It's 2016, and yet here I am desperately trying to resist the temptation to start my conversation with conductor Tania Miller by asking about the fact that she's a woman. So I won't.
I will note instead that Miller, still in her 40s, is just finishing up her 13th year as music director of the Victoria Symphony, the only female – oh wait – that is, the music director of an orchestra currently making a mini-tour of Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver to celebrate its 75th anniversary. In her tenure, which has one more year to run, she has substantially improved the quality of the orchestra's playing, according to observers on the West Coast, by removing some personnel and demanding greater levels of musicianship from those who remained.
"Making the personnel changes was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done," Miller says. "It was my first job as a music director. But the goal that I had was to share the music that is so important to the world with our community. And if it's not well-played, if it doesn't reach the level that the composer intended, if it doesn't seek to inspire its audience through its pureness and its beauty, then we are tragically not enabling the music to do what it was intended to do, to change us as humans."
Miller, like other conductors of her generation, is also acutely aware of the challenge facing all orchestras to prove relevance, to reflect a modern community and to connect with the life and music of today. An especially difficult task when your orchestra performs in Victoria, one of the more conservative communities in the country. But Miller, unafraid, programmed a good deal of contemporary Canadian music in her seasons there. She is bringing Michael Oesterle's Entr'actes with her on her tour, which she commissioned. And she threw herself into the diversity of the community (yes, even in Victoria) by reaching out to the Chinese population, and to young people, by conducting an open-air concert for 40,000 people every summer from a barge in the harbour.
"When I first came into this community, the feeling I had was that we had a staunch conservative classical audience. But there is enormous diversity, even here. And my audiences have taken the journey with us. They've been very receptive to our composers in residence," Miller says. "We still have a long way to go to meet the real growth we want to see. But they're taking that journey with us." And when you realize that that journey has included festivals devoted to the music of John Cage and Gyorgy Ligeti – courageous fare anywhere in North America, let alone in Victoria – you realize that Miller is one conductor in a thousand.
Miller is leaving Victoria after next season, a decision she made two years ago. She's looking for other music directorships. She's on a few shortlists, she tells me. Will she have an easy time of it? Well, it's not easy for anyone to get one of those jobs, but Miller has a complication. Now it can be said. She's a woman. It's 2016, and you might think otherwise, but in the ultra-conservative world of classical music, that's still unfortunately a big deal for someone who wants to lead a major symphony orchestra.
"For me, the main thing about being a woman on the podium," says Miller, "is just to let the music come through me, and to be invisible in terms of gender. To make the gender irrelevant. When I'm walking out on stage to work with an orchestra for the first time, or when I come on stage before an audience, there's a moment of 'Oh my gosh, it's a woman,' and then that melts away into the work that I am doing. I've never experienced a moment with an audience where I've felt my gender was an impediment. Sometimes it shows up in rehearsal, but very rarely."
But it can be a factor – a silent factor, Miller knows – when hiring committees and managing directors and orchestra boards meet to discuss potential applicants for a top conducting post. "What I would say to them," she says, "is that women have great capacity for vision, for big-picture thinking. I think the world wants leaders who are visionaries, with very strong goals and direction to empower an organization. But the key word is empower. Democracy doesn't always work. You need a strong leader, but you have to do it in a way where everyone feels valued. I've realized that if you open yourself up as a leader to always learning, yourself, others will follow."
Miller hopes to be able to remain on the West Coast as her career takes its next twist and turn, but look out for the name – you may be seeing and hearing her anywhere and everywhere. And some day, her gender will be as visible or as invisible as she chooses.
The Victoria Symphony's 75th Legacy Tour takes it to Quebec City on March 29, Toronto on March 31, Ottawa on April 1, Vancouver on April 3 and Victoria on April 4 (victoriasymphony.ca).