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Tania Miller leads Springfield Symphony Orchestra in 'Messages from Mozart'

Guest conductor Tania Miller.
Todd Rosenberg
Guest conductor Tania Miller.

Tania Miller leads the Springfield Symphony Orchestra on November 5 in a program featuring Mozart’s Symphony No. 36, Brahms Symphony No. 3 and "The Messenger" by contemporary Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Elan Sicroff will be the guest pianist for this SSO concert.

Canadian conductor Tania Miller has distinguished herself as a dynamic interpreter, musician and innovator. As one critic put it, “[S]he delivers calm intensity... expressive, colorful and full of life... her experience and charisma are audible.” Others call her performances “technically immaculate, vivid and stirring.”

Miller’s 2021-22 season featured conducting concerts in South Korea and Calgary with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Symphony and the London Symphonia. This season’s engagements include the Vermont Symphony, Elgin Symphony and Rockford Symphonies, among others.

NEPM's John Nowacki spoke with Tania Miller on October 31.

John Nowacki, NEPM: Tanya Miller, welcome. I would like to begin with just how you decided to become a conductor.

Tania Miller, SSO guest conductor: That's a great question. I didn't actually decide to be a conductor early on in my life. I grew up in a small town and there were no conductors anywhere near my world. But I was gifted with the opportunity to learn about music by a school music program. So I'm very passionate about school music programs. And also I had a great piano teacher who traveled into the town to teach lessons, and I was so in love with performing that originally I thought I would be a famous piano player someday, and it was only later on in life when I was in my late teens that I even went to an orchestra concert and discovered, aha, this is something I want to do, and the idea just developed over time. As I conducted various groups, I realized that this was a passion for me, and I started to shift my focus.

"Music is, for me, a place to get lost inside. As a conductor, I love to immerse myself in a score. I'm alone."
Tania Miller

I think that's interesting, because you didn't really have a visual of, for instance, a female conductor on the podium. It was men. So even more interesting that you decided, hey, this is something I'm going to do.

Absolutely. Music is, for me, a place to get lost inside. As a conductor, I love to immerse myself in a score. I'm alone. I'm completely directly with the music. But I also discovered about myself that I'm passionate about sharing that music with people. And so the difference between being a pianist, for instance, and being alone with my music was to be on a podium and to talk to people about music, and to share music and to bring people together. And over the years, as I've been a conductor, I just find it so fascinating how an audience is a part of the experience, how they somehow blend into the energy of that room in that moment, and how there are so many people that are interested and want to be understanding, and want to understand why the music reaches them so deeply. And here I am. I want to explain that to them. I want to build that bridge that connects people to the music.

Well, along with this idea — so what's it like, then, being a woman conductor on a podium these days? As an example, I know three just off the top of my head, including JoAnn Falletta, Marin Alsop and Caroline Kwan. And I know there are a lot of others now. Do you see the classical music world as becoming more accepting of women composers, conductors?

Actually they are, for sure. There is, I think, a wonderful sense of perspective shift that has happened where there is a real true desire to diversify and to include, and that includes so many different kinds of people, including women on the podium, and really, experiences of what we expect versus what we know is a part of this kind of a shift. So many orchestras, you know, have a certain feeling of what they think a conductor will be, and then when somebody different is on the podium, that expectation shifts, that experience shifts. And then, all of a sudden, it becomes normal to them. So what I think for myself is really interesting, is that for my entire life, I never felt like a woman conductor. I just felt like a conductor. I never felt like there was any difference. It doesn't feel any different to me. I get right to the music, and I want to work with the music. I want to work with the musicians. I want to relate to the audience. And it's been completely irrelevant to me what my gender was. And so, I didn't even really understand why there was sort of this differential between the number of women and men on the podium. But over time, I think it's fantastic that there is this sense that leadership is so many different kinds of styles, and that it comes down to the music.

What would you say are some of the challenges you've personally faced as a conductor?

"I think that classical music is one of the most deeply expressive ways for us to experience what we're living, and how it is to be human, and to marvel at the capacity of humanity."
Tania Miller

First of all, being a conductor is a lifelong learning experience. And for me, that's very humbling, and it's also very energizing. At the beginning stages of conducting, you are in front of an orchestra that is very experienced. They have a world of experiences in their own music-making behind them. When I was in my early years of conducting, I would be on the podium conducting a symphony, perhaps the first time, maybe the second time, maybe the third time, but very early on. And I would be persuading musicians to be with me, to share with me the ideas that I had, and I would be trying to make sure that I understood all of the aspects of what it what it was to make this music come alive. But sometimes it would be really in the moment, because it would be my first experience making those things happen. So I'd say one of the challenges for conductors is just the extraordinary depth of the repertoire. We have to know all of the notes. We have to know everybody's parts. I truly feel like my best conducting comes when I memorize the score virtually. I usually have the score in front of me, but in my head it's completely there. And that kind of work, that time that it takes to ingest all of this music is one thing.

I think that's only the starting point for a conductor, because a conductor needs to find a way for music to have meaning in the culture that they're in, and the communities that they're in. It has to have relevance. And so we need to live our lives. We need to understand how music is meaningful to people in our own communities, and in the time periods that we're in. What does music mean to us now, with the world the way it is, with all the challenges that we have? So it’s about so many different things. And I think the last thing I'll say for a conductor that's a challenge is to truly find that way to communicate the love of music and the impact music has for people, so that they can live that experience for themselves, and enrich their lives with the music. And I think now there is more pressure on conductors to make sure they are communicating this passion, and finding a way to connect audiences to music.

