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By Michael Castelo
My name is Michael Castelo, and I played viola in both the Durham and Raleigh Symphonies under Alan Neilson since 1993.
My wife and I moved to Raleigh from Baltimore in 1993 as a result of her employer, IBM, relocating their operations. (I got to feel firsthand what it meant when people said IBM stood for 'I've Been Moved.") I had been very involved in the music scene in the Baltimore - Washington DC area and was extremely anxious to leave it all behind and start anew in Raleigh.
I immediately went about trying to find groups that I might be able to join. After making a series of calls I learned of a man who was heading up two orchestras. I gave this man a call who said his name was Alan Neilson and he went on to describe his two groups. We talked for what seemed like hours. He was so outgoing, so interesting that I felt I had known him all my life. We made an appointment for him to hear me play and within a week he showed up at my door.
If there was anyone who looked the part of a conductor it was Alan. His tall, lean build, flowing white hair (somewhat disheveled), and piercing but kind eyes at first made me nervous, but after he smiled I felt at ease. I played for him and from that point on we became friends – colleagues.
From the first rehearsal I knew he was no ordinary conductor. His easy-going style made playing in the RSO and DSO fun. He wasn't a tyrant who demanded perfection or contrarily wasn't someone who had no clue what was going on. He'd be the first to tell you he was far from perfect and only expected that we musicians play for the love of the music and the love of making music as an ensemble.
But it was so much more than that. For the core members of either orchestra, ones that have been around for some time, we were a family. He enjoyed people. He enjoyed young and old alike. Putting on the Santa hat at the Durham Christmas concerts, playing a role in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, or doing some other "shtick" for the enjoyment and amusement of the children in the Family concerts....
If there was anyone who never took himself too seriously it was Alan. It seemed as if in every rehearsal he said something to say about himself. There were times he couldn't read the music so he tried more than one pair of glasses – sometimes at the same time. He flipped his score upside-down and proclaimed, "It doesn't look any better this way either." He had a comfort-zone that he always fell back on. When a program included a work he was unfamiliar with, he programmed a Beethoven, Brahms, or Schumann Symphony or a Beethoven or Wagner overture. He was right at home on these works. You could tell as his conducting pattern opened up, his arms soared up high over the orchestra and he tossed his head back (and hair) as if the composer himself had taken over his body. He often conducted these works from memory. These moments were truly special.
Equally special were the silly times we had in rehearsal. Alan's sense of humor was a joy to behold. Let me share some "Alan-isms" that were captured by Christa Wessel, who played French horn for a period of time and was an on-air radio personality for a WCPE, a classical radio station here in the Triangle:
"We were playing a piece by a relatively unknown composer that, while it had some dissonance…, was not too bad on the ears, it was, however, rather tricky to play. The first run-through of this work didn't quite go very well. His response was, "This was a really well known piece of music at one time. Then something happened…; they sent it to me."
"In Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf' there is a spot where violin section one plays a note on the downbeats and violin section two plays notes on the upbeats. Combined it should sound like a continuous rhythm. It wasn't going well. Al looked at the sections and said, 'It sounds like Morse code…; I didn't get the message".
"In a fast and frenzied section of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, everyone ended at exactly the same moment. Alan, amazed, asked "Wow – Does anyone have any notes left over?"
I can remember after a not-so-good reading of a difficult work Alan looked at me, held out his baton and said, "Man, I gotta take this stick to the shop – it needs a tune-up".
But most anyone who has been in either of his groups will tell you his famous line – "If you know what I mean?" Alan, while very expressive on the podium, could be at a loss of words when trying to convey to a section what he is looking for. He'd look at the brass, point with his bony crooked finger at whoever was too loud, hint at something about the right attack he was after, and then say "If you know what I mean??" Then we'll play that section over and over again until he'd yell "That's it!" Then he'd turn to the strings and try to get us to do something and finally give up and say, "You know what I mean??"
I will always remember Alan for his blue Charlotte Panthers jacket, his sneakers, and his 1980s style cassette recorder which he brought to every rehearsal AND concert. Many times ... after we stopped to take our break during a rehearsal, upon noticing that the recorder was still recording, I would go up to it, whisper something into the microphone and press STOP. I often reminded Alan to press "record" just before he gave a downbeat at the beginning of rehearsal. I asked Alan if he actually learned anything from the terrible sound recordings it made and he said he really did get something useful from it. I will never look at a cassette tape recorder again without thinking of Alan Neilson.
I will always remember changing in the Meredith men's dressing room prior to a concert. Alan, cellist Nate Leyland, and I would share some funny stories back there. I remember Alan conducting to himself in the mirror, getting himself ready. More than once I had to remind him to zip up.
When my children were old enough to attend a Pops concert my oldest one said "He looks like Doc Brown" (from the Back to the Future movies). The resemblances were uncanny: Doc Brown and Alan Neilson appeared to be brothers separated at birth. Both were helplessly absentminded but they had the blessed fortune to be brilliant, warm, and kind.
Not all was fun and games. There were times when his rehearsal style of playing the same piece over and over again without telling the orchestra why made me crazy. Sometimes he would say "One more time" or "We're getting there." Once, without a clear explanation of why we were doing a Strauss waltz for the fourth time, it was too much to bear and I simply lost it. I was very hot and he knew it. During the break he and I talked it over and I expressed why I was so upset and he was appreciative of my comments. He explained that repetition helps to cement the music. My comment was that I didn't have a problem with that as long as he told us what he looking for so we as musicians could give him what he wanted so we all could be on the same page. He took my advice and from that point on when we did a work over again he told us why.
And then there was the most horrible loss of one of own – Janine Sutphen, a cellist with the DSO whose tragic murder hit our close-knit family hard. Alan took it upon himself to implore to authorities to continue the investigation when things weren't progressing as they should have been. Without his persistence we were all sure the case probably would have dragged on, perhaps with no resolution.
Alan was a complex individual and that's what we loved about him. On the podium Alan had so many ideas yet he looked to violinist Tasi Matthews, Nate Leyland, and me for advice. He invited collaboration – a team effort, so to speak, from his section leaders or anyone else who had something to say. Off the podium, he was just one of the guys looking for anyone to hear his silly jokes or to get a nice hot meal.
And that is what made Alan's groups so special. He conducted for the sheer joy of sharing music to anyone who would listen. The RSO and DSO, community orchestras with a mix of amateur, student, semi-pro, and pro players, fed on Alan's energy. We played because we loved to play as a family of music-loving individuals coming together for the singular purpose of producing a memorable performance for audience and musician members alike.
In Alan's words, "If you know what I mean?"
Yes Alan, we all know what you meant.
Note: These remarks were delivered at the funeral service for Maestro Neilson on March 8, 2011.