Meet the Maestro | Rebecca Miller4:52, 5th June 2015
The California-born conductor who sparked a Mexican wave at the Proms has seen all areas of running an orchestra. Interview by Toby Deller
Miller has lived in Britain since the late 1990s but spent her childhood in Santa Cruz, California. ‘I was the only one of my peers taking music seriously and I didn’t have many chamber music opportunities, so I went to a programme that Tanglewood runs for high school students to study piano. I was part of a piano trio that summer, and as a pianist in a trio you are sort of representative of the conductor. You’re the one that has all of the parts in front of you and you naturally tend to take on a leadership role because of that.’
It was her flautist mother, noticing that this role seemed to come easily to her, who suggested she might enjoy conducting. ‘It happened there was a fantastic woman conductor on the faculty at my home town where my mum was teaching so I took some lessons with her. Then when I went to music college as a pianist I had a very good friend, a bassoonist who said: if you’re interested in conducting, let’s get together a little orchestra for you to conduct. So I got together a bunch of friends to read through Mozart’s Haffner symphony, and the first time I conducted the orchestra I thought: this is it! I’ve got to do this, this is absolutely me.’
So while she attended Oberlin Conservatory as a piano student, conducting – which inevitably meant constantly cajoling friends into playing for her – was a major preoccupation throughout her undergraduate and masters degrees. Nor did she let up when she arrived in London, setting up the New Professionals, a group of students around conservatoire age, that she ran for ten years.
‘We put together some seasons, we found some funding, we put together some projects. During that time I was the personnel manager, I was the librarian, I was the contracts manager, I was publicity, I did everything. That was out of necessity, because we didn’t have any money to pay anybody. It gave me incredible experience in understanding all those different areas of running an orchestra.’
Along the way they released recordings of music by Lou Harrison and Aaron Jay Kernis and ended up something of a champion for new American music. It’s a niche she is happy to continue exploring, whether in concerts or in recordings. Her repertoire interests are wide, however: she has recently recorded Haydn and George Bristow (another American) with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and CPE Bach with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. She will also be partnering her husband Danny Driver with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in music for piano and orchestra by Beach, Chaminade and the Scottish-American émigrée Helen Hopekirk.
As we wind up our conversation, we return to sport. While it has no real equivalent to the recording studio, there are other parallels: ideas of teamwork and dedication to a physical pursuit, for example, and the nature of performance.
‘Sportsmen talk a lot about loneliness – even though you’re surrounded by thousands of people there’s a loneliness because the pressure’s on your shoulders. One of the reasons I went into conducting was to make music with other people. But there is always a separation: you’re not like the other people, you’re not the one making the music, there is always this ring around you (not always an important one). And you just can’t make a mistake: as an orchestra conductor you make one mistake and the whole thing can fall apart!’
1999 – founded The New Professionals Orchestra in London
2004 – released her first CD – ‘Lou Harrison: For Strings’
2004 – appointed Conducting Fellow at the Houston Symphony
2007 – appointed Resident Conductor of the Louisiana Philharmonic
2009 – first prize in the 4th Eduardo Mata conducting competition
2014 – debuts with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Royal Northern Sinfonia, and at the BBC Proms