In A Sunny Vale Where Hemingway Sheltered, Free Concerts Resound


A high-definition LED wall screen made its debut this season on the lawn outside the Pavilion at the Sun Valley Music Festival. (Photo by Nils Ribi)

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — A couple of golden eagles wheeling across the sky offered a dramatic welcome during my inaugural visit to the Sun Valley Music Festival. Viewed on the drive into town from nearby Friedman Memorial Airport, these fabled messengers of Zeus complemented the stark majesty of Bald Mountain with their agile flight. The area’s most-prominent Rocky Mountain peak towers 9,150 feet into the heavens and has been beckoning serious ski lovers since the area was first promoted as a winter sport destination — part of a pioneering campaign by Union Pacific Railroad in the late 1930s.

“Baldy” and its less-elevated, ski beginner-friendly sibling Dollar Mountain stand guard over Sun Valley, forming an iconic backdrop to the Pavilion and adjacent lawn where the Sun Valley Music Festival each summer presents nearly a month’s worth of events. The Pavilion is situated alongside another Sun Valley landmark with powerful cultural associations: the storied Sun Valley Lodge, a linchpin in the aforementioned campaign, which has long been an attraction for literary pilgrims.

Sun Valley resides in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho. (Photo by Thomas May)

It was while residing at the Lodge that Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. Two decades later, chased from Cuba, the writer and Mary Welsh Hemingway, his fourth wife, settled in a house on a private road in nearby Ketchum, overlooking the Big Wood River. There, one summer morning in 1961, Hemingway shot himself; his final resting place, alongside that of Mary (who survived him by another quarter century), is in Ketchum Cemetery.

The area’s longstanding association with Hollywood and literary royalty, together with the resort aura that first brought it to modern attention, all contribute to the impression of elitism that Sun Valley can evoke. But in the classical-music sphere, it has become home to an enterprise that opens up the experience of live music to anyone willing to lend their ears.

Classical-music presenters are experimenting more and more with pay-what-you-can strategies to increase access, but the music festival has been offering free concerts since its inception nearly four decades ago. It eventually grew into the largest privately funded, admission-free festival in the United States. This is made possible through funding by donors, with no government support. Donations and ticket sales from an annual fundraising gala concert cover all costs for the concerts and education programs.

The festival’s annual budget of about $4.7 million (based on the 2022 fiscal year) supports an orchestra consisting of more than 100 musicians from across North America and beyond, a permanent staff of 13, and year-round education programs.

The just-completed 2023 summer season took place July 30 through Aug. 24 and comprised 14 admission-free programs — eleven of them orchestral, the other three chamber concerts — as well as a gala fundraising concert (the only ticketed event of the year). All of the performances took place at the open-air Pavilion. This was the 39th edition of the festival, which the composer, conductor, and educator Carl Eberl and his wife Julianne launched in 1985, dubbing their venture the Elkhorn Festival. It was subsequently renamed the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, but in 2019 came the decision to rebrand as the Sun Valley Music Festival, “reaffirming that we really are a music festival, more than a regional or seasonal symphony,” according to longtime music director Alasdair Neale.

Alasdair Neale has been music director of the Sun Valley Music Festival for nearly 30 years. (Photo by Nils Ribi)

A festival needs a venue to anchor it. In 2008, this enterprise opened its signature Pavilion as a permanent home, replacing an informal tent on the lawn where concerts up until then had been held. The Pavilion is an open-air concert hall — impressive acoustically and visually, with what struck me as genuine concert hall acoustics. The space is covered by a translucent tent fabric and has travertine marble walls made from the same quarry used for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Its flowing design accentuates the natural setting of rolling mountains and what Hemingway depicted as “the high blue windless skies” (a line that appears on the nearby Hemingway Memorial). With a capacity of about 1,600, the Pavilion offers priority seating to donors but is also open to the general public, who queue up to call dibs on between 700 and 1,200 seats that become available for any given concert.

But it is from the adjacent lawn, cradled by awe-inspiring views of the mountains, that the majority of the audience experiences festival performances. Families with children of all ages, often accompanied by pets, stake out favorite spots throughout the day leading up to the performances, which typically begin at 6:30 p.m. and proceed with no intermission, coming to an end just as night begins to fall. To date, according to community engagement director Daniel Hansen, the lawn has accommodated some 9,500 people, but there is still “room to spare.”

A panorama of the Pavilion at the Sun Valley Music Festival (Photo by Nils Ribi)

This season, a high-definition LED wall screen made its debut: Standing some 40 feet high (by my guesstimate), it replaces a predecessor that had been about half its size. The screen projects a live feed from seven cameras positioned inside the Pavilion. This is one of the upgrades to the lawn experience completed over the last few years through special funds raised by donors. A state-of-the-art electronic sound enhancement system transmits signals from microphones hanging over the orchestra to a network of speakers on the lawn; these in turn deliver the sound from multiple directions and cover a larger area of the Pavilion lawn. The sound system allows engineers to tailor the acoustics to each concert, says Hansen, “whether it’s an intimate chamber ensemble or the robust movie music of John Williams.”

Hansen’s mention of Williams refers to this summer’s annual “Pops Night” (Aug. 12), when Stéphane Denève led the orchestra in an all-Williams program that attracted 11,131 people (lawn plus Pavilion), breaking the festival’s attendance record. Even more astonishing is the fact that the Pops Night attendance represents about 45 percent of the entire population of Blaine County (24,872 in 2022), which encompasses Sun Valley and the neighboring cities of Hailey and Ketchum. (“Sun Valley” is also used as a catch-all for the whole region.)

