The newly rebranded Sun Valley Music Festival, formerly the Sun Valley Summer Symphony and the Elkhorn Music Festival before that, is back in town for its momentous 35th year, and its 25th under the musical direction of conductor Alasdair Neale.
From Monday, July 29, until Thursday, Aug. 22, the festival will dominate the Sun Valley Pavilion, presenting 15 performances over the course of the month.
Each show is different, and each is presented to the public free of charge. The orchestral ensemble brings together top symphonic musicians from around the world. Since its dawn in 1984, the festival has soared to new heights, expanding its offerings and eventually becoming the largest admission-free symphony in the country.
For the past quarter-century, Neale has led the group with style and aplomb, crafting unique programs and consistently attracting huge audiences.
Speaking on this anniversary occasion, Neale said, “This extraordinary year represents the 35th season of the Sun Valley Music Festival. This is also my silver anniversary as music director. Yes, I started as a teenager!”
Though he and the dedicated staff members who run the nonprofit deserve a great deal of credit for keeping the festival alive and prosperous, Neale had others to praise.
“The Sun Valley community deserves a round of applause for 35 years of making free concerts and educational programs available to everyone who lives in and visits the Wood River Valley,” he said.
To celebrate this dually auspicious season, the festival has enlisted some world-renowned talent to headline concerts, including famous jazz musician Branford Marsalis for the annual fundraiser gala, the only pay-to-attend event in the series.
The first performance slated for the 2019 summer season will feature award-winning violinist Ray Chen. The star performer, named by Forbes as one of the world’s 30 most influential Asians under age 30, will lead the symphony for two pieces: Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043, which Chen will play with assistant concertmaster Juliana Athayde; and Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 in A Major for Violin, K. 219, “Turkish.”
Chen, who has toured the world and first garnered global attention when he won the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Competition in 2009, will make his Idaho debut during the Monday night performance.
“It’s my first time in Idaho,” he said. “I’ve heard so many great things about the festival and I’m really looking forward to it. Doesn’t ‘Sun Valley’ just sound nice?”
Though Chen spoke to how the festival’s reputation preceded it, what most piqued his interest in and excitement for playing in Sun Valley was the personal touch he received when first approached by Neale and artistic operations director Deanna Harned.
“Usually, people coordinate through agents, but Deanna and Alasdair both on separate occasions came to visit me, flew to where I was, came to a concert,” he said. “I was super honored and pleasantly surprised.”
That extra “personal touch,” as he put it, is part of what sets the festival and its locale a step above other such events.
“That’s my impression of the place—it’s super personable and welcoming and sincere,” he said. “I scheduled extra time to stay in Sun Valley after my performance and I’m flying my parents in from Australia.”
In addition to his performance, Chen will also take part in two educational outreach programs—a masterclass workshop with local students and a talk. To Chen, “there’s no greater satisfaction” than teaching.
Along with his concerts and prominence on social media, teaching is a vital part of what he views is his greatest responsibility as a classical musician: to keep the genre alive.
“For so long, classical music as an industry has locked itself in its ivory tower,” he said. “I want to make the violin popular again, to shed that stale image of the instrument. This could be a new golden age for the violin.”
He plays what many consider an elite genre, he is personally sponsored by Giorgio Armani and he tours the world, yet in conversation he is extremely down-to-earth, jovial and funny. If there is pretense in classical music, it does not present itself through Chen, nor the free public concert series of the Sun Valley Music Festival.
“Music can be enjoyed simply. It doesn’t have to be talked up or super sophisticated—it is already—there’s no reason to be insecure about it,” he said. “I guess I’m here as an ambassador for classical music. I want there to be a direct path to understanding it.”
Whether attendees are seasoned symphonygoers or total newcomers, the Sun Valley Music Festival has something for everyone. Without snobbery or exclusion, without posturing or pomposity, a performance by the symphony is, purely and simply, a celebration of music that anyone can appreciate.
Join in the nearly month-long celebration at the Sun Valley Pavilion between July 29 and Aug. 22, and make sure to catch Ray Chen for the festival kickoff.
For a full schedule of concerts, including what pieces will be played and which guest musicians will headline, visit svmusicfestival.org.