By Karen Bossick

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better than the Sun Valley Summer Symphony in the Sun Valley Pavilion….

Along comes the Sun Valley Summer Symphony’s inaugural Winter Festival in the new Argyros Performing Arts Center.

Seraphic Fire’s eight members turned the Argyros Performing Arts center into a monastery as the acoustics were adjusted for an echoey cathedral feeling.

Symphony Music Director Alasdair Neale told music lovers to expect the unexpected. And, indeed, the two and a half-hour performance he and his symphony cohorts unveiled over three evenings was an experience as much as it was a concert.

And all three performances—Thursday, Friday and Saturday—were free, thanks to longtime symphony patrons Michael and Carole Marks.

“It was a collaboration,” said R.L. Rowsey, who works with the symphony’s School of Music. “We went through five versions with a number of people suggesting different parts. Then, we kept it top secret so everyone would be surprised.”

Patrons walking into the first concert on Thursday night gasped as they saw the Tierney Theatre darkened and bathed in lights of green and maroon.

Marc Damoulakis, Ian Ding and Joseph Tompkins performed on vibraphones and marimbas, then switched to drums.

White sofas with furry throw pillows, ottomans and even chairs resembling white thrones were scattered around a square stage in the center. A buffet of potstickers, cheeses, pork slices and candied nuts lined a second stage at the front of the room, while servers offered savory bites, baklava and sugar cookies shaped like musical notes.

As concert time approached, the theater went black and cellist Amos Yang from the San Francisco Symphony slowly emerged bathed in light, a lone figure playing J.S. Bach’s “Prelude from Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor.”

The symphony’s Music Director Alasdair Neale had hardly taken the stage before the room erupted in applause.

“I take from that that you’re having a good time,” he told the audience. “I hope you have an open mind and enjoy the show.”

Juliana Athayde, Marylene Gingras-Roy, Amos Yang and Kristin Ahlstrom came from orchestras in Rochester, St. Louis, San Francisco and Pittsburgh to perform at the Winter Festival.

Eight men strode to the center stage huddling under two tiny microphones that hung from the ceiling. And Florida’s Grammy-nominated vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire began evoking the sounds of a medieval monastery as they sang Perotin’s “Sederunt Principes,” composed for a new wing of Notre Dame Cathedral at the beginning of the 13th century.

The chant was spellbinding and hypnotic. And difficult, according to R.L. Rowsey who teaches vocal students.

“There’s no fluctuation in their voices,” he said. “They sing an even tone with no vibration so it’s very pure—like meat with no gravy. And it’s very difficult to do.”

As the men left the stage after three numbers, a violinist appeared on the balcony.

Ian Ding, a freelance musician from Chicago, played warmup music with Thomas Sherwood of New York and Marc Damoulakis of the Cleveland Orchestra as symphony donors nibbled on hors d’oeuvres. PHOTO: Karen Bossick

“My name is Rudolph Kremer and I’ll be your violinist for the night,” the 23-year member of the Sun Valley summer symphony told audience members Lynn and Sharon Bockemohle as he joined others scattered around them room in performing Bach’s “Prelude from Cello Suite No. 2.”

A string quartet took their places in the round to perform Ravel’s “Quartet for Strings in F Major.” Then two marimba and two vibraphone players took the stage to perform Steve Reich’s “Mallet Quartet.”

They followed that up with Joseph Tompkins’ “4 Round” before finishing the evening with Zivkovic’s “Meccanico from Trio per uno,” a fast-paced piece of staccato and clatter and even some jackhammer-like riffs, their drumsticks a magenta-colored blur as they drummed on bongo drums, gongs and more.

And, just like that, listeners were left looking into the candles placed around the room, wondering how all of them had changed colors with the final note.

“This is a real Sun Valley/Ketchum cultural experience showcasing the Argyros at its best, and introducing people to new things,” said Lynne MacKenzie. “I mean, when is the last time you heard Gregorian chants!?”

“Only in Sun Valley!” said Joann Boswell. “Where else could we have had something like this?! This wonderful room—I had no idea how it would make up into cabaret.”

“The sound was amazing I have no clue how they did some of it, but I loved it,” said Stephen Pauley.

“Are we lucky or what?” added Marylyn Pauley.

Alasdair Neale, who had spent the early part of the evening fielding “Hellos” from friends like Mallory and Diana Walker who were intent on telling him about the avalanche that had slammed into their friend Jan Aronson’s house in Lake Creek, said he and his team had a lot of fun pulling the evening together.

“It was a team effort and we thought, to create something different, what if we turned the theater into a night club?” he said. “The musicians are finding out how there’s so much we can do with the Meyer Constellation sound system that couldn’t be done in a normal concert hall. And those who have never been here in winter are wandering around amazed at all the beautiful snow scenes at every turn they take.”

The seating, brought in by Studio 11, was set up to accommodate about 270 people each night with a variety of different seatting options so that those who needed seat backs could have them. Even though a limited number of free tickets were given out ahead of time, no one was turned away, said Derek Dean, the symphony’s executive director.

“We even stood at the door Friday night and invited people to come in out of the cold,” he said.

Dean said he enjoyed standing at the front of the theater and watching people’s expressions as they entered.

“People said they’d never seen anything like it. They’d never seen a seating arrangement like it. They’d never seen lighting like it or heard sound like it.”

Juliana Athayde, a violinist from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, said it was an interesting experience for her.

“I’m not used to being so close to people when I perform,” she said.

But the concertgoers loved the intimacy.

“I like it. I really like it,” said wildlife photographer Bob Poole. “I was pretty shocked when I walked in and saw the way everything was laid out. But then it made a lot of sense. And it shows what the possibilities are for things to come. We’re going to have fun in the years to come in this theater.”

Derek Dean acknowledged the symphony set the bar awfully high.

“But we already had our first meeting yesterday to plan next year’s Winter Festival,” he said.