A Conversation with Maestro David Alan Miller, Virtuoso of an Albany Tradition (Part 1 of 2)
The Albany Symphony Orchestra has been a staple of the Capital District’s cultural and music scene for nearly a century. Since its inception in 1930, the ASO has been home to eight music directors, though none whose tenure has been as long as the current director and conductor, Maestro David Alan Miller. Under the guided swish of his baton, the UC Berkeley and Julliard graduate has produced a vast majority of the symphony’s recordings, and for them earned three Grammy nominations and one Grammy win.
For nearly 30 years, Miller has not only brought his musical prowess and passion to the orchestra, but also his creative and avant-garde approach to orchestral traditions. Somewhat analogous to his animated personality, he offers audiences not only classical favorites, but a balance of a diverse range of contemporary, even theatrical compositions often played on-location in atypical venues. Miller continues to bring life and modernity to a centuries-old musical tradition, and will expertly entertain music-lovers of all ages while doing so.
Elissa Ebersold: I’d like to know about your true start with music, long before your graduate and post-grad studies. How did you fall in love with music, and how did that love translate to a desire to become a maestro?
Maestro David Alan Miller (MM): Well that’s a very good, big question. I grew up in Los Angeles in the San Fernando valley. My dad had been an opera singer, and my mom was an educational psychologist and sociologist, and because of that we all played instruments as kids. My sister, and my cousins who lived next door—we all picked up an instrument. My dad, in addition to having been a professional singer, was a cantor at a large synagogue in The Valley, and was a high school music teacher; he was a vocal music teacher. He had access to all the instruments, and so he would bring home the instruments and we would try them. My sister played the cello, and I played the trombone. My cousin Alan played the cello, and Cousin Mitch played the horn. It was very musical. We all played a little bit of piano; we all had piano lessons at some point or another. I was steeped in music because my father was a singer. I went to public school and took a lot of lessons on all the various instruments.
When I was about fifteen, I began to think I might want a career in music. I didn’t feel, though I was a pretty good trombonist, that I necessarily wanted to be a professional trombonist. So I started casting about for other careers in music. Not sure how I happened upon the idea of conducting, but it seemed neat because you could do all these different things, and it involved a lot of different aspects of one’s mind that just playing an instrument doesn’t always [do]. It involves psychology and understanding history, and composition, and style. [There’s] a lot of psychology when you’re dealing with a whole room full of very educated, trained musicians. So I asked my dad for conducting lessons when I was fifteen, and he graciously found me a wonderful 87-year-old Austrian conductor who happened to live in Hollywood. And I started taking conducting lessons, and more seriously started taking piano lessons, viola lessons, composition lessons, and went to college for music. So that was really how my musical childhood evolved. But I was very much steeped in it because it was ubiquitous; it was everywhere in my childhood.
EE: You said there’s all these different aspects to conducting that aren’t necessarily music-centric, like psychology. Was there a particular one that you gravitated more towards as interest outside of the music, or was it more the sum of its parts?
MM: At first I think it was the excitement of being in charge of the whole music creation. My dad and I, when I was a kid, he would sit with records and listen to Beethoven’s symphonies with this funny little series of complete scores. You could see these miniature scores in a book, and it would give an arrow that would show you where the theme was. So as you listened you could follow the theme. In a way I was sort of destined to fall in love with that idea of the whole orchestra—to be in charge, and to be the inspirer of the group. But I don’t think I had any understanding when I started out of the multiplicity, of the multifaceted nature of what a conductor does. I had some sense of it, but I think as I studied it more deeply in high school and then college, I began to understand just what a perfect field it was for me. All these other interests I have, like history and literature and languages, fed into this knowledge base that a conductor needs and wants. So I think what happened is it evolved into understanding what a multifaceted field it is.
EE: Are there certain personality traits or mannerisms that conductors have that make them better conductors?
MM: [LAUGHS] There used to only be one. You had to be a miserable son of a bitch!
