A Conversation with Maestro David Alan Miller, Virtuoso of an Albany Tradition (Part 2 of 2)

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This is part two of a two-part interview with Director and Conductor of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Maestro David Alan Miller (MM). Read Part 1 here.

Elissa Ebersold: How do you go about finding a composer or commissioning someone? How do you discover these individuals to write these pieces for you?

Maestro David Alan Miller: Well I have a whole network of people I go to. Mainly professors at the great music schools and people who really have their pulse on who is emerging in the orchestral music world or the concert music world. There are certain friends I’ve developed over the years at all ages and stages who just have their own networks of knowing who is up-and-coming, and what’s happening. I rely a great deal on them, and I do a great deal of listening. The contemporary orchestral music world, certainly in America, is sadly much smaller than you might imagine. At any given time there aren’t thousands of incredible composers coming up. There may only be tens or hundreds of them. So getting your head around who’s exciting and emerging is not impossible. You’re just always listening, and asking, and going to concerts and being inquisitive. I find I get a really good sense of who’s exciting. But there certainly are many emerging composers whose music I haven’t played or certainly haven’t discovered. It becomes a fun and wonderful exercise to try to identify exciting new voices. And, after thirty-plus years, I have a great community of creative artists and composers with whom I’m very close. If you track our programming over X number of years, I come back to the same composers frequently. I’m always trying to involve and present exciting new voices, particularly with these more adventurous projects. The Water Music was all young, emerging composers. Some of them are still in graduate school, most of them are just out of graduate school. In most of our projects like Water Music I feature young emerging composers. 

EE: Is there a musician or composer you would love to have but have not had the opportunity to get yet?

MM: I think there are many, but I’m very practical and pragmatic. The nice thing is that I don’t need to commission composers to play their music. There are countless existing pieces. For example, if there’s a celebrated composer I can’t afford to commission a piece from, I can always play his or her music. There’s a great number of performers and composers I’d love to work with, but I haven’t had a chance to. I keep lists, and I’m working through them. But I wouldn’t say there’s one great composer or performing artist I’ve always wanted to work with more than another. That doesn’t really come to mind. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to work with most of the great artists I want to work with. That’s been really satisfying. 

EE: On your website, it’s stated that a core value and mission of the ASO is to champion diversity, inclusion, and the furtherance of human rights. For you and the ASO, it is not merely virtue signaling. You follow through on these words, not only by posting statements on your site and socials, but also by bringing it to your music with performances with the diverse composers you feature, and projects things such as “Sing Out, NY,” which was the aforementioned concert celebrating New York’s civil rights movements. Championing these things, for whatever reason, is increasingly seen as divisive and political. As a leader in the music community, why do you feel it’s important to act on these messages of inclusivity and simply not address it, as many organizations do in tumultuous times?

MM: I think it’s divisive not to act. I would disagree with you. I think what’s so exciting, particularly in the last month, but generally in the last few years, is what the current political climate is teaching us is that this is no way to be. In the future it will not be divisive. It’ll be divisive to stick your head in the ground and act like these things don’t need to be addressed.

EE: Sorry, I should have led with that it was a bit of a loaded question.
MM: I believe that the narrative of the present and the future is exceedingly positive. The past three and a half years have been a disaster for our country and for our civil society. And I think, I hope I’m right, that in November we’ll see that most Americans don’t subscribe to that divisive rhetoric. And so having said that, what’s been so moving and beautiful about the emphasis on Black Lives Matter in the last year, and frankly the last ten years or however long—the past 170 years since the end of the Civil War—I feel like maybe now some really profound changes are taking hold, changes that should have really taken hold right at the start of Reconstruction in 1865.

One of the things about the pandemic is that it’s given me a lot of time to read. I’ve read a lot of history and biographies. I’ve read that beautiful Ron Chernow [biography of] Ulysses S. Grant that came out a couple of years ago, and I’m now deep in David Blight’s Frederick Douglass biography. What’s so striking in reading the Grant biography is how right after slavery ended, how Grant, even given whatever his weaknesses were, really began to attempt to bring about real equality as he understood it. And was absolutely sabotaged by the angry south and the angry north, and by all the racist people in America of whom there were countless numbers of. But it’s so striking that all the impulses were there 160 years ago. And then when you read about Frederick Douglass, even though I’m not that far into the book yet, I’m struck in reading about how all the things that we’re talking about today with Black Lives Matter are identical to the things Frederick Douglass was saying. Not even in the 1870s, but in the 1840s, twenty years before the Civil War. The whole idea of our racist society, the whole way the society is set up that subjugates other people is just immoral. In a way, Frederick Douglass is the man of the moment. There was a fascinating article in the Washington Post about the speech he gave when this terrible Lincoln monument was erected in 1876, in which Douglass basically said that Abe Lincoln wasn’t the “Black Man’s President.” He was willing to do anything to maintain the Union, including maintain slavery. But Douglass with his idea, with just the moral imperative of how unjust it is to be subjugated to any other, speaks so much for the present. The idea that we have to have that conversation again 150 years later is just sad. It’s very sad.

