Ottawa Symphony Orchestra: Conductor Tania Miller is all about commissions and community

Tania Miller.

In 14 years leading the Victoria Symphony in the B.C. capital, Tania Miller commissioned more than 75 original works of music.

It is an impressive number for someone who didn’t start out with a conducting career in mind.

She has ended her time in Victoria and for the past year has been enjoying working as a guest conductor from her home base in Vancouver where she lives with her husband and two sons.

In that role she will lead the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra in a program of Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, Petrushka by Stravinsky and Ent’ractes, a work by Montreal composer Michael Oesterle. Yes, that’s one of Miller’s commissions.

Miller’s program on Monday in Southam Hall presents three very colourful, exciting pieces — works that she hopes will help her “make an instant connection to an audience.”

“I love this program because I do really think it is incredible to find contemporary composers who are really writing interesting music.

“Michael Osterle is one of those. He has got this huge eclectic musical background. He is full of life and full of wit and is so high octane. He just can’t sit still.

“That comes out in his music. It moves from one section to the next and it always keeps us guessing. It’s very expressive of what it is trying to create which is the excitement in a hall where a ballet is about to occur.”

Going to the theatre or the ballet is as much about being part of the atmosphere of the event itself, Miller says. That’s what Oesterle is capturing.

Ent’ractes starts the evening by putting a spotlight on the audience. That then leads to the two ballet scores.

This is the kind of thinking music directors do, but it’s not where Miller started in music.

From Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, population about 1,120, Miller “grew up not even thinking that being a conductor was something I would do in my life. I wanted to be a professional musician but I was thinking of being a pianist and an organist.”

That changed when she went to the University of Saskatchewan.

“I was the organist in a church and I started conducting the choir and all these things started to be discovered.”

She took a summer course in Calgary on conducting and was converted.

“I decided to do my Masters and doctorate in conducting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. For me that was a big breakthrough.”

While in Ann Arbor, she started working.

“I started a small opera company. I could see there were a lot of singers and musicians in the area. We started off with contemporary and baroque operas in general because they were smaller and contrasted with what was going on with the Detroit Opera which was more mainstream.”

That opened the door to the student summer job of all time at the Carmel Bach Festival in California. She spent four glorious summers building up her resume. From there she went the the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra as assistant conductor, joining the same year as Branwell Tovey.

Next stop … Victoria: She was 33 and the youngest music director in the country at the time. She was also the first Canadian woman to hold such a post. She remains one of a very few women to have held such a job.

She is aware this is an issue, but is also hopeful of change.

“There is slow movement. There are still a lot of women aspiring to be conductors, a lot of women in universities studying conducting. But there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made in terms of women being named music directors and working regularly in the business.”

This is a complex concern personally, she explains.

“I have spent my life as a conductor trying to transcend the discussion all together. I spend my time getting onto the podium and immediately getting into the music so that gender is not an issue. ”

“Having said that, I think all women owe a lot to the women who have continued to fight to end all inequalities.” And the broader cultural discussion that is taking place around inequality is heightening attention on the issue, she says.

Still, Miller chooses to be optimistic about the possibility of change, at least in her field.

“Power has changed (in orchestras),” she says.

“It is coming from the right place now. I think power used to come from being stronger, tougher, meaner and more fearsome that the rest. Now power comes from insight, charisma, leadership that respects all people and that finds a way to empower people.

“I think that is the expectation in orchestras. Musicians want a leader who respects them, treats them well and inspires them. And a leader who has the dedication to them and to the community to bring about change.”

Music directors are also much more than conductors of music.

“Today a music director has a big responsibility to support the greater art of orchestral music and to reach and connect to communities. All of those things have made the role much more all-encompassing.”

That’s why Miller, in her time in Victoria, spent a lot of time communicating with her community about her many commissions and the reason behind them.

“You always want to support the artists of our time, but that’s not why I think it’s important. It’s important because music is a reflection of us, our culture, our history and our community.

“You cannot have extraordinary classical music if you are not evolving the experiences. That’s why contemporary music is absolutely vital. As we continue to explore (new music) we bring greater understanding to the music of the past that maybe we didn’t understand as well.”

Miller is a firm believer in talking to audiences about new music because it can be helpful to explain why a composer is important, for example.

“I don’t find new music a hard sell because I think it’s all about perspective. If you are open and curious that is something that can infiltrate audience. They can then become very sophisticated and I think they are proud of that and respect that sense of openness and value it.”

She says she heard about it when her more sophisticated audience didn’t like something. But better a negative response than no response at all.

“That is the fun: Arguing, disputing and questioning, as well as being loving and supportive.”

Ottawa Symphony Orchestra presents Dance All Night! — Music for the stage
Southam Hall
April 9 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.