Until probably the 1960s, that seems to have been the primary criterion for being a strong conductor. You were bossing these people around. You were telling them what to do. It was very top down. And very patriarchal. And really terribly unhealthy. You can actually see them on YouTube. There are these amazing videos and audio of Toscanini, one of the great conductors of the 20th century, and he’s screaming at these brilliant musicians: Idiot! Stupido! Cursing at them. That’s how conductors got the job done. Fortunately, I think there were always kind and gentle conductors even in the early days, but I think in the 1960s with all the democracy movements and the civil rights movements everyone began to realize that that might not be the best way to motivate people. So when I came into the field, it was really much more about empowerment.
As any conductor who knows anything knows, if the musicians don’t want to play well for you, no matter what you do—you can stand on your head and ride on a unicycle—it’s not going to make any difference. You’re completely at the mercy of musicians and what they want to do. It’s a really important job in terms of motivating and inspiring others to do their best. I’ve always felt that’s the most important set of traits. The helping, the nurturing, the traits that are the complete antithesis of the old stereotypical idea of the conductor who is this megalomaniacal, knower-of-all-things, wise paternalistic father figure. I really try to get away from that. I think the most valuable and important aspects of a conductor are pretty much what I sketched out. One, humility before the music and your brilliant musician colleagues. Two, a commitment to as complete of a knowledge of you can about music generally and about the work at hand. So it’s humility and completely knowledge that one looks for most.
EE: So no Maestro Gordon Ramseys downstage center?
EE: You’ve conducted countless orchestras across not only the US, but across the globe. What things did you find were different, specifically internationally, about conducting these foreign orchestras?
MM: I think the similarities are greater than the differences. I think musicians wherever I’ve gone are hungry for knowledge and eager to realize the composers’ intention as best as he or she can. I Think that’s shared across all nationalities and regions. What’s wonderful about the tradition in which I work is that wherever I’m conducting, whether it’s Asia or Europe or Australia or America, is that the language of music is the same. There’s certainly regional differences I suppose, but because the world is so global those are far fewer than they used to be. The Europeans, especially the Germans, have this sense that when you work there, that so much of the great repertoire they own because it came from [Germany]. Same to an extent with the Italians. They have this reverence for and comfort for the material that is a little different when you get to composers like Beethoven and such.
At the same time, that can be a double edged sword in that they have such a close association with it they may be less open to different interpretations or revisionist interpretations, or somewhat revolutionary interpretations…so I find that American orchestras and orchestras that maybe don’t have all that tradition are sometimes more flexible. I’m always amazed at how flexible, particularly the further away you go from where this music was created, the grand tradition music I mean, the more flexibility there is. I’m always struck, when I got to Australia, where I’ve conducted many times, at how unbelievably open and flexible and hungry the musicians were to know whatever it was that I or any other conductor might have to share with them about a work. The insight.
EE: You mentioned this flexibility and openness of other orchestras. Western music is a twelve-pitch scale. Have you ever had the opportunity to learn about the scales and music that are not in the Western styles we typically hear? Have you had the opportunity to conduct in these non-Western formats?
MM: Because we do so much new and unusual music in Albany, that’s really what we’re known for, we’ve had lots of collaboration with composers and performers who are in non-Western traditions. One that comes immediately to mind is an Indian-American composer named Reena Esmail, who is actually from Southern California like myself, and her whole most passionate interest is in connecting Hindustani classical music traditions and Western orchestral traditions. The whole approach to pitch and performance and duration, and to improvisation versus notation, is completely different. So we’ve done a number of projects with her with this wonderful Hindustani classical singer, Saili Oak, and you can hear Reena’s works on YouTube or whatever. The whole premise of that was to try to create a really authentic connection between two very different musical traditions. We love to do that.
We’ve had projects with various Chinese folk instruments, and with uilleann pipes from Ireland, and lots of different music traditions outside of [Western] music. We really love African drumming. We’ve done a whole thing with Ghanaian xylophone playing. There’s always this challenge when you do that of how you can, or can you, combine such different music traditions. Really artful music creators and interpreters can find ways to blend and to merge and to not have it be a novelty act. It’s a very hard thing to connect, but we love to try to do that whenever possible. And I have this sort of imagined idea, because the world is so big, and now because we have the magic of the internet, [we have] access to every possible music culture. I have a whole bunch that I’m eager to do in Albany that have to do with exploding the whole depth of an orchestra. Why can’t an orchestra have Asian instruments or middle eastern instruments embedded in an authentic way?
EE: That sounds really intriguing, and exciting. Can you share a particular experience that stands out to you from your time conducting these other orchestras, including non-Western instruments?
MM: I think one of the most exciting concerts I ever did, and I use it as an example, was with the Chicago Symphony. It’s one of our great orchestras, which is a fairly traditional orchestra as far as orchestras go. It happened to be the opening of the Chicago World Music Festival that year, and so I was asked to do a series of different concerts, one of which was at Millenium Park outdoors in this beautiful Frank Gehry amphitheater down by the lake. It involved the entire symphony but with all these different performer-creators from different traditions. There actually was a nine member Arabic macramé ensemble embedded in the orchestra for some of the pieces. And we played with the Chinese string instrument the erhu, and we played with these amazing Tuvan throat singers. It was absolutely radical for the Chicago symphony. They’d never done anything like it. Everyone was so excited by it, the musicians and I. It was an example of how and why we should be reimagining what orchestras do in the 21st century, given how global things are, and how [the orchestra technically is basically a construct of 19th century and earlier European traditions]. It was really idea-planting; it was a spark plug for this idea of how we can try to, over time, broaden what an orchestra is and the definition of it.
EE: Do you have a favorite orchestra, that’s not the ASO, to conduct? Why?
MM: I have at various times. It usually depends on which orchestra is inviting me.
EE: That’s a very diplomatic answer [LAUGHS].
MM: I work in Portugal a fair amount. There’s a summer festival I go to every year and so I feel very dear about the Portuguese orchestras with whom I’ve worked. I’ve been to Australia many times. I love the orchestras there that I’ve worked with. There are a number of American orchestras that I love going to regularly. But the thing about my orchestra is that when you spend almost 30 years with the same orchestra, I always say it’s a little bit like a marriage. It’s very different from going off and having a “date” with an orchestra and spending your week and strutting your best repertoire, and then coming home. It’s really about building something together. My experience here eclipses all others in many ways.
I should also say that we at the Symphony are really trying to broaden out. This is something that particularly in the last month has been on everyone’s mind, but we’ve been thinking about it in certain ways for many years. Because we do so much American music, and we commission so many works by young Americans of all backgrounds—A very diverse range of American composers—we very much work in a lot of different genres that aren’t typically considered classical. Whether it’s hip hop or different world traditions or things like these projects with Reena Esmail. We work with Brazilian-American composers, a lot of Latinx and Black American traditions. I consider all of those things as ways for orchestras to not just be this European construct. I feel that at the ASO, because we’re so attuned to, committed to, and so excited by living composers and the music of today, we have a real opportunity to be much broader than many of the tradition-bound orchestras.
EE: You actually just touched on my next question, which is what is your favorite era or style of music to conduct? So it’s safe to say that modern or contemporary music is your favorite space to explore?
MM: Yeah, I think it is. It’s what I’m most passionate about. In no way does it minimize my love for composers like Mozart or Robert Schumann or Tchaikovski or Stravinkski. But because I spend so much time in the presence of these very exciting composers of all ages and stages and backgrounds who are very much alive, and creating for us and with us, and whose music we are recording and performing…I really feel closest to that.
EE: So you said that there are more similarities than there are differences between music traditions and other orchestras, and you also compared it to a marriage. What are some things you’ve learned from these “dates” with other orchestras that you brought back home and carried through to your marriage to the ASO?
MM: [LAUGHS] Pushing the metaphor a little bit. I’ve learned a lot, and even when I don’t guest conduct. I’m very involved in the world of American orchestras. There’s a parent organization called the League of American Orchestras which is kind of a thought organization for all the orchestras. Not just for professional orchestras, but university orchestras and youth orchestras, and I’m on the board of directors for that institution. I’m forever reading about, hearing about, talking to representatives from other orchestras about their best practices and innovative ideas, and I bring that back to my orchestras.
