The 2020 Sun Valley Music Festival has not been cancelled, but it is going to look very different this year, with streamed concerts, an empty pavilion and a free Gala Concert.
With the summer looking uncertain and with crowds of thousands gathering to watch an ensemble of largely out-of-state musicians totally off the table, the Music Festival announced today that it would not proceed with its traditional July-August concert series in the Sun Valley Pavilion.
In the interest of public health, the entire series is going online instead.
Scrapping all of the plans previously in place, Music Director Alasdair Neale is now working hard to rebuild the entire season from scratch, coming up with an entirely new—but equally robust—program of performances to be filmed, edited and streamed on the festival’s website throughout season.
The ultimate goal is to allow musicians to perform, audiences to listen, teachers to teach, and students to learn regardless of what restrictions are in place at the end of the summer.
“Safety is what’s driving the decision, but the desire is to completely transform and not just cancel,” said Executive Director Derek Dean. “The festival enjoys such incredible support from this community. We feel a sense of responsibility to make some music this summer, so we never even really considered cancelling outright.”
This new virtual format opens up a wealth of opportunities, but also poses a whole new host of challenges. Regardless, it seemed the only way forward, both in the interest of public safety and in the interest of giving a musical gift to the community.
“We felt a sense of obligation,” Neale said, “but not just obligation. What this amounts to for me and for the musicians is an opportunity to give as big a gesture as we can express to thank the community that has taken such good care of us for so long.
“We’re going to miss seeing everyone in person, but I believe we can make some really important connections the way we’re setting this up to keep the musicians in the community. It’s just going to look and feel a little bit different. I’m confident people will see us and our musicians in new lights, from new angles, with a deeper understanding of the people who make up this orchestra.”
Since musicians cannot congregate en masse here or anywhere else, Neale now has to race to contact his orchestra members, determine what pieces they will perform, and organize schedules for recording and postproduction. The new program will feature many solos and smaller ensembles, but also a few “full orchestra collage” performances, which require tremendous efforts to edit and synch up.
“Any given season has about a two-and-a-half-year runway. This season has less than two-and-a-half months, and what we’re creating from scratch is not like any other festival we’ve done over the years,” Neale said. “It’s a transformation into a completely untested model.”
Some particularly largescale orchestral programs scheduled for this summer—including Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” and works by Jennifer Higdon and Missy Mazzoli, among others—will simply be postponed to be included in the 2021 series.
The featured guest artists, including pianists Orion Weiss and Daniil Trifonov, plus local favorites Time for Three, are all developing programs to perform specially for Sun Valley audiences.
The Music Festival had also planned to honor the landmark 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, with the full lineup showcasing a plethora of the composer’s most beloved works. Beethoven will still feature on the program, both musically and in lectures by acclaimed Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford.
Prerecorded concerts will be streamed online with Neale likely acting as a live emcee, introducing each one. The videos will stream at the times and on the days originally earmarked for the pavilion series, opening on July 27 and closing on Aug. 19. To preserve the “live” element of the traditional setup, each performance will only be broadcast once, at the usual 6:30 p.m. start time, and will not be archived or made available for future viewing or download.
The festival may consider broadcasting to the big screen and sound system of the Pavilion Lawn, if it is deemed safe to do so and people can maintain social distancing.
A full, detailed schedule of performances—including pieces and featured musicians—will likely be published sometime in June.
The associated educational programs and seminars the festival offers will also move to an online format. This means the Advanced Chamber Program will shift focus onto individual development rather than ensemble performance.
The festival is currently monitoring the situation with regards to its younger students, and will determine what format these programs can assume as soon as possible.
As usual, all these concerts, lectures and other offerings will be made available to the public free of charge. This year does feature one major alteration to ticketing, though: the Gala Concert will be free.
Each year, the Gala serves as a major fundraiser for the Music Festival, and is the only event on their roster for which they charge admission.
Back in February, the festival announced that Broadway stars Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Kelli O’Hara would unite for the very first time for the Gala.
All three are still enthusiastically on board and will perform in a one-night-only concert broadcast from the East Coast on Monday, Aug. 3, for free. Anyone can tune in online to watch. All those who have already purchased tickets to the Gala will be fully refunded.
“We’re all excited to do that,” Dean said. “For 35 years, the community has really supported the festival, so this is something we can give back. We can offer the Gala for free for everyone. We’ll take a bit of a financial hit, but I think it’s worth it if we can show our appreciation to the community.”
The festival used a recent online-only edition of the popular “Upbeat with Alasdair” talk series to test the waters of streaming.
“Attendance flew beyond any expectations we had. Our server was overloaded,” Dean said.
That yielded two important takeaways for planning the summer concert series. First, streaming is a viable option and people will definitely tune in. Second, the festival is going to need a bigger server.
“Our average audience in the summer is over 3,000. When we go online, it could be quite a bit bigger than that,” Dean explained. “We’re investing in the best technology we can get to make sure everything goes smoothly this summer.”
Planning is in full swing and Dean, Neale and their cohort are hard at work coming up with a one-of-a-kind musical experience for the Sun Valley community, guaranteeing that no matter how the future unfolds, music lovers will have something big to look forward to in the coming months.
“I really do feel optimistic that we’re creating something very special for the community,” Neale said. “When it’s all said and done, I want to look back on this summer and say our amazing Sun Valley family made something unforgettable happen during this crazy, crazy 2020.
“It’s going to be an adventure unlike any I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m so grateful to have the challenge. I’m in a very fortunate position thanks to this community.”
For more information on the altered Sun Valley Music Festival format—and to tune in for live performances come July 27—visit svmusicfestival.org.