On the podium conducting Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 this month, Tania Miller had a moment. "It was just incredible to me to feel with the orchestra this freshness, again. This inspiration, again – for a piece that has been performed so much and is still so exciting to people."
There is no shortage of passion when you get Ms. Miller talking about classical music and the potential impact of the art – and of a symphony orchestra – in today's culture. The maestra's Beethoven moment happened to be in Vancouver, where she was guest conducting with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, but it's the Victoria Symphony, where she is music director, that is the primary beneficiary of her drive, passion and vision.
As Ms. Miller strongly believes – and proves – you do not have to be in a giant metropolis to have an orchestra that is progressive, exciting and innovative. The Victoria Symphony is all of these things, the woman at the helm constantly breaking new ground, but at a pace designed not to alienate the core audience.
"Her programming instincts are remarkable," said VS board member Marsha Hanen, pointing out Ms. Miller will often begin a program with a new, possibly challenging, work, followed by a "reward." (Example: last year a world premiere of former composer-in-residence Rodney Sharman's Violin Concerto preceded Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, the beloved Pastoral Symphony.)
"Balance has been such a key, I think, in the success of the Victoria Symphony over the last while – the balance of always moving forward, always communicating the essence of what we want to achieve, communicating the importance of music and sharing all those visionary ideas with people," said Ms. Miller during a recent interview at her Vancouver home.
"But at the same time being very, very responsible. Working very hard to find and prioritize what your vision is and how to best get there, step by step, without going too fast in any one direction. I really am very much a believer in risk-taking, but it has to be measured risk-taking; it has to be intelligent risk-taking. And it has to always carry people with you."
Born and raised in tiny Foam Lake, Sask. (pop. 1148 in 2011), Ms. Miller learned piano and pipe organ growing up and was on her way to a career as a concert pianist when her hands seized up with severe tendinitis. With some success leading a church choir (it came with her part-time pipe organ job), she earned a conducting diploma at the Banff Centre on summers off from the University of Saskatchewan, and then her master's degree and doctorate in conducting at the University of Michigan. Initially focusing on opera, she eventually joined the VSO as assistant and then associate conductor. Ten years ago, when she was just 33, she was named to the VS post.
In her decade with the symphony (which numbers about 55 musicians), she has demonstrated a strong commitment to contemporary repertoire, commissioning 38 works and programming close to 90 more contemporary compositions – many of them Canadian. She has reached out with collaborative initiatives, such as this year's Emily Carr Project (five world premieres and two multidisciplinary concerts with the artist at the heart of the work). Highlights of this season include a new commission by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, and the Cage 100 Festival, culminating in a live-streamed concert – a first for the VS. In February, the Chinatown Project will feature the world premiere of Chan Ka Nin's composition Harmonious Interest, which will recount the story of Victoria's Chinatown. What's ahead? Among many other things, Ms. Miller has been working for some time on the idea of a hip-hop collaboration.
"These are the kinds of concerts that open doors into a new world," she said. They're also opening doors for the orchestra, raising its profile on the national orchestral scene and, according to Ms. Hanen and others, the quality of its playing, with smart hires and good leadership.
"I'm not entirely easy to please," said Ms. Hanen, who is past president of the University of Winnipeg. "Before I came to Victoria, I would have said you can't have a real symphony orchestra that has fewer than 65 or 70 players at least. But I don't think that any more."
Yes, Ms. Miller lives in Vancouver – her husband has a built-up orthodontics practice so leaving town was not an option. But she's committed to Victoria and her position, even returning to the stage some six weeks after having each of her children, now aged 5 and 7.
"I had the kids with me wherever I went," she said, "nursing right up until the five-minute call."
Feeling strongly that audiences want to learn about composers and their music, she engages from the podium – articulate but never didactic. She believes audiences are open to new work, as long as it's presented in context and programmed smartly. Last season's Shadow of the Ninth series culminated with a program that paired Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with a premiere of a work by Mr. Sharman commissioned specifically for that purpose.
"Every time we program contemporary repertoire, we take a risk," she says. "You have to persuade your organization, your board and your community that the presentation and the performance of contemporary repