Neale, who joined as musical director in 2019, recently renewed his contract for an additional three years, before an expected move to Paris.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Neale about his hopes for the fall season, reflections on his tenure at the symphony so far, and his decision to move to Europe.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Your fall season starts on October 3. How long has it been since the full orchestra performed together?
We haven’t all played a note together in a year and a half. Some musicians have played together in limited ways, but as an orchestra, we have not been on the same stage together since March 5, 2020. It’s a long time to be apart. It’s been a real artistic and emotional desert for an orchestra not to feel those sounds on stage together.
I have the feeling there is going to be an extra special degree of electricity in the air for that first concert on October 3, when after so long, we’ll finally get to make music together again.
What have you learned from this past year and a half of not being able to play together?
I’ve learned something that I’ve always suspected, which is that live music is incredibly important, and there is no substitute whatsoever. There is certainly value to doing things online and we will continue to make that part of our portfolio, but I think we’ve all missed the human contact. For us as musicians, that means being there in person, and that’s the thing I’m looking forward to reestablishing more than anything else. That intravenous communication goes straight into our bodies, from the stage to the audience, and that’s been what I’ve missed and what I’m looking forward to the most.
What do you have planned for your return to the stage?
We’re kicking things off with a very exciting concert. It’s a mix of the super familiar, with Beethoven’s Fifth, and at the other end of the scale, a piece that’s only just been performed, called Fanfare for Uncommon Times, by Valerie Coleman. The title is a riff on Fanfare for the Common Man, but the perspective is very much twenty-first century American. It was conceived of during the pandemic and social justice movement last summer, and the piece reflects that. I came across the piece reading a review in the New York Times this summer of the Caramoor Festival, and it immediately leapt out to me as a piece that would fit perfectly for our return to the stage.
We’re also performing Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, a piece by Florence Price, which brings me back to the last concert we played as an orchestra in March 2020. Her music is now being brought back into the fold, and she’s being reexamined and celebrated after her music had really fallen into neglect in the years after her death. It’s also a celebration of one of the newest faculty members of Yale School of Music, Tai Murray, who has played with the New Haven symphony before, so we’ll be welcoming her back to the stage and to the New Haven community.
You just renewed your contract for three more years, but also announced that you’ll be leaving New Haven for Paris in June, 2024. Tell me about that decision.
The pandemic has changed all of us, and in my case, it prompted reevaluation of my work-life balance, and what was important to me and my husband, who is retiring in less than a year’s time. This was a fork in the road, and it gave us the opportunity to think in perhaps a more bold manner than we might otherwise have done. While we’re not old, we’re not young anymore, and with this realization that life can be shorter than any of us imagined, this is the time that we can still make this kind of move. There’s also the aspect of being so far away from my family in the United Kingdom for my whole adult life since I moved to the United States. I want to be closer to my mother, who’s in her eighties now, and for whom travel is not as easy as it used to be. With a busy career in the United States, there’s no way I can be there for her should she need me, and I want to be able to do that.
What is a favorite moment from your time so far as music director?
I was only able to do the first two-thirds of my first season before the pandemic hit, but during that time, there were certainly some very exciting moments.
My first concert as music director had a little extra excitement for everybody. We did a performance of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony, and that was a really thrilling experience for us. It was the beginning of our new relationship together, and it happens to be one of my favorite symphonies, so it just had that extra special glow to it.
You began your tenure with a listening tour to learn about what New Haven wanted its orchestra to be. What did you learn about what the community is looking for, and how have you been trying to deliver that?
We heard loud and clear that to engage with the communities that form our city, we should not expect people to come to us. We need to go to people outside of the immediate area of the concert hall. The way to do that is to be open to community partnerships, and it requires action on our part. It’s not just sitting back and expecting people to come to us, which, when you think about it, is actually a very arrogant approach. That was the real advantage of being the new kid in town. I had very little to say but a lot to learn, and I just needed to listen to folks.
We are institutionally committed to keeping those conversations going and coming up with new and exciting ways to make the orchestra fully engaged with the community. We’ve done a lot of thinking and listening about this throughout the pandemic, and have renewed commitments to engaging with new audiences and forging new community partnerships. When all is said and done, I will have been music director for five years, and I’m hoping that will be enough time to make a difference.
On a practical level, how will you know if you’ve made a meaningful difference in that regard?
I would love it if the audience for whom we play looks more like New Haven, and is really a reflection of the community. It’s a big goal, and realistically, it can’t happen overnight. Still, I would love it if you were to take a snapshot of the audience at my last concert as music director and compare it to the audience at my first concert, that you would see a different composition. That’s something that the organization as a whole will need to be committed to. Every orchestra is a community orchestra. Its purpose is to serve people. Therefore, it needs to be reflected in the people who come in and hear you.
What role does onstage representation play in achieving that goal?
That is a more gradual process because of the method of auditioning, but we will try to take proactive steps to encourage a more diverse group of applicants whenever a position becomes open in the orchestra. We’re certainly committed to representation in concert programming as well as guest artists, and you’ll see some evidence of that in the way this season is constructed and future seasons will be as well.
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