Music Feature



Alan Neilson: A Reflection on a Life

March 8, 2011 - Raleigh, NC:


By Davd Lynch

This afternoon I would like to talk with you about the servant ministry of Alan Neilson. Alan would probably squirm mightily to hear me describe his work in those terms – but that is how I perceive it.

First of all, this was a man with a gift and with a clear calling. He was called to music early in his life, and he had a gift that was recognized by others. He came to North Carolina as principal flutist of the North Carolina Symphony – no small achievement. When physical affliction forced him to give this up, he began to explore his other passion, leading others to make music together. His profession of faith, "I love to conduct! I would like to conduct until I am 106 years old," attests to this passion.

Secondly, he showed great humility. During the thirty-two years that I knew him, I never saw any signs of ego or pride in him. It appeared to me that, as a servant leader, he shared his great love for the music and his gift for bringing out the composers' intent with others, and that was what inspired their loyalty as they made beautiful music together. I never felt that he took himself so seriously that he lost his love for either the music or for those who worked with him to re-create it and share it with audiences.

Third, he showed no concern for any possible personal gain from the ministry to which he was called. I constantly marveled at how he could survive as he served two nonprofits staffed largely by volunteers. Truly, the love of making music with others was his sustenance, and he was fed regularly by the music and the loyalty of his many colleagues.

In my early years as department head at Meredith College, I began to hear of a new community orchestra that was forming. Phyllis Garriss and others who told me about this group were extremely enthusiastic about it. They told me of the passion, the commitment, the high musicianship of the man who was organizing the group. Their devotion and loyalty to him were unmistakable.

I was eager to find out more. And, very soon, I did. It seemed to me that this presented an opportunity. Meredith needed to have an orchestral presence; and the new orchestra, the Raleigh Symphony, needed a rehearsal and performance venue. Maybe we could work something out. And we did.

Now, we musicians are accustomed to making something out of nothing. No money, no budget, no home – no problem. But what Alan Neilson did with the Raleigh Symphony was pretty unbelievable. With the determined support of a group of dedicated, talented instrumentalists who were committed to forming a community orchestra of high quality, he did just that. And the amazing thing was that they kept it going. For thirty-one years (and still counting), these faithful performers have regularly come together to rehearse and perform the great masterworks. Alan Neilson made that happen. He loved the music, and the musicians loved him. His influence, and that of the orchestra, was affirmed in the 1991 Raleigh Medal of Arts awarded to the orchestra and the 1995 Kathryn H. Wallace Award made to Alan Neilson for his artistic community service.

I had the privilege of collaborating in several ways with Alan and the orchestra. Early in their time, I was able to persuade them to come to Christ Church and perform the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis on one of the Sundays in Advent. And we collaborated at Meredith to perform a student concerto/aria concert each year, following a competition to select the performers; for the first twenty years or so of that, Alan was regularly one of the judges as well as conductor of the concert. I was able to engage the entire orchestra to provide the music for the inauguration of our current President, Maureen Hartford. And I remember the annual conferences, held in my office, when Alan Neilson, Ginny Zehr (or Irene Burke), Dotty Lou Gandy, and I would hash out the rehearsal and performance schedule at Meredith for the coming year – Alan, of course, having all of the complex schedule requirements in his head as we worked this out.

Now Alan is conducting a different sort of orchestra. These musicians don't have to worry about parts, tuning, instrument repairs, music stands, availability of the hall, ticket sales. They may be a little heavy in the harp section – but I have it on good authority that there also are powerful brass ensembles in the mix (you know, the trumpet shall sound). And think of all those composers whom Alan can now consult directly!

We all know that music has the power to communicate at a profound level that transcends words. It is a spiritual language of its own. I firmly believe that, through music, we hear the voice of God. Alan was a spiritual person. He heard the voices and the instruments of the angels through the music that he made. And now he has entered that great company as he joins in the music of the spheres. We will miss him. But his legacy lives on, and his music continues to feed our souls.

Note: A version of this remembrance was delivered at the funeral service of Maestro Neilson on March 8, 2011.