When I guest conduct, it’s a little more subtle, I suppose. It’s interesting, and more specific—maybe it’s the way the oboist there inflected this line in a symphony I had never thought of, and it was quite beautiful. So it might change my way of thinking about how that gets interpreted. The thing is that a conductor is supposed to bring his or her interpretation of the work, but the best conductors aren’t just inflicting their interpretation on the ensemble. In a healthy environment, it’s a meeting of the wonderful interpretive skills that each instrumentalist has, combined with the interpretation of the conductor. And because I try to be very open to the ideas of the musicians before me, I learn a great deal from my musicians in Albany and the great musicians I encounter in my travels, and I bring back certain insights from them, which is always wonderful.
When I go to an orchestra, I’m always interested in trying to understand how an orchestra is set up. I’m very interested in the arts organizations, particularly how the orchestras that arts organizations generate in terms of models. You go to Europe and the way they fund the orchestras is way different because there’s so much more state funding; they are much less reliant on donations and fundraising in the way that we are. Different orchestras in different communities have different models. Some have more emphasis on education, some have more of an emphasis on community outreach, so I really learn a lot about structure when I go around to orchestras.
EE: That’s a good point. I never really thought about how orchestras are funded in other places.
MM: In other parts of the world, yeah. I think that’s gradually changing but in many other places, particularly in Europe, there’s incredibly generous government funding for arts institutions. Thus, they’re much less reliant on ticket sales, and needing to “cater,” not that we really cater, but they are free to be more adventurous because they’re not as beholden to their attendees. But I think our model is the model of the future. In places like Europe, especially now in this fraught economic and societal time, I think we’re going to see ever-less government funding in support for arts institutions worldwide. In America, we already got used to that. We haven’t had a great deal of government funding for many years. With the exception, I must say, I’ve been very impressed living in The State of New York. New York is exceedingly committed to the arts because the state government understands what an important, valuable part of the ecosystem the arts serve in New York State & New York City. I’m quite struck with the state arts council. We are in a good situation, vis-a-vis the state government support of the arts. Not with federal, not with local, but our state versus any other part of the country.
I guess what I’m saying, maybe it’s because I’ve been a music director my whole life and not just a guest conductor […] that I’m very satisfied and so fulfilled here in Albany. I’m a student of orchestras generally, of the organization of orchestras, of the way they are managed, and of the way they fit into the cultural ecosystem of a community and an area. So to me that is really fascinating. I’m very involved [orchestral organization] at the ASO, and it’s one of the things I love about being a director, as opposed to just being a conductor.
EE: In a similar vein, you’ve created Capital Region-based presentations and performed them on location at atypical venues across the area with your “Capital Heritage” series. Which location and/or presentation did you enjoy performing at the most?
MM: There’s this great article about our Water Music New York project that took us from Albany to Buffalo, called “Hell or High Water” by Michael Cooper in The New York Times. To celebrate the beginning of the bicentennial of the Erie Canal, I had this souped up capital heritage commission idea, times ten, to take the orchestra from Albany to Buffalo on a barge that summer. So we essentially did that. The article describes it in detail. We played seven concerts on barges on the canal/riverfront between Albany and Lockport around the Fourth of July, and we commissioned a different young American composer to write a significant, substantial new work. Each one of these seven communities embedded these composers in these communities, and they selected a local arts group—the dance company, a theatrical company—to create a collaborative work about that community’s relationship with the canal with us. We’d steam into whatever town it was, have a rehearsal at the riverfront, and then play a big concert with Handel’s “Water Music,” the world premiere [composition] of that night, a bunch of Pops favorites, and fireworks. It got a lot of attention, including that wonderful article, and that’s kinda the ultimate Capital Heritage commissioning idea.