Talking about the way classical music fits into the culture these days, how do you view the classical music scene? Do you feel it's thriving?

I think that it should be thriving. I think that classical music is one of the most deeply expressive ways for us to experience what we're living, and how it is to be human, and to marvel at the capacity of humanity. All that composers have envisioned and written and what we're capable of. But it also gives us an outlet for the feelings that we have, the complex world that we're living in, the struggles, the pain — but the joy, the things that we're looking for, it's all there in the classical music. And for me, classical music is very vibrant. It's very vital. It's absolutely relevant to our time. In fact, even more so, because there is so much diversity now of opinion, and so many words that can put people into categories and divide them. But what's amazing about music is that it doesn't divide. It connects us, because there's no one word that puts us in a box. There's no one way to interpret it. We can all experience it in our own ways. And I think it's so important now to bring people together, to bring communities together, and in a soft, gentle, caring way to connect us.

The concert that you're going to be conducting with the Springfield Symphony is titled “Messages from Mozart.” Could you describe it?

It's an incredible grouping of music, extraordinary music. First of all, at the very center of it is Mozart. We're doing this symphony that he wrote in four days, which is a marvel in itself when he was passing through Linz. And it's a gorgeous, gorgeous piece of music. And Mozart is someone that we all connect to. And why is that? There's just such a beauty and vitality, and, you know, something that we we can we all can understand and connect to. We open the concert with a Ukrainian composer, one of Ukraine's most prominent composers, and one that has such gorgeous music. And in his music — it's called “The Messenger” — are quotes from Mozart, almost like he's bringing Mozart back to us, but from another world. The way he writes his music, it's suspended, and it's kind of outwardly like it's coming from beyond, coming from our dreams, or coming from a past memory. And so we have this modern composer who beautifully, evocatively connects us and to Mozart. I find it really touching at this moment with what's going on with Ukraine, to feature a composer with his beautiful music and connecting us to Mozart.

And then Brahms Symphony No. 3 is one of my personal favorites. Many people avoid this symphony in some ways because of one very simple thing: It ends quietly. And often when we program a concert, we want to end in a rousing, exciting way. I wouldn't say it's avoided. I'll certainly not say that. It's one of the beloved symphonies of Brahms. There's only four of them, but it often causes people to think about how to program it, because it ends so quietly. But for me, it's a letting go in a very beautiful way, in a very peaceful way. And because the opening of the concert brings us into Mozart from this beautiful other kind of universe, shall we say, and then because we end the concert almost giving back to that same place, I think it's like a full circle feeling. And I think it's a very sensitive concert. It's a very sweet concert, and I think it will move people, especially now the Springfield Symphony is back. I think it will be a very moving, emotional experience to be a part of this concert.

What kinds of things do you find inspiring about these pieces for the concert? Are there favorite moments, or particular challenges that you try to bring out in the performances?

For me, every kind of music has a different experience that it will bring to us, and I actually truly value all of those experiences. Sometimes, I really want to build absolute crazed enthusiasm or energy or joy out of a piece of music when I program it. And sometimes I want a piece of music to cause us to be introspective, and to feel where we are feeling in a moment. Right now, I feel like the beauty of a lot of the emotional content is what draws me to this particular concert.

"I refresh myself by walks in the forest. I have a beautiful dog who I adore, and thanks to him, I am regularly going out into nature, and this is number one for me."
Tania Miller

In Brahms, there is a composer who seems to — as a person, he didn't reveal so much of himself. He was kind of a quiet person. In his music, it's like he lets us in. He lets us understand who he was, what his innermost feelings were, and the tenderness and the nostalgia and the sensitivity and the care and the love, all those beautiful sentiments. They really come through the melodic material of Brahms. It's gentle and sweet and just so beautiful. Also the way he writes for the instruments together, the lovely wind writing — the woodwinds are so incredibly beautiful and the harmonies within the strings, for instance. So, Brahms, for me, is always very, very treasured, very special.

Mozart — his symphony is full of rhythmic vitality. And for me, that's a marvel. It's like a puzzle that gets put together in so many different, fantastic ways that our minds can't help but see that mathematical but vibrant kind of way that the music works together.

And I'm particularly passionate right now about the music of Silvestrov. He’s a beautiful composer. What I particularly love about him is how he creates this effect by the way he writes that makes it sound like we're in a grand church, with resonance that lasts for about eight seconds. So he writes in such a way that we feel like we're sustained inside the music, and it's a very cool experience.

I've got just one other question for you. I was just curious, with a busy concert schedule that you have, how do you unwind or refresh yourself?

Well, first of all, I revive myself, I refresh myself by walks in the forest. I have a beautiful dog who I adore, and thanks to him, I am regularly going out into nature, and this is number one for me. I connect to the music, and just to what's going on in the world, so much more each day when I'm just out there in nature and I feel like it really connects to the music.

I also am constantly just listening and watching and studying music all the time. And each piece is so different that it revives me. And the last thing I'll say is, I have two teenage boys who I would say definitely don't revive me, but I love spending time with them, and just that family side of cooking and being a part of the family — which is in contrast to my time on the road and all of that — just makes life really great.

Originally from the Midwest, John Nowacki has had an interest in classical music since he was a high school student, having discovered organ music recordings by E. Power Biggs and singing in the high school’s choirs. His radio career began in 1982 at WILL-FM in Champaign-Urbana, Ilinois, where he started as a board operator for local programming, then became a classical music host. He worked for several Illinois stations before making the move to WNPR in 1990.
John Voci is Senior Director, Radio, at New England Public Media.
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