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Victoria Symphony conductor Tania Miller: 'Formality is a tradition of the past'
By
Editorial Staff

Published

March 29, 2016

Genre

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By Nancy Berman

“Conducting is a physically and mentally exhilarating experience. The actual tangible feeling of the music is coursing through our bodies, as if it’s an electric energy of its own. When we are conducting, the power of the sound is found in our hands, and it’s projecting through us, back to the audience, back to the orchestra.”

These are the words of Tania Miller, music director of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. In celebration of the orchestra’s 75th season, Miller has taken the orchestra on the road, with stops in Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver. The tour also marks the end of her penultimate season with the orchestra, an organization she has brought to extraordinary heights over the past 13 years. 2016-2017 will be her goodbye season, after which she will be moving on to new artistic challenges. As she said in a recent phone conversation with CBC Music, “It’s important to be constantly jumping off a cliff and doing something new.”

To paraphrase our Prime Minister: it is 2016. Regardless, the conservatism of the classical music world is such that Miller — the first Canadian woman to be music director of a major Canadian symphony orchestra — is remarkable. Indeed, she is one of the very few women to be conducting a major symphony orchestra not only in Canada, but on planet Earth. And to further highlight her accomplishment, she landed the gig when she was 33 — practically a baby by classical conducting standards. But what is more remarkable is what she’s done with the organization.

Miller’s tenure with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra has been marked by tremendous growth and innovation. Her outreach programs, commitment to education, and unflagging determination to make historical and contemporary orchestral music relevant to everyone, has helped to build a community of dedicated listeners. “From the very beginning,” explains Miller, “I have been committed to diverse programming, to always having something new that challenges the orchestra and its listeners, to always expanding program curation in order to be meaningful to our current culture, to our community and to the people of our time.” 

She has kept contemporary programming at the forefront of what she does with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, always ensuring that the music touches people in a meaningful way that they can understand and be connected to. “Using topics from our community has been one of my passions over the years,” she says. For example, she built a festival around Victoria’s Chinatown, which is the oldest in Canada. She also commissioned five works around Emily Carr, the Canadian artist who called Victoria home. In recent years she has explored iconic composers like John Cage and György Ligeti. “What that does is open up all of us to how we approach Beethoven, how we think about Mozart.”

'Formality is a tradition of the past'

Perhaps Miller’s biggest accomplishment is bringing classical music to young people. “I think young people are more distant from music education than they once were. But today we have audiences of all ages who truly want to understand music, understand the composers, understand what they’re listening to and why they feel the way they do, to be able to explain what the experience is.”

Miller communicates with young people, both at the podium and offstage, through series like “Tania talks,” and “Behind the Music,” where she breaks down the barrier between the stage and the audience. “Young people want a casual feeling that connects them, that doesn’t separate them from something. Formality is a tradition of the past.” Bringing in other arts like painting, dance, and film also attracts a wider audience. During a recent performance of Holst’s The Planets, Miller projected real NASA footage on the back wall of the hall. “For young people it’s always a search. Some of our best connections are things that are a little bit off the beaten path. But I am a firm believer in developing the art of listening.”

Miller doesn’t get discouraged about being one of the few women in a male-dominated industry. On the contrary, she explains that it’s all about leadership: “People want leaders to lead by example, by inspiration through vision, they want people to have the ideas and the strength to know what they want and the confidence and fortitude to carry them through. In addition they want someone who is respectful, who knows how to empower people.”

What it boils down to, says Miller, is commitment to the music: “I just immediately want to get to the point where the music is coming through me and it’s about the music. So when I walk out onto the podium with an orchestra or an audience that doesn’t know me, the first thing on their minds might be gender, and I fully expect that by the third minute in, that will have left their thoughts. My way of conducting is to get right down into the music, immediately get to work, to lose ourselves as individuals in what it is that we as artists want to do. But I think any gender can do that.”

Catch Tania Miller, the Victoria Symphony and piano soloist Stewart Goodyear on their 75th anniversary tour:

Tuesday, March 29: Quebec City, Que., Palais Montcalm
Thursday, March 31: Toronto, Ont., Roy Thomson Hall
Friday, April 1: Ottawa, Ont., Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
Sunday, April 3: Vancouver, B.C., Orpheum Theatre
Monday, April 4: Victoria, B.C., Royal Theatre