I came to that idea because when I came here from LA, I moved to New York City and never really explored upstate at all. I didn’t know much about the rest of The State of New York. And in coming here, because of my deep love of history, I read a lot about the history of the place, and I began to appreciate how central of a place the Capital Region and New York State are in the creation and history of our country. This idea of celebrating the rich history of our region was a great interest of mine. The great thing about working with living composers, unlike dead composers, is that you can ask Matthew Quayle to write a piece about the Adirondacks, [but] you can’t ask Beethoven to write a piece about the Adirondacks. We essentially started doing that with various interiors in the region and the State Capitol, and that eventually evolved into Water Music of New York in 2017. Last summer, the summer of ‘19, we did a beautiful similar tour, though not as geographically broad […] called “Sing Out New York” celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings, and really celebrate social justice movements in New York. Every year we end our season with a big American music festival that usually takes place in Troy in June, and these are big outgrowths of that. We were slated to have an incredible seven city tour over five weekends called “Trail-Blaze New York” celebrating the new 750-mile rail cycling/walking trail connecting the entire state—the longest state trail system in the country that is being completed this year.
Oh, I didn’t really answer your question about my favorite venue. I think most of these venues on the Water Music trip. They were so beautiful. We actually played on a barge in the canal in Brockport. Just as we were finishing our concert, the cellist pointed up and was like “We’ve gotta get off the stage!” because there was thunder and lightning in the sky. We had really dramatic and wonderfully romantic experiences on the canal. That whole trip was probably my most unforgettable Capital Heritage celebration. But we have much more because New York’s history is so rich. We have so much more to celebrate.
EE: That sounds incredible. I would have enjoyed that whole thunderstorm-orchestra drama immensely. Though, I can’t help but picture what the acoustics inside the Capitol would have been like.
MM: Inside the Capitol they were gorgeous. It’s like playing inside the men’s room at Grand Central station. It’s so open. That day was fantastic. It was a small conducted chamber orchestra on a landing [on the Million Dollar Staircase] and the audience sat up the staircase so they could see. The piece was called “Capitol Unknowns” because of all those incredible sculptural portraits. There are famous people, but there are all these other faces that the stonemasons created who are unknowns. So Paul Moravec wrote a piece about the people. It was very reverberant and beautiful. We love to play in spaces like that because everyone sounds great because you’ve got so much reverberation going on.
EE: Can you talk me through the process of conceptualizing and actualizing your special music programs, such as the Capital Heritage, or the Erie Canal one, or the performance series surrounding your persona Cowboy Dave?
MM: Well, those are all different challenges. In a funny way, although the core of what we do is our subscription concerts which are just our music performances without theatrical performances. Those are the most straightforward, but the conceptualizing of these other projects, which have gradually gotten more ambitious, can take a very long time. For example, with the Water Music project, I approached the canal corporation about 20 years ago with the idea, and we couldn’t just get it there. It was still germinating in my mind, so when the bi-centennial came up, we reconnected with them, and it became perfectly clear that they saw this as a really valuable thing and we saw it as a thrilling thing. Then we had a two year planning period and great, great generous support from the state to realize the project. Some projects can take many, many years to develop, but the wonderful thing about our “Trail Blaze” project is that it’s now postponed to next summer, so we have time to really evolve the programs in it and make them really meaningful for the whole community. We have lots of activities on the trails planned for during the day and culminating these big community happenings with world premiere compositions about the community during the evening. The whole idea is really to get people out on the trail experiencing life there. So that can take years to develop a project like that.
The family concerts tend to germinate in my mind for months or years. Many of the ones I brought here are programs I did in LA when I was the Associate Conductor of the philharmonic there, and I sometimes evolve or develop them. But every year or almost every year I develop one or two new ones. The jumping off point for the family concerts is some aspect of popular culture that kids will really connect with. I did a whole program about “Harry Potter and the Baton of Power” after the Harry Potter books and movies came out. I did a funny one about pirates on the Erie Canal last year or the year before. I’ve built a lot of programs specific to the present, to the time. I always try to find metaphors or analogous experiences that the kids will relate to from their own lived experience.