Tania Miller

Finding New Rhythms: Maestra Tania Miller Takes the Stage

by Marianne Scott

Currently the youngest-and only female-music director of a major Canadian orchestra, Tania Miller (BA'91) is setting the stage for a new generation of Canadian conductors. With her youthful exuberance and gentle demeanor, she's challenging traditional perceptions of the stern, white-haired conductor and reshaping them in her own image.

Her heels click across the wood planks of the stage and the tails of her rhinestone-embellished costume flutter slightly behind her. The audience applauds warmly. She steps onto the conductor's podium, pauses momentarily while sweeping her eyes across the 53 members of the Victoria Symphony. Then, with the authority of a general, Tania Miller raises her hand holding a slender, silver baton. As her arm descends, the orchestra bursts into an animated rendition of John Estacio's Variations on a Memory. The concert's opening score is a fitting choice for the orchestra's new music director; like Tania, it's energetic, youthful, and Canadian.

While once orchestras were ruled by aging men with mega-sized egos who conducted with a whip rather than a baton, the role and ranks of today's symphony music director has changed. The job now includes women, as well as surprisingly young musicians. At 33, Tania is not only the youngest current music director of a major Canadian orchestra, she's the first Canadian woman to hold such a significant post.

Tania was appointed to the Victoria Symphony's top role in the summer of 2003, but takes on her permanent position in the fall of 2004. She explains that a music director's job goes far beyond conducting. "We decide a year in advance what kind of series the orchestra will offer the following year," says the green-eyed, brown-haired musician. "We choose the repertoire, the soloists, and the guest conductors. I am responsible for rehearsals and selecting new orchestra members as positions open up."

At concerts, she verbally introduces the audience to the musical selections, describing their background and musical import. "I focus on why this music affects us," Tania says with characteristic fervour, "its themes and recurring motifs. In this way, I serve as the connection between the orchestra and the audience. That relationship between players and listeners is crucial. It's one of the important things I learned at the University of Saskatchewan."

A Prairie Girl

Many classical musicians were surrounded by music from early childhood. Mozart's father was a composer and performer. James Levine, who has conducted New York's Metropolitan Opera for a quarter century, received a conductor's podium and baton for his eighth birthday. Walter Bruno decided to become a conductor by age 13. Bernstein's first formal conducting gig took place when he was 22. Moreover, these men were raised or educated in such rich musical centres as Salzburg, Berlin, and New York.

Tania's childhood differed markedly. She grew up with four brothers on a farm in Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, a town of only 1,000 people. Although her father plays the accordion by ear and her mother accompanied her hymn-singing on the piano, classical music was absent from the house.

This is not to say, however, that Tania was deprived of music. "Foam Lake was a special place," she says. "We had a piano teacher, Thelma Gillis, who drove in three times a week from another town to teach children. A great teacher. She provided a musical foundation for the community and for me. I started studying both the piano and organ at age eight."

Tania's parents were highly supportive of her desire to play and scraped up enough money to buy an organ and a piano for her. She practiced piano six hours a day and by age 11, had resolved to become a concert pianist. Two years later, she became the church organist, and began conducting the church choir-a portend of things to come. She also played the clarinet in the school band. One day, the band director fell ill and the band needed a volunteer to direct the ensemble. "I went for it," says Tania with a grin.

At age 16, she attended her first live concert, where she heard Debussy's Afternoon of a Fawn. She remembers the experience vividly: the cacophony of the musicians tuning their instruments; the way the violins raised their bows and the flute rose to its horizontal position; the sparkling, haunting music so reminiscent of Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir. She was electrified. But she smiles when recalling this period. "I was a teenager, too, of course. I certainly listened to classical music, but I also tuned in to hard-core rockers like AC/DC."

Music at the University of Saskatchewan

Tania's dream of being a concert pianist grew shaky when, during grade 12, she developed tendonitis in her hands. So she opted to enroll in both the piano performance and music education program at the University of Saskatchewan in the fall of 1987.

"I spent years at the U of S doing physiotherapy to work around the tendonitis problem," she says. "But I never conquered it. So I changed my passion from performance to music education."

She chose the U of S for its excellent reputation for both performance and music education. Her parents encouraged her, too, saying that "teaching is an opportunity to share your love of music with others. That's something to aspire to."

