Raleigh, Durham conductor Neilson dies at 80

Led community orchestras

Staff WriterMarch 5, 2011 

— Alan Neilson, a conductor and musician who was one of the defining figures in the Triangle's classical music scene for the past four decades, died Thursday. He was 80.

As music director of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra and the Durham Symphony Orchestra, Neilson looked the part of conductor with his striking white hair and intense expression. He was constantly on the podium in front of the semi-professional community orchestras until health problems slowed him down in recent years.

He left his position with the Durham group in 2008, and led the Raleigh orchestra until September. Yet he continued to conduct at least one work every concert in Raleigh, including the holiday concert in December.

"The musicians have respected him for many, many years," said Irene Burke, executive director of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra and a flutist. "Many of us played in both symphonies because we enjoyed working with him."

Neilson was born in Philadelphia and took to music at an early age, becoming an accomplished flutist. After graduating from the University of Tulsa, he worked with the opera and symphony in that city.

Then in 1970, the pioneering founder of the N.C. Symphony, Benjamin Swalin, brought Neilson to Raleigh and made him the principal flute player. Carpal tunnel problems eventually forced Neilson from the orchestra, but he began conducting smaller groups, and in 1979 formed the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra.

In 1984, Neilson was named music director of the Durham Symphony after a season of auditions by guest conductors. He continued in that role until he stepped down and was replaced by William Henry Curry, who is also the N.C. Symphony's resident conductor.

When he retired from the Durham position in 2008, Neilson told The News & Observer that he loved to conduct. "I could do that to 106," he said.

Burke said Neilson had insisted over the past couple of years that when he died he wanted it to be on stage conducting.

"As executive director, I thought that would be the worst thing that could happen during an event," Burke said. "He thought that would be the best way to go."

But last month, Neilson was admitted to a Raleigh hospital with a blood infection, she said, and ended up in intensive care. When it became apparent that he might not survive to conduct again, Burke did the next best thing: She took a favorite piece of music, an excerpt from Wagner's opera "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg," and played it for him.

"I swear the man did hear it," she said. "He literally passed away right before the huge trumpet fanfare comes in like an ascent into heaven. It was remarkable."

Neilson is survived by a daughter, Leslie Scheffers, and a grandson, Aaron Stafford, both of Michigan. A brother, Warren, died earlier.

There will be a visitation at the Brown-Wynne Funeral Home on St. Mary's Street in Raleigh from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday. A funeral will be at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh, with a reception in the hall immediately following. He will be buried in Pennsylvania.

The family requests that flowers not be sent, but gifts in his memory may be made to the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, the Durham Symphony or a musical organization of the donor's choice.

craig.jarvis@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4576

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