Alasdair Neale returns to New Haven Symphony Orchestra for audition concert Feb. 15
NEW HAVEN — After sorting through 150 applicants to replace outgoing maestro William Boughton, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra search process enters the audition phase this month with the first of three concerts by guest conductors — “Neale Conducts Mozart.”
As in Alasdair Neale. The West Coast resident, who has a special connection to New Haven, takes his turn at the NHSO podium Feb. 15 at Woosley Hall with a mix of old and new: Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” Mason Bates’s “Mothership,” Kevin Puts’ “This Noble Company” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20” with NHSO Artist-in-Residence Michael Brown (a crowd favorite).
Neale has been music director of the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, which invites top musicians from all over the country to Idaho, for the past 24 years and the Marin Symphony in California for 17 years.
As for his approach in the challenging arena of classical music, Neale said in a phone interview recently that “it starts with the quality of the music, and every decision is based around that. And certainly ... I’m fully aware of the music director’s responsibilities in both consciousness-raising and the all-important task of fundraising.”
Those, in addition to education work in the community, he said, are as important as anything that happens on the podium.
New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Woolsey Hall, 500 College St., New Haven, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15. 203-865-0831, Ext. 20. newhavensymphony.org
“We have to build and nurture and foster community that feels part of the orchestra,” said Neale, who was brought up in London and Edinburgh, Scotland, studied music at Cambridge University and then came to Yale to study conducting.
“That’s a key moment,” he said of his Yale turn, “one of of those life-changing pivots, that I would never have imagined, because my life completely changed directions because of a single ... decision. And that was to audition for the conducting program at the Yale School of Music in 1983.”
The audition was suggested by his cellist friend, Steven Thomas, who was studying at Yale and became principal cellist for the NHSO for many years.
Neale already had conducting experience in his teens, starting out “at an absurdly young age” in Edinburgh (a youth orchestra) and also at Cambridge. After three years at Yale, he spent another three years here as conductor of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. And he actually guest conducted the NHSO once 18 years ago.
Now he’s headed back to the Elm City, aware of its renaissance (compared to the 1980s) and eager to try restaurants that weren’t around then.
As for podium demeanor, Neale said he generally will say a few words to the audience before a program since “I really do think that as many barriers as we can break down, the better. And the chance for us to form a connection between the audience and the orchestra is so important.”
Asked about experimenting with attention-getting soloists, video, and the choice of familiar or obscure classical pieces, Neale said, “I think overall we have to realize that the symphony orchestra ... is an incredibly versatile thing. Symphony orchestras can conjure up a wider variety of colors and moods and states of mind than anything else I’ve ever heard.
“And now in the 21st century, with various technological accoutrements ... at our disposal, we have an even wider range of expression.”
Which is one reason Neale chose the “Mothership” piece — an exciting, cinematic score with electronica and solos on electric guitar, zither and bass. A percussionist’s device will set “a techno groove for the audience to react with,” said Neale, “and that’s something that wouldn’t have been possible in the mid-1990s.”
That is “not to say that we shouldn’t be performing Mozart and Beethoven. Far from it. Blending the familiar and the new is a very important way of thinking and relating to each other, as well as boosting the relevance of the symphony orchestra (now).”
Neale knows that Woolsey Hall can be challenging, and not just for the spartan seats that patrons must endure. But for getting musical “consonants” heard, to keep the sound from being muddy.
“It’s a historic and aesthetically ornate and beautiful place, (but) it does come with a very significant challenge,” he said. “And that is something like a six-second echo. ... I have many memories of that, and the orchestra itself is so used to playing there that I imagine they adapt their playing in certain stylistic ways to get the best that they can out of what is a very challenging acoustic.”
Neale said he’s looking to reconnect with the NHSO, with its quality players and Yale links.
“And there is very much the sentimental part of things that makes me so excited to come back to the town (where) I began my American adventure 35 years ago. And it’s where I fell in love with this country, and it has a great deal of affection still in my heart.”
The new music director will be announced this summer and begin their tenure with the orchestra’s 2019-20 season. Boughton will be ending his 12-season tenure with the NHSO in May 2019 at the culmination of the symphony’s 125th season.