Foam Lake, Saskatchewan may not necessarily give the impression of being a community where a love for the arts can flourish, but Tania Miller says her small-town roots are to thank for her musical success.
A tiny farming town, where community life revolves around the hockey rink, Foam Lake – and the kids who lived there some 30 years ago – was lucky to have access to a musician who came in to town to teach a couple of days a week.
One of those students, Miller, sat down at an organ bench for the first time at eight years old. By the age of 13, she had decided music was her calling.
“Because I lived in a small town, there was a lot of need for organists and pianists in the local churches, and I was constantly being asked to play in various places,” Miller says. “And because of that, by the age of 13 I was basically the principle musician in one of the local churches and I was leading a lot of things. I was forced into taking a leading role early on. I was really enjoying being involved in the community aspects of music that brought people together.”
It’s that same passion for community that continues to inspire Miller today, as she enters her 12th season as music director for the Victoria Symphony. Kicking off the season on Aug. 3 is the unique-to-Victoria Symphony Splash, where the 55-member orchestra performs for 40,000 spectators from a barge floating in the Inner Harbour.
“Symphony Splash is one of the most incredible community-building events on the planet. I think it’s just phenomenal how our community completely embraces this beautiful day where everybody comes together, enjoys the environment, enjoys the people and enjoys the atmosphere of music,” Miller says.
It wasn’t until she was 16 years old – with aspirations of performing at Carnegie Hall – that she got her first real taste of classical music. Sitting in the audience at the Regina Symphony Orchestra remains just as strong a memory for her today as it was back then.
“I still remember the impact of hearing that live sound; it was something that I’d never experienced in my life. I remember the first piece was Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – it’s very evocative music,” she says.
Today, when she stands in front of the orchestra to lead the Symphony musicians, she naturally recalls the moment she heard the first few notes of Debussy.
“I think about that 16-year-old girl every time I do a concert, with adults and with children. I see those little girls especially, and these girls are coming away from this concert feeling like women and girls can do anything they want,” she says. “I understand what it means to come from the most humble of roots, and to not be brought up with a sophisticated musical fabric of life around me. To know that I had in me a passion for music that was virtually being discovered along the way, I now look at my audience with the same eyes; that each one of those people doesn’t know yet what their own capabilities and musical loves are.”
It was August 2003 when Miller took the stage for the first time ever as maestra of the Victoria Symphony. That performance? Symphony Splash. And the experience blew her away.
“I remember standing up on the stage, looking out on the audience – I had never seen a Symphony Splash before, so it was a bit steep in terms of breaking me in to Victoria,” Miller says. “Everything is on such a grand scale. I remember feeling the unbelievable energy and enthusiasm from the audience; everyone’s just so excited to be there. It was so mind-blowing, so overwhelmingly exciting. I truly love and look forward to Symphony Splash and that opportunity to connect so many people to the music.”
Celebrating 25 years on Aug. 3, this year’s Splash features nine-year-old young soloist Erik Lin, as well as Vox Humana choir performing alongside the Symphony. The set list includes classical scores and newer music, including a piece commemorating the First World War and a mash-up of video game music.
Miller, who’ll step down at the end of the 2016-17 season, hopes she’s helping establish the Symphony as as much a pillar of community in Victoria, as hockey is in Foam Lake.
“I hope to leave behind, more than anything, a sense that music and an orchestra in a community is imperative to a great life,” she says. “I want to leave this mark that the orchestra is so much embedded in the fabric of the community that it plays an enormous role in the vibrancy and quality of Victoria.”