NHSO Finalist: Let Me Grow New Haven Roots, Again

Neale: This is not what I do. It's who I am. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Neale: This is not what I do. It's who I am. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

The first thing Alasdair Neale noticed about New Haven wasn’t the music. It was the trees. 

It was the fall of 1983, and he had arrived to audition for the conducting program at the Yale School of Music. From his Mansfield Street apartment all the way to the New Haven Green, he noticed bursts of color taking the city: oranges, reds, and yellows and browns that he had never seen in his life. It was the beginning of an unexpected “American journey” for the London-born conductor, who ultimately moved from New Haven not back to the U.K., but to the West Coast. 

Now 35 years and one American citizenship later, he is auditioning to return to New Haven for good, as the next music director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO). After launching an international search for the position in 2016 and receiving 150 applications, the NHSO has narrowed the finalist pool to three candidates: Neale, London-based Rebecca Miller, and Delaware Symphony Orchestra Music Director David Amado.

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Neale is the first to guest-conduct, with a program at Woolsey Hall this Thursday.  More information and tickets available here

In an interview at Claire’s Corner Copia Monday afternoon, he said he’s eager to get back to New Haven and feel out the community’s musical needs after so much time away. Raised between London and Edinburgh, Neale caught the music bug as a young flutist, playing Stravinsky’s Firebird with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

It was the first time he was rehearsing with the group, seated in the last chair of the flute section. From the piece’s soft beginning, a clap of thunder erupted from somewhere in the orchestra. It was the loudest sound that he had ever heard. And from that moment, he was hooked. 

“I realized — I’s not just what I do,” he said. “It’s who I am.”

It launched him to Cambridge, where he pursued a Bachelor of Music, and then New Haven for his Master’s Degree. On the day his flight touched down in New York City, “my intention was to get my degree and get back on a plane.” Instead, he saw the New Haven’s trees, began meeting people in and outside the university, and decided to grow roots.

“I really didn’t know Americans, and had certain loose fixed ideas about what I might encounter—and the reality was much more complex and much richer,” he recalled, wiggling his fingers between a latte and his chin as he spoke. “I immediately responded to how open people were, and how much I was just taken at face value. There seemed to me a refreshing lack of pretense, and that was something that appealed to me.”

As a student, he bounced between classes at the School of Music and apartments on Mansfield, and then Prospect, Streets. The town he encountered “was definitely not without its challenges,” but he stayed on after grad school, serving as Yale’s music director from 1986 to 1989. During those years, he moved again, to an apartment squarely between Pepe’s and  Sally’s on Wooster Street. While the two can reach nearly political heights in New Haven, he said he’s remained pretty agnostic about the merits of both establishments. 

When he left to become the associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, it wasn’t with the thought that he was leaving New Haven forever. Nor was it when he moved from San Francisco to San Rafael, to conduct the Marin Symphony and Sun Valley Summer Symphony. He just wasn’t sure when he’d return. 

If selected for the position, Neale said his first priority will be taking a step back, and listening to what the community wants to hear, see, and get back from the NHSO. He has his opinions—that “you have to start early, and keep the seeds planted” when it comes to music education. 

That there’s not “any reason to apologize for playing the canon,” that pantheon of great dead white men, because “it continues to speak to people all over the world no matter what their background is.” 

But that it’s also a music director’s duty to mix in more muted voices—women and composers of color especially, who have been historically and systematically excluded from music history. Not just in one or two token concerts a year, but all the time. “Nothing worse,” he said of concerts with titles like ‘Women Compose.’ “It’s totally tokenism.”   

“It’s like, some people of s certain generation will say ‘Oh, you know, I went to a lady doctor the other day,’” he said. “Well, you know, the majority of people in med school now are women. I think the arts are a little behind. There’s still a dearth of women conductors, and also people of color. I don’t think that perception can change overnight. But you have to start at the grassroots. I think integration with all aspects of programming is key … it just becomes part of the furniture.”

On Thursday, he’s coming on strong with not just work from the classical canon (Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, and Edward Elgar’s Variations on ‘Enigma’) but also Mason Bates (Mothership) and Kevin Puts (This Noble Company), both contemporary American composers whose work hasn’t appeared at the symphony before. While both are white men, he said he expects the work to push the envelope—and for the pieces to bring a little bit of a West Coast vibe to New England’s oldest orchestra.

“My gut tells me that they’re [the audience] going to enjoy both of them,” he said. “Particularly with Mothership, in a very visceral way. I’m hoping that that will readjust people’s perceptions of what a symphony orchestra is capable of.”

It’s part of a greater approach he has to the job opportunity. When asked about outreach, Neale said he likes to listen to everything happening around him, and then let his roots find the source of discontent, and dig in. 

“I’d arrive as a sponge, and say: tell me about the New Haven that I didn’t know back then, that I don’t know now,” he said. “Help me learn, and then we’ll run with it.” 

“In the 21st century, orchestras … have to be more nimble on their feet,” he added. “It’s hard to bring 100 musicians all at once in the right place and the right circumstances, but it’s not as hard to break down into smaller groups and go to where other people are, rather than expect them to come to your temple of art.” 

He’s seen a little of that during his extended tryout for the job. In a jam-packed schedule that began Sunday, he has been balancing NHSO rehearsals with small meet-and-greets in the community, and a teaching session with students at St. Martin de Porres School.

He said he knows he’s the first of the three finalists to hit New Haven, but it’s hard not to think of the position as a potential homecoming. Already, he’s scoped out places to live that are close to downtown, like the 360 State apartments on State Street. He said he’s committed to living in the city, rather than on the shoreline or in the suburbs. If he needs to travel, that’s what Zipcar is for.  

Everything in my life hinged on taking a chance and coming to New Haven,” he said. “And you know, it was almost to the day 35 years ago. The audition was somewhere in February, 1983. I’m not sure where those 35 years went. But it feels … it’s coming full circle.”

“I like snow too,” he added as an afterthought. “So there’s that.”