And the audience base continues to trend upward. The total summer season concert attendance in 2022 was 49,087, 14 percent higher than a decade before. Hansen said that attendance at the 2023 summer concerts (figures still to be announced) was pacing about 14 percent ahead of 2022.

The Hemingway Memorial celebrates the great American author, who lived in the Sun Valley. (Photo by Thomas May)

The festival inaugurated a much briefer winter season in 2019, which unfolds over three days in February or March at the 462-seat Argyros Performing Arts Center in downtown Ketchum. The winter edition has tended toward more experimental ventures that exploit the acoustical potential and technical potential of the venue. For the 2022 edition, for example, violinist Jennifer Koh served as curator and invited pianist Vijay Iyer to perform with her and festival orchestra soloists. The winter season is much smaller in proportion to the summer season (1,236 total attendance in 2022 and about 6 percent of total annual spending).

As for programming the summer season, executive director Derek Dean emphasizes the importance of balancing “delight” and “inspiration” by including “well-known favorites as well as major and minor works that might be less familiar, occasional commissions and pieces by living composers, and a roster of the finest guest artists touring today.”

The two concerts I attended near the end of the season certainly bore this out. My first (a placid Monday evening, Aug. 14) combined an homage to Sibelius with Schumann’s Piano Concerto. The 24-year-old Stephanie Childress, who this summer embarked on her tenure as associate conductor, led the orchestra in a rousing, full-bodied account of Finlandia.

A notable feature of the festival is the division of labor that gives young conductors an opportunity to gain more experience. The associate conductor often shares the podium with music director Neale, leading parts of programs. The audience seemed palpably invested in observing Childress’ progress, responding warmly to her eloquent remarks that introduced each piece.

Casual podium conversation ahead of the performance seems characteristic of the festival’s atmosphere — part of the culture encouraged by Neale in his nearly 30 years as music director; he can be reminiscent of Michael Tilson Thomas (an early mentor) in his engaging commentary.  The position became a significant jumping-off point for Childress’ predecessor, Sameer Patel, who was recently named music director of La Jolla Symphony and who is still fondly remembered by Sun Valley audiences.

Neale began his portion of the evening with William Grant Still’s Threnody (In Memory of Jean Sibelius) — a brief piece from 1965 that traverses a surprising variety of emotions. Yefim Bronfman then joined him for a performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto that was ideally suited to the space and the moment: poetic, at times even understated, not too heavy on the melancholy, reveling in the piece’s charms. It all segued effortlessly into the annual post-concert lawn party. Mason Bates (in his alter ego as DJ Masonic) set the quirky but relaxed mood for anyone wanting to linger on the vast meadow as fans spanning at least three generations danced happily in the fading light.

The Sun Valley Music Festival’s key pillars are the audience and the orchestra — and the bond between them. The number of musicians in the Festival Orchestra can fluctuate slightly each year, depending on the repertoire. The 2023 summer season listed 119 musicians on the roster. A strong link with the San Francisco Symphony is part of the festival’s history (much as a significant portion of the population hails from the Bay Area). This year, 17 percent of the orchestra were members of the San Francisco Symphony or from the Bay Area, with significant representation from (but not limited to) the St. Louis Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony, Houston Symphony, and Atlanta Symphony.

Twenty-three year-old Stephanie Childress is associate conductor of the Sun Valley Festival Orchestra. (Photo by Nils Ribi)

Neale, who was born and raised in Edinburgh but has pursued his career in the U.S., was himself based until this year in the Bay Area, helming the Marin Symphony as well as the New Haven Symphony during the regular season. He decided to conclude his tenures with those ensembles this year to resettle in Paris but will continue leading the Sun Valley festival orchestra (marking 30 years with the ensemble next summer).

What explains this festival’s undimmed appeal for him? “The Festival Orchestra plays with the polish and brilliance that you’d expect from such a distinguished collection of musicians, but also with the freshness and passion of a youth orchestra experiencing the music for the very first time,” he said. “It’s that generosity of spirit and unbridled joy in music-making that keeps me coming back year after year. That, plus the matchless beauty of the surroundings and a devoted and enthusiastic audience.”

The second concert I heard Neale conduct (Aug. 17) paired excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and revealed precisely what he was talking about. Childress once again set the tone with urbane, genuinely interesting remarks about the Tchaikovsky, which she then conducted. Neale continued with a Rite that seemed intent on a sense of reverence more than violence — an awareness of awe that echoed the quiet splendor of the surrounding mountains (especially apparent in the carefully tended tendrils of the opening scene’s woodwind colors). Neale allowed generous space for the musicians to make their individual mark. Trained as a flutist, he brought out Stravinsky’s less frequently appreciated moments of lyrical bloom, taking time to savor the limpid beauty of the folk melodies.

It seems implausible that the conductor and musicians would not be influenced by the natural beauty of the place — Baldy’s grand presence, the vibrant wildflowers, the infinite skies. Simply playing from the Pavilion stage, they command a view of aspens and cottonwoods backed by the grandeur of mountain outlines. Last year, Neale programmed Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. “In a sense,” he told me, “the audience will have already heard a preview that afternoon from the surroundings if they’ve gone for a hike in the area, though that may be minus the thunderstorm.”