There is something you should know about Tania Miller before the Canadian conductor takes the podium Friday to lead the Tucson Symphony Orchestra:
She loves new music.
In the 10 years that she has led the Victoria Symphony in Victoria, British Columbia, she has commissioned 38 new works and programmed another 90 contemporary pieces, many of them by Canadian composers.
“The woman at the helm (is) constantly breaking new ground, but at a pace designed not to alienate the core audience,” Toronto-based The Globe and Mail said.
“The way I believe music should be presented is that it should always be in balance with an idea and an understanding that people are coming to classical music from a variety of different backgrounds,” she explained in a phone interview from her Vancouver, British Columbia, home two weeks ago.
“New music is an important part of what we offer in balance with everything else, and always the audiences and the orchestras are growing through their relationship with music of our time as well as music from the past.
“For me what makes the orchestra very vibrant, very searching, very new, very dynamic is this real exploration of everything that is about us, about our time and therefore very important for us to hear,” she said.
Miller had that idea in mind when she crafted this weekend’s TSO program. It opens with the TSO premiere of Arvo Pärt’s mid-1970s work “If Bach Had Raised Bees…” then returns us to familiar classical music territory with Beethoven’s dynamic Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor.” The concert closes with a piece that kind of marries Pärt and Beethoven, Jean Sibelius’ First Symphony.
“All of the pieces in this program have this dynamic, very expressive, very exciting quality to them,” said Miller, who is competing for the job to replace longtime TSO Music Director George Hanson.
“Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ is going to be a piece that the audience in Tucson is going to be excited to come to hear Gabriela Martinez play. They are going to know it well. They are not going to know the Arvo Pärt. This is going to be the piece that they are going to experience for the first time, and they are going to like it immediately because it’s an extremely accessible piece. It adds that vibrancy, that dynamic ‘something is new, something is kind of edgy’ about this program. The two pieces side by side make the Beethoven actually seem somehow changed.”
That is the crux of Miller’s new music vs. old philosophy: The two must be balanced to be effective.
When Miller took over the podium at the Victoria Symphony — the first woman to lead a major Canadian orchestra — it already had been programming new works. But there was little through-line to the programming. Audiences couldn’t connect the dots to why pieces were paired, and the programming sometimes fell flat.
“They weren’t drawing audiences because they didn’t have something to draw them in,” Miller said. “In Victoria, we have done things that were very specifically related to our community.
“If you saw programming that was 100 percent classical repertoire all of the time there would be a sense of ‘Oh, this orchestra is kind of traditional and stuffy, and it’s not moving with the times,’ ” she added. “I do it very gradually and in line with what I think the community wants.”
Miller also preps the audience with a quick conversation to let them know what’s in store.
Miller said she is excited to conduct the TSO, which she first heard when she was preparing to open the Victoria Symphony’s season this fall. The opening concert featured French-Canadian pianist Alain Lefèvre performing André Mathieu’s Concerto No. 4, which he recorded in 2008 with the TSO.
“I was very excited to hear the quality of the Tucson Symphony when I was listening to their recording and realizing that it’s obviously an exciting orchestra,” she said.
“It has a good reputation that precedes it in terms of its artistic quality. So I am excited to come and see what it’s all about.”