Tribute to Alan Neilson

Alan Earl Neilson, Flutist and Conductor (1930-2011)

photo of the late Alan Neilson conducting at the podium and wearing a tuxedo
Maestro Alan Neilson


Alan Earl Neilson, Founding Music Director of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra and long-time Music Director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra, died at the age of 80.

The son of ­­­Dorothy and W. Earl Neilson he was born in Philadelphia on November 24, 1930. He demonstrated outstanding music talent early in his life and enjoyed the benefits of encouragement and superior instruction. He attended the University of Tulsa and upon obtaining his undergraduate degree began a professional career in music with the opera and symphony orchestra there; he also spent considerable time touring with Boris Goldovsky’s opera company. While in Tulsa, in 1958, he completed a master’s degree.

It was from there that he was in 1970-71 summoned by NC Symphony Music Director and Conductor Benjamin Swalin to serve as the state orchestra’s Principal Flute. He remained devoted to that Maestro and his wife, Maxine, to the end of their days, and they reciprocated his admiration, following his subsequent work in North Carolina with keen interest.

Fairly early in the tenure of John Gosling at the NCS, carpal tunnel problems and other issues forced Neilson to abandon professional engagements as a flutist. With encouragement from colleagues, he took up work as a conductor, leading ensembles for numerous area dance companies and theatres and supplementing these engagements by offering private flute lessons.

After several years invested in making a new career in the Triangle, Neilson was engaged to conduct the orchestra then based at NC State University. Soon thereafter, a split among the players occurred, and he was asked to form a new ensemble for adult players who wished to devote their energies to concerts of mainstream classics. The Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, established in 1979, was the Maestro’s first major musical undertaking as a conductor, and he remained at the helm as Music Director until the appointment of James Waddelow as his successor last September.

Meanwhile, relatively early in the life of the Durham Symphony Orchestra, its founding conductor, Vincent Simonetti, a former colleague of Neilson in the NCS (Simonetti had been Principal Tuba), elected to leave the DSO in order to devote more time to his blossoming tuba and brass instrument business (which was to become one of the largest such specialty shops in the world). In 1984, after a season of conductor auditions, Neilson was appointed the DSO’s second Music Director, a position he retained until February 2008; following a search, William Henry Curry was appointed as his replacement in 2009.

During the intervening years, Neilson led the Arts Festival Orchestra, formed in 1989 by musicians from the RSO and the DSO. As there were always some players in common in the two orchestras, this short engagement led to the hope in some quarters that the two community groups might eventually merge, but different goals and objectives instead kept them on separate albeit roughly parallel tracks.

Neilson also served for a year as conductor of the UNC Symphony Orchestra, during the absence of its music director, giving rise to hope that he might eventually obtain a college or university post, but this was not to be.

While the wages of his work in the musical trenches were often small, Neilson was the recipient of numerous honors and awards over the years, and virtually every area critic from Nell Hirschberg and Peregrine White on – until December 4 of last year – sang his praises in frequent reviews.

As the artistic head of two of our region’s most important community orchestras, Neilson’s work was of immense cultural and educational value. He truly devoted his life to music, living on the tiny incomes from his two appointments and occasional freelance gigs. He lived frugally, residing in a garage apartment for a time before moving to a tiny rental house on West Cornwallis Road in Durham, where he resided for 30 years – until relocating, in January, to a retirement home in Wake Forest near his friend Irene Burke, who is also the Executive Director of the RSO.

The family requests gifts in his memory be made to the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, the Durham Symphony or a musical organization of the donor’s choice.