A Flying Start

A Flying Start

Alasdair Neale is the first to acknowledge that some people find classical music—well, stuffy. “I think that’s one of the real obstacles,” says the brand new conductor of New Haven Symphony Orchestra, “this perception that, ‘Oh, this is for those kinds of people, and this is not for me.’”

Neale’s musical tastes, it turns out, are far from stuffy. His NHSO debut concert last Thursday night, for example, included a piece by Michael Abels, who composed the soundtrack for Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out. Neale confesses he’s sometimes distracted from a film’s plot by an intriguing soundtrack: “I can’t turn off my ‘music nerd app’ when I’m at the movies.” He also readily admits to finding new artists the same way millions of other music lovers do: by “going down the YouTube rabbit hole.”

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Audiences are likely to find Neale just as approachable as his program choices. On Thursday evening, the conductor generously led a “prelude” talk previewing the concert, which ended less than half an hour before his debut. Time up, he quipped he’d have to say goodbye in order to change into his “work clothes.” Later, when the audience applauded between every movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, traditionally a no-no in a classical concert, Neale turned over his shoulder and smiled an acknowledgment each time before continuing.

During a coffee shop conversation earlier in the week, Neale promised this first concert would offer a balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar, “something that I think is at the heart of my musical philosophy.” He later amended that last word—too pretentious—in favor of “approach.” The familiar part of the program was Rachmaninoff, whose “sound world,” at least, would be recognizable to the audience, Neale ventured, even if the symphony itself wasn’t.

The unfamiliar included Abels’s Delights and Dances, which began with a delightful musical conversation among guest performers in the excellent Catalyst Quartet and eventually found ease in an exuberant, full-orchestra dance. Also unfamiliar was young composer Jessie Montgomery’s Banner, a 21st-century response to the national anthem (the other familiar piece of the concert, which, according to tradition, the audience sang with the orchestra to open the show). Banner incorporates elements of jazz, the blues, bluegrass and Latin dance “as if to say this is all our national anthems,” Neale told the audience at the pre-concert talk. Both pieces were musically exciting but also accessible, a preview of what an orchestra meant to serve the community can do beyond the repertoire’s old chestnuts.

Reaching New Haveners from every neighborhood is central both to the orchestra’s mission and to his own thinking, Neale says. “We need to be a true community orchestra … I want to see an audience that looks like New Haven.” Under the leadership of former conductor William Boughton, NHSO has already been reaching deeper into the community, with family and kids’ concerts, workshops, classes and school visits, the Young Composer Project, a joint orchestral fellowship program with Neighborhood Music School and the Harmony Fellowship for Underrepresented Musicians. Thursday’s concert was also School Night at the Symphony, with free tickets for children and their parents and teachers. In fact, a child can attend any NHSO concert for free with a paying adult. Neale seems eager to keep all of that going. “I love sharing my joy of music with young people, planting a seed, hoping that it grows,” he says.

The last time Neale was a New Haven resident was three decades ago. He spent six years here in the 1980s, first as a graduate student at Yale School of Music, then as conductor of the undergraduate Yale Symphony Orchestra. He left New Haven for San Francisco, where he served as music director of the San Francisco Youth Symphony and later associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. Since 2001, he has led the Marin Symphony in northern California, and for 25 years he’s directed the Sun Valley Music Festival in Idaho, positions he continues to hold. He’ll be splitting his time between New Haven and San Francisco, where his husband, Lowell Tong, is on the medical school faculty at the University of California.

As a frequent guest conductor, Neale has earned plenty of critical praise. “For sheer musical insight and artistic command, this gifted conductor sets a standard that is hard to surpass,” the Miami Herald wrote. The Seattle Times has called him “a conductor with a real sense of drama.” Indeed, on the Woolsey Hall podium, Neale’s direction—sometimes punchy, sometimes sweeping—certainly delivered drama in tandem with the Rachmaninoff, from a full-body windup cuing the timpani to a delicate touch eliciting the gentlest of endings for the third movement.

Neale also has an ear for language, eloquently describing the richness of the music he loves. He recalled the first time he’d played Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, as a flautist in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, a “stem to stern experience” that earned the symphony a special place in his personal repertoire. He uses words like “lush,” “yearning,” “defiant” and “shattering” to describe its movements.

“What inspires me about the music that I’ve chosen to make at the center of my life is that it can communicate an incredible range of emotions, and it can really be a reflection of the human condition,” Neale says, listing “power, beauty, ugliness, humor, pathos, complexity … I think communicating that through an orchestra to an audience—at the end of the day it’s a real privilege.”

Neale takes that privilege seriously, describing his job as foremost an attempt to faithfully interpret each score. “I’m always trying to put myself in a composer’s shoes. I think, ‘What are they communicating? How can I realize that vision?’” He hastens to add that he’s not a “fundamentalist… but I try not to go directly against what a composer appears to put down clearly.” That’s one reason why working with living composers is so satisfying. Montgomery attended an NHSO rehearsal to hear Banner in progress and was able to clarify some parts of the score—for example, her intentions for techniques she’d written for the string players to “use the bow in certain unconventional ways.”

Classic and unconventional, familiar and unfamiliar, all of it pleased the audience. Standing ovations have become de rigueur, but Thursday night’s was a well-deserved response to a stellar performance. The crowd brought Neale back to the stage twice, welcoming him back to New Haven.

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Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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