Tania took advantage of the many musical opportunities offered at the U of S. She studied piano with Cecile de Rousiers, whom she calls "fun, lively and animated." She also sang with the Greystone Singers, an a capella choir. Practicing at least an hour a day, the choir was so well known, it performed in Toronto, Montreal, and Plattsburg, NY. Tania calls her travels to these cities a "mind-blowing experience." She also joined U of S Professor Emeritus Marvin Eckroth's wind orchestra, playing the clarinet. The orchestra performed at the 1989 World Association of Symphonic Bands Conference in the Netherlands.

She grins while reminiscing about her History of Music professor, Walter Kreyzig. "I respected him for his total dedication to teaching us. He used a textbook by Donald Grout and urged us to hold evening meetings for further study. We called them 'Grout' parties. But we never told Kreyzig that our get-togethers focused much more on partying than on Grout."

En Route to Conducting

After graduating in 1991, Tania began four years of teaching music in Outlook, Saskatchewan, returning occasionally to the University to assist Don Harris, who ran the Saskatchewan Band Association's workshops. During this time, she noticed the University of Calgary was offering a three-week summer conducting workshop. She signed up. "Being a conductor hadn't been on my list of career choices," she muses. "It all kind of happened naturally."

Unknown to her then, the workshop would have a profound effect on her life. Robert Reynolds, the University of Michigan music professor who led the program, was so impressed by Tania's talent, determination, and energy that he invited her to enroll at his home university. That fall, Tania joined the orchestral and opera conducting program. An extremely focused and determined student, Tania earned her masters and doctorate in musical arts in only five years.

During her studies, she worked with the Michigan Student Opera Works and conducted fully-staged performances of Handel's Semele, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and Mozart's Cosi fan Tutti. This exceptional working experience led to conducting opportunities at the Carmel (California) Bach Festival during the summers of 1997-2001. The Vancouver Symphony asked her to come aboard as assistant conductor in 2000 and so appreciated her musicianship and drive, they promoted her to associate conductor for the 2003-2004 season. It was during her compelling 2002 guest conducting performance of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich that the Victoria Symphony learned of her talents and snapped her up as its new music director.

Indeed, the last year has been a hectic one for Tania. While continuing her role as associate music director of the Vancouver Symphony, she has worked with the Victoria Symphony to create the 2004-2005 season.

And then there are the cross-country airplane flights. The hallmark of a successful musical career-be it as classical performer, rapper, or rocker-is guest appearances. Tania has conducted operas at McGill in Montreal and conducted in Winnipeg, Oregon, Toledo, and Saskatoon.

In November, she made her debut with the Toronto Symphony, which prompted Globe and Mail music critic Ken Winters to write, "[S]he is certainly no fool. A neat, lithe, self-possessed yet unaffected figure on the podium, thoroughly prepared, with a crisp stick technique and a vivacious sense of Smetana's lucid and disarming score, she established at once a high level of legerdemain. The orchestra responded beautifully."

The Maestra

Since classical music audiences tend to be older, how will Tania attract those youngsters whose headphones emit the continuous din of Abstract Rude, Moka Only, or Avril Lavigne? How can classical music compete when some 7-11 stores and the Montreal subway system play Paganini and Puccini to scare away teenagers hanging around sidewalks and platforms?

"Connecting to contemporary audiences is a dilemma," says Tania. "But I believe in classical music and the emotion it evokes in our hearts. I believe in the power of live performance and the sweat that the conductor and orchestra bring to it." She adds that music is very much part of society's fabric and is enriching and exciting for every age group. She notes, however, that popular culture moves fast and is "revved up." Recalling a Canucks game she recently attended, she comments on the almost ritualistic audience involvement: "There was a response to music with fans applauding, singing, and rising on cue."

She believes that audiences can respond to classical music in the same way, provided they can experience the beauty of it personally. She intends to explore musical themes as catalysts, relating them to jazz, film, fairy tales, religion, and to holidays like Christmas and Valentine's Day. She sees herself as a role model. "I'm so enthusiastic about music. I want people to ask, 'why is this young person so charged up?' I want to connect these people to the composers, their lives, their history, and how all of that relates to today."