Our industry has evolved as a very not-diverse industry for a great number of reasons, and that’s not acceptable to many of us in the industry. The League of American Orchestras has been really single-mindedly focused on these questions of equity, diversity, and equality over the last five-plus years. It isn’t just the last month. But with the impetus of the last month, orchestras are really laser-focused on how we can change. I’m the first to admit that when you look on the stage at the symphony it’s still basically white, and that’s not acceptable in our society in the year 2020. We’re taking a great number of actions to try and address that and redress that. We have a very enlightened staff and board, and I believe in the next year or three years we will have made great strides. 

EE: That’s really excellent and refreshing to hear. I very much appreciate your perspective.

MM: It’s very much about what the people in the streets are talking about. It’s endemic, institutionalized racism, and we can all individually say, “I’m not racist! I’m progressive!” but the way we have structured the culture reinforces racism. So I think that we, in my industry, are really, finally, beginning to understand what that means. As I and many others have said, it’s not enough to want change. We have to take proactive measures. I really sense that in my industry and throughout society, looking at the motions of police forces and city councils in the last month, I really think these changes are beginning to happen in a meaningful way. 

EE: I agree. This is a tipping point. It’s wild to watch it unfold and to participate in history. To tie in with what you said a moment ago, I think that music has always been a reflection and critique of society, and politics, and everything else. So what you said about inclusivity and moving forward, it’s important to have music reflect life, and change, and positivity.

MM: In a way, you’ve put your finger on what’s challenging about my industry. In the orchestra industry, probably 85% of what gets played is written by dead European people—white European men. So changing that and making [what you said] true is very hard. In Albany I feel that we are very lucky because we have this culture of championing living composers, and so they can speak to our time. Of course Beethoven is timeless, and Beethoven speaks to all time. That’s the nature of great art. But in terms of speaking to our own time, the beautiful thing about working with living artists is that you’re fostering the creation of art in your own time. 

EE: Can you talk about what it was like to win your first Grammy? What has been different about subsequent nominations?

MM: [LAUGHS] What’s different is I keep losing! The terrible thing about winning the first time is that when you’re only nominated and don’t win, you feel bummed out.

It really was very magical. We’ve been making recordings for a very long time with no expectation we’d ever be nominated for a Grammy, let alone win one because the music we’ve been recording is rather rarified new music by living American composers. It happened that this project was with a celebrated American composer, one of our greatest, John Corigliano—who also has something of a profile in the world of film. He made a couple of very famous film scores like The Red Violin. He had another one [called Altered States] which was this trippy movie with William Hurt. He had some cache beyond the narrow world of concert music, in addition to being one of the most famous concert music composers in the world. So this was a project we did with him. When we were nominated, I was flabbergasted. It had never crossed my mind that we would ever get nominated. 

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 26: Conductor David Alan Miller poses in the press room during th 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Kempin/WireImage)

I had a memorial concert for my colleague David Griggs-Janower on Saturday night,and then [my youngest son and I] took a 4am flight to LA. My dad met us with the car, and we drove to the thing, we sat there dazed, and hungry because there was no food. [LAUGHS] And then we won and it was this incredible thing. Of course, the thing about a Grammy is that when you win a Grammy, the people who otherwise wouldn’t track orchestras would stop me at Price Chopper and congratulate me on the Grammy. It’s reached beyond our beautiful, narrow world of orchestra music. So that was thrilling and out-of-body. It was really an incredible experience. I had no idea it would have that much impact. I think I’ve been nominated three or four additional times and haven’t won again. [LAUGHS]

EE: A nomination is still an incredible achievement, and you should be very happy for yourself and your team. 

MM: It does give us a little bit more visibility and all that. It’s great, but I have no expectations and it was a really fun thing […] Just going out, hanging out, seeing the big produced show in the evening and having really great seats to that, which you get when you’re a nominee, is really a fun part of it. It’s become almost more for the kids. This last trip, which was four or five months ago, [a couple of my kids] came with [my wife and me]. I gave them the really good tickets, and my wife and I sat way up in the balcony. I figure it’s more fun for them; they know who all these artists are. 

What I was so struck by that first year is that you’re together with all these different genres. The big awards ceremony is not publicized. They give out the ten major awards or whatnot in the evening, but the other 95 are given out in the afternoon. Everything from Folk to Jazz—the give out the Hip-Hop award which is kind of weird—the rap awards are in the afternoon….

EE: The album design…

MM: There’s an award for liner notes. Does anyone even have liner notes? I felt part of this much bigger community than just the classical music, the orchestra music world. All the creators are there, and they’re all really warm and nice. The famous ones don’t show up until the evening. I got the sense that the music community is really big and broad, and I loved that.

EE: As a side note, as a graphic designer who has a particular love for media design and album design, a Grammy is like my ultimate goal for graphic design. I was very excited that a Grammy was a thing you could win as a graphic designer. Ultimate goal right there. You said you were reading a lot, but how else have you been spending your time during the NYS PAUSE? Walk me through the daily life of a conductor during these COVID times?

MM: Well, I’ve gardened a lot. The garden has never looked more beautiful. The beds that have been neglected for 22 years are pristine. I even put out these great new bird feeders, and those gorgeous yellow finches and cardinals and such, come by. I’ve been hanging out and studying on the deck often. It’s not very structured. I have a lot of meetings. The vast majority of my time has been meetings with my orchestra primarily, but I also do some work with the orchestra in [New York] City, and I’m on the League board. So between the various meetings about contingencies upon contingencies, and how we’re gonna open and when we’re gonna open, and what our different projects are. We have a whole commissioning project running right now with ten virtual little pieces we’re rolling out over the summer. We’re still planning to open with a small orchestra possibly, with a small or no audience, and scale up our virtual audience so that we can in some form put on all of our seasons concerts. We have a lot of planning meetings: audience development meetings, fundraising meetings, artistic planning meetings. That’s the bulk of my day or week. Around that, I try to find time to practice the piano, read music, and I have just been loving all the reading of history I’ve been doing. It’s a little hard to study specific scores, since I’m not going to be on the podium until September or October, and so I’ve been taking the time to do some different types of things. Also a lot of outreach to friends and patrons and composers, and checking on people. 

We never really had much of a social media presence at all, but now we have this wonderful weekly Albany Symphony Hour [every Friday night] on WMHT broadcast so people can hear the orchestra from earlier performances, usually pairing a new piece with a classic. I do a bi-weekly Ask-Me-Anything Facebook live chat, I also do these composer interviews. The orchestra’s director of education and community engagement is doing all sorts of educational kid-focused things. Our musicians are putting out beautiful little videos of themselves or their partners playing. We’re building a social media presence, which we’ve never had before, and we’re building a tour of a virtual concert hall which we want to unveil in the fall. So whatever form our live concerts take, if they’re live at all, we can present our programs to our community and to our patrons throughout the year. That’s very exciting, because the orchestra world has been exceedingly slow to adapt to the digital world. So out of this terrible time, that’s one of the bright spots—how orchestras are forced to change their digital presence.

EE: How do you foresee the music industry changing as a result of COVID-19?

MM: I just think it’s going to be a really slow runway back to normalcy. I’d be amazed if it feels “normal” before the fall of ‘21. If you’re tracking the music industry, certainly my industry, it looks like all the big NYC institutions are not going to be opening until the fall of ‘21. They were talking about opening in January, but it’s looking like the big institutions are not going to be open for another whole year. It’s then going to take some time to re-engage, rebuild audiences, restore trust. I’d say that one of the beautiful things about living and working in a community like ours, having built such a strong, close-knit community of champions and music lovers for the symphony, is that we’ve been heartened by how passionately supportive people have been of us. We’re in no danger of going away or disappearing. I think certain kinds of institutions are, like many smaller ones in “The City,” are going to fail and may not come back. Especially in the big cities, the smaller institutions are having a terribly hard time. I think institutions like ours, that really belong to the community and serve an important function in the community, are going to be okay. 

One of the things we’ve remarked is how hungry people are for live music events, and all the beautiful programming in the virtual sphere, as wonderful as it is, can’t support that [hunger]. There’s something about being in the room with the music and other people enjoying the music that just can’t be replicated. In a way, although it’s sad not to be able to present music, that’s very heartening. Because that suggests that eventually we will recapture something like the way it was in the past. Once there’s a vaccine and people feel safe to be out and be near other people. I don’t know that the arts are going to change any more than society is going to change. The way you engage with another person is going to be so transformed, even if we have a vaccine. The way people act with each other is going to be different, but I hope that people’s hunger for art and beauty, and for the things that art brings, is going to be not diminished, but increased by this experience. So I’m hopeful that music will flourish—I actually think it is flourishing in the virtual world in ways that nobody ever expected it to. But when we’re allowed to be together again, it’ll be okay. 

EE: I agree. I’ve seen people saying that the music industry is not going to recover. You’ve outlined exactly why I disagree with that. There’s nothing like being in a room with the musicians. Whether it’s the quality of the camera and sound, or you don’t get the same energy in a chat room as you do in an auditorium of screaming fans or people dressed in their best. There’s nothing that compares to that atmosphere.

MM: It’s something I noted long before the pandemic. As the world shifts so much to the virtual experience and we spend so much time on our computers and our phones, there’s so many more incentives to not go out to live events, but I increasingly think people have a hunger for live events. I don’t just mean concerts; I mean any sort of communal happening. Going to temple, going to the library. It’s been amplified by the mere act of being told that we really should try not to do that. What’s really been brought to the forefront by this pandemic experience is just what social animals humans are. How desperate we are for interaction and shared experience. Everybody’s talked about this end of live music as we know it; I just don’t believe any of that is true. I think people yearn for that. Longer term I’m very optimistic. Short term, I think it’s going to be a hard go.

There’s been so much talk about socially distant concerts, or performing organizations are trying to do [socially distant math]…to me once you distance a lot, you begin to lose that power of social experience. I’m not in a wild hurry of trying to get back to half-realized live experiences. I think it’s going to be a rough go until we can go back to “normal.”

EE: If music didn’t die after the 1920 pandemic, it’s not going to die. Music isn’t going to die. It’s an international language. It’s an international community. I don’t think that pandemic is going to stop it.

MM: People tend to run to one side or the other of the ship. People tend to overreact. We’re very emotional animals. I subscribe to a much calmer idea long term, that life will go on and everything will eventually be a version of okay. 

EE: What is a question you wish interviewers would ask but never do?

MM: You’ve asked all of them! What kind of question is that!? I don’t think I have one of those. I’m sorry. I mean there are always questions I’m amazed young conductors don’t ask, like how you digest a piece of music. 

EE: I mean that’s a question I didn’t think to ask.

MM: The funny thing about conducting as opposed to playing an instrument is that there’s usually a very sequential, didactic way of going about it. For instrumentalists there’s usually a very fixed way of learning your instrument: arpeggios, scales, et cetera. Conducting is not that way. It’s vague, it’s amorphous, it’s abstract. How conductors learn their craft is a very mysterious thing. I’m always amazed that conductors don’t talk more about it with each other. Do you analyze it? Do you sit at the piano? Do you listen to records? Do you do all of the above? It’s a thing I’m not usually asked about, but I find it very interesting. I do a combination of all of those things. I do a whole bunch of different analyses. I do harmonic analysis, motivic analysis, structural analysis. I look at it a whole bunch of different ways. Then I’ll take it to the piano and work through it, and I’ll listen to recordings of it if it’s a famous piece to see if I’ve missed anything. I try to digest it that way. How do you get something that’s outside of yourself really into yourself? 

EE: That’s a really profound observation.

MM: It’s a puzzle that I’m surprised conductors don’t talk to each other more about. I was never taught how to digest a piece of music. No conductor ever took me through it. There’s no real methodology. 

EE: If it’s so personal, how do you teach that then?

MM: I think it’s personal because it’s not codified the way that instrumental training is. But I suppose a really great teacher would give their students a set of mechanisms or processes to digest a score. It’s almost viewed as a mystery, which is dumb. We know how a pianist learns a piece […] but we never talk about how a conductor does that. Much of what a conductor does is with an orchestra, so you have to know the piece before you bring it to the orchestra. It’s a set of great mysteries about the field.

EE: Finally, how can the readers help you out moving forward?

MM: Your readers can help us out by continuing to support us, and by that I don’t just mean sending us money. I mean attending shows [virtual or otherwise] and by going on our website or following us on YouTube or Facebook or Instagram, and staying engaged with us. The most important thing we feel is that when we come out of this bizarre lockdown, when we’re finally able to resume something like normalcy, we don’t want to start all of our relationships over. And so the way we’ve been designing all of our activities and programs is to stay connected to the community and to the public and to the Capital Region. The best thing is to stay engaged with us and willing to be connected with us, so that when we’re back, we can all be together again. 

My goodness, how are you ever going to transcribe this? It’s going to take you six months!

EE: It might. 😉 (Spoilers: It didn’t) 

You can listen to many of the Albany Symphony recordings on Spotify

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