimum of time to rehearse, there is "good electricity in the air." He says the orchestra is "living life on the edge." As he speaks, Neale's voice mimics the peak of the music's crescendo and as he finishes his response to my question, his tone falls back down again, and I am left with a flutter in my chest that only powerful music can create. In his voice, I hear the passion for music that makes people from all over the country flock to Sun Valley each year.

Neale believes people would be surprised to learn that in a remote Idaho town, musicians from across the country come together to form an orchestra of such magnitude and tremendous skill--and that they play this enchanting music for free. "Here in the middle of Idaho," Neale says, "we have what I would consider a national treasure." When asked what his most memorable or rewarding experience has been with this symphony, Neale simply replies: "There are too many to count."

The SVSS has performances scheduled July 24 through August 14. To view a detailed schedule, visit