Making a Splash

Maestra Tania Miller has spent a decade at the Helm of the Victoria Symphony

  • Aug. 1, 2012 8:00 p.m.

Maestra Tania Miller has been at the helm of Victoria Symphony Splash for 10 years. She was the first female in Canada to hold such a position.

Maestra Tania Miller has spent a decade at the Helm of the Victoria Symphony

Upwards of 40,000 people will be making their way to the Inner Harbour this weekend for the 22nd annual Victoria Symphony Splash, Victoria’s largest outdoor musical event of the summer.

The Olympic Mountains, the Empress Hotel and the provincial legislature provide the picturesque backdrop for the quintessentially Victorian event, that sees tens of thousands of spectators flood the downtown core vying for the best possible vantage point to see the spectacle of music and light.

“Symphony Splash has turned into an icon of what this community is,” says music director Tania Miller. “People wait all day in their lawn chairs and you can feel the excitement. When I’m up on that stage I can feel the atmosphere. It’s very tangible to me … And it’s completely unique. There are orchestras who will play summer concerts for audiences of 5,000 to 8,000, that’s not unusual at all, but we don’t know of any other concerts in North America that attract as many people as Splash.”

And Miller believes that it’s the city and the people who live here that make the event so special.

“Sometimes it’s about what the setting is, what your concert hall is, that makes something work,” says Miller. “A beautiful place can create possibility. In the case of Victoria, you really have a rounded amphitheater here that starts at the Empress and goes all the way around. There’s also a pride in this specific area. To be around the harbour is a large part of being in Victoria.”

And while the experience starts with the space, it’s also the people who fill it that makes it magical.

“People in Victoria are very much culturally minded and they love music and the arts,” says Miller. “It’s also a city that is small enough to be community minded and everyone comes together … and as the sun goes down, it becomes dark and still and there’s this hush, and that hush is like a vortex for great music to take everybody and make people feel something collectively. You’ve got the whole group right by the hearts, right by the throats. It’s very powerful.”

This will be the 10th year Maestra Miller, 42, is at the helm of the Victoria Symphony and the massive floating barge in the Inner Harbour where the Splash magic happens — a full day of music and festivities capped off by fireworks and cannon fire to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

“It feels a little shocking that it’s already been 10 years. As a music director, you always think two years ahead of where you are and I think that process of always looking forward causes these years to just slip by. For all of us at the symphony, time moves very quickly because we’re having so much fun and because we’re so excited about what we are, what we’re doing and the music we’re presenting.”

When Miller came to Victoria in 2003 she was the first female to hold such a significant position in Canada. But what makes her even more remarkable is that she was only 33, making her the youngest symphony conductor in the country.

“The thing about being a conductor is that when you’re young there’s so much repertoire to learn. Music is about life and about understanding the essence of what the music is trying to communicate. When you haven’t lived very long, there’s a lot that is still on the surface in terms of understanding life, and the longer you live, the deeper your understanding of what music can truly express,” she says.

Having grown up in the small farming town of Foam Lake, Sask., Miller didn’t have access to orchestras. It wasn’t until she was 16 that she saw the Regina Symphony Orchestra perform for the first time.

From a very young age, Miller studied piano and organ and intended to become a professional pianist. “I had no idea that conducting was in my destiny at all,” she says.

After high school, she decided to attend the University of Saskatchewan, where she studied music and education. By the time she was 21, she was teaching music to high school students. “It was difficult. I looked about the same age as the kids,” she says.

Miller was a driven teacher. She would spend her personal time taking lessons and attending conferences to further her education in hopes of creating the best music program in the province.

“I was taking conducting courses because I always wanted to better myself. I was very active in becoming the best teacher I could be. I could see very quickly that there was a part of me that was not fulfilled in teaching, that there was more that I wanted to do,” says Miller.

It was at a summer conducting conference at the University of Calgary where she met her fate: Robert Reynolds, who gave Miller a position in his studio and encouraged her to attend the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she earned her masters and doctorate in opera studies and orchestral conducting.

“In those five years, I feel that I transformed in to quite a different person and musically, I transformed into a different musician. My focus was 100 per cent on conducting,” says Miller.

She co-founded Michigan Opera Works while completing her post-graduate studies, which led her to the assistant conductor position at California’s Carmel Bach Festival (1997-2001).

In 2000, Miller took the assistant conductor job at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, where she stayed for four years before accepting the music director position with the Victoria Symphony. She now spends 16 to 20 weeks of the year in Victoria conducting between 25 and 30 concerts. The rest of the time, Miller travels the globe doing guest conductor spots which brought her to Switzerland, Hartford, Chicago, Vancouver and Ottawa this year alone.

Her contract with the Victoria Symphony comes due at the end of the 2012-13 season.

“Looking back on my younger years, you can make up for a lot with enthusiasm, love and passion for music and ultimately those were things that carried me in the early days. As I travel through life and my tenth year, I have this sense that my love for the orchestra has grown, my understanding of the community that it represents and is presenting to has grown, and my understanding of life and the purpose of music in life has deepened and that’s a wonderful thing.” M

For more information about Victoria Symphony Splash and to see the full schedule of events, visit victoriasymphony.ca.

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