Monday, October 26, 2020
Edwin Outwater, Alasdair Neale Address Robin Williams, Birds with Bad Bowels
Alasdair Neale and Edwin Outwater asked one another questions about what it’s like behind the baton during their evening at Ketchum’s Community Library.
Thursday, February 27, 2020


Imagine being clawed by comedian Robin Williams.

Conductor Alasdair Neale can, and he counts that as the craziest experience he’s had while conducting.

Neale and fellow conductor Edwin Outwater, the curator of the Sun Valley Music Festival’s Winter Season this week at The Argyros, reminisced about their conducting experiences Tuesday night before a packed crowd of nearly 200 people at Ketchum’s Community Library.

Edwin Outwater agreed with Alasdair Neale that one of the hardest parts of the job is trying to process all the sounds from all the corners of the stage simultaneously.

And both showed that conducting symphonies throughout the world is not the tidy, button-down affair the audience might think.

Neale recounted how Robin Williams appeared as the narrator for “Peter and the Wolf” years ago when he was conducting the San Francisco Youth Orchestra. At first, it looked as if it would be a snore.

During their initial meeting, Williams appeared “incredibly shy and withdrawn—very inward,” noted Neale, musical director for the Sun Valley Music Festival. Told that each character in the story was represented by an instrument, Williams began narrating in monotone fashion, without inflection.

But, suddenly, Williams came alive. He began endowing each of the characters with the personalities of such Hollywood actors as Jack Nicholson. The cat embodied the personality of Mae West as Williams crawled around the stage on all fours, purring and hissing.

“He used me as a scratching post!” Neale exclaimed.

“I was chased around stage by Rita Moreno with a whip!” Outwater responded.

Outwater will conduct the Sun Valley’s Music Festival’s Winter Season concerts tonight through Saturday, Feb. 29, at The Agyros Performing Arts Center.

“I know some but not everything, so I will be surprised, as well,” said Neale, who similarly kept last year’s concerts a secret, wowing audiences in the end. “He’s so brilliant at this. And a visionary, not afraid to take risks.”

Indeed, Outwater has been called one of the most innovative conductors on the scene today by Michael Tilson Thomas. Outwater paired the San Francisco Symphony with Metallica. He created a Holiday Gaiety LGBTQ holiday concert with drag performer Peaches Christ. His “The Composer is Dead,” by Nathaniel Stookey and Lemony Snicket, has become one of the most performed works written in the 21st century.

He wrote “Beethoven and Your Brain” with a neuroscientist. And his “Intersections” series connected orchestra music to quantum physics, neuroscience and more, while featuring an Inuit throat-singer and other unusual artists.

When he paired orchestra music with literature, he reminded his audience that great music is not to be listened to passively.

“My dream audience,” he said, “Is like a giant book club: Social, argumentative, committed, engaged with the work and with each other.”

 Outwater compared the experience to San Francisco’s SoundBox where the audience comes in not knowing what’s going to happen. Listeners sit on ottomans, nibble on bacon-caramel popcorn and watch videos projected on screens around the stage as they listen to music that has been enhanced by a Meyer’s Constellation system similar to that at The Argyros, which allows the sound  to take on the characteristics of a cathedral one moment and a symphonic hall the next.

 “I purposely went different directions from the instruments that were featured last year,” Outwater said. “There’ll be a different vibe, a different audience experience. Hopefully, it’ll be different next year, as well, with whomever comes after me.”

Outwater is no stranger to Sun Valley. He’s been coming here with his family since he was 10. He recalls writing college essays in the Community Library.

And, while he was not pushed to become a musician, music was very much in his DNA. His father Edwin Outwater III, who chairs Sun Valley Opera, headed up the engineering department for Warner Brothers. His grandmother worked for Ella Fitzgerald.

But, while he was surrounded by jazz figures and was among the first to hear the latest Led Zeppelin recording, the defining moment came when he picked up a cassette tape of Mozart lying around the house.

“I was completely struck by lightning,” he said.”

Playing clarinet and bass in high school cemented his love of classical music.

But going from playing music to conducting was a learning experience, the most chastening moment coming when he was asked as a young conductor to lead his fellow musicians through a Rachmaninoff  piece.

“I’m comfortable with Mozart. But Rachmaninoff has a lot of tempo changes—you have to move heavy furniture,” he said. “I studied like crazy ahead of time. Yet, when I got up there, I knew it was beyond me. I was literally swimming to keep my head above water. Effort and study are one thing. Being up there in real time is another.”

Neale responded that he started flute at 9 and cello at 11.  His experience with the flute has enabled him to know what a wind player needs and when he wants to be left alone.

“As a wind player, I know they’re under the gun and need to feel supported. Having played the flute has made me more empathetic,” he said. “Playing the strings has given me a grounding in strings, which you can’t get from reading a book. You learn what it’s like to play a note horizontally.”

Both still cringe over wardrobe malfunctions. For Outwater it was conducting a rehearsal with his fly open.

“Some check their cuff links before taking the stage. I check my fly.”

Neale recalls conducting a Julliard orchestra, in which he realized he didn’t have his tails He ran four blocks to get them, then four blocks back. As he headed for the elevator, he tripped hitting his eye. He ducked into one room where a performer who had been centering herself screamed at the sight of blood running down his face.

Another time, he recalled, the button studs on his tuxedo shirt began coming unsprung.

“I thought to myself: If I turn around and bow, the audience is going to see some very white flesh!” he recounted.

Neale recounted European tours in which he came down with mono, endured rained-out concerts and a  strike in the south of France that immobilized everything. But none surpassed the 10:30 p.m. outdoor Mahler concert in Spain that was visited by a flock of birds with weak bowels.

Such indignities were softened by the experience of playing in the great concert halls of the world and watching his young musicians visit a Viennese cemetery where Brahms and others composers were buried, he said.

Outwater responded that the motto of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra was always to return with no fewer or no more humans than it left with. That isn’t to say there weren’t jacuzzi break-ins and a night at a Cologne hotel with a beer garden outside that resulted in half the orchestra facing disciplinary measures.

But all was forgotten playing in the great concert halls, he said: “The acoustics in these places are what they’re cracked up to be—magical.”

Neale said that one of the key decisions that helped shape the Sun Valley Music Festival of today was his decision 26 years ago not to tinker with Sun Valley Summer Symphony founder Carl Eberl’s decision to hold an hour-long outdoors concert from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. during summer.

“Where we are for this community and that time of year, an hour feels right,” he said.

Free admission has always been a given, he said. But the game changer was the construction of the Sun Valley Pavilion, an idea that met with resistance at first.

“I knew having been to Aspen we could get something like (the Benedict open air tent) in Sun Valley. But, at first, there was no way it was going to happen. I was stubborn, maintaining it could happen,” he said.

The last thing that’s made the Music Festival unique, he said, is his decision to allow first violin and other section principles choose the musicians they want to play with.

“Colleagues like working with one another. And this gives them ownership and greater pride,” he said. “It’s an unusual system, I think. But I’ve got plenty of power. I don’t need that.”


The free concerts start at 6:30 p.m. at The Argyros tonight through Saturday, Feb. 29. All tickets have been given out but last year walk-ins got in because of seats that were unclaimed due to illness and other issues. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. to donors and 5:30 p.m. to the general public. Food and beverages are available for purchase and may be taken into the theater.


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