MUSIC : Conductor Likes to Play It by Ear

Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition

Alasdair Neale, who conducts the Pacific Symphony at Irvine Meadows on Saturday, likes to describe himself as a "very committed non-specialist."

For that reason, the British-born Neale, who is assistant conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, says he doesn't program "too much English music, although I love Elgar and Britten.

"I don't want to be pigeonholed and have people say, 'Oh, he conducts English music,' as if that's all I'm interested in hearing and that I must have better insight into it. I don't think that's true at all."

Neale won't be conducting the Pacific in any British music this weekend. All the music on the program will be by Tchaikovsky.

Born outside London, Neale, 29, moved with his family to Edinburgh when he was 10. He started studying the flute when he was 9 and picked up the cello at 12. "Then I just got into studying scores."

But it wasn't until he was going in to graduate from Cambridge University that he decided to be a conductor.

"It wasn't a sudden decision," he recalls. "It crept up on me."

He came to the United States to study at Yale with Otto-Werner Mueller, whom he remembers as having "a terrific musical intellect and discipline and an incredibly sophisticated knowledge of the technique of conducting.

"What he did for me was clean up my hands, which were a little bit clumsy and leaden."

In 1989, after three years at Yale as a student and three years conducting the Yale Symphony, Neale landed the San Francisco Symphony assistant conductor post. The duties include leading children's concerts and two weeks of regular subscription concerts, and being ready to step in at a moment's notice at all the orchestra's performances, should music director Herbert Blomstedt or any guest conductor fall ill.

"That's enough to keep one out of mischief," notes Neale. "But that's only half the job." The other half is serving as music director of the youth orchestra, which gives four concerts a year and also will be making a tour of Spain, France and Italy in July.

"It's a large age range (12 to 21) to deal with all at once," says Neale, "to be intelligible to a 12-year-old without being condescending to a 21-year-old. So I strike a balance. But these kids are quite intelligent. It comes with the territory."

Neale's contract with San Francisco goes from year to year, and he realizes the problem of staying an assistant conductor for too long: People will always regard you as an assistant. "I don't think I will be delighted to be doing the same thing in 25 years," he says. "I always want to be moving forward.

"But I think it's a fantastic job to be associated with any major orchestra, and this is one of the top 10 in the country. It can't help but be a fantastic and valuable experience for me."

Who: Alasdair Neale conducts the Pacific Symphony.

When: Saturday, Sept. 21, at 8 p.m.

Where: The Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego Freeway to the Irvine Center Drive exit. Turn left at the end of the ramp if you're coming from the south, right if you're coming from the north.

Wherewithal: $12 to $39.50.

Where to Call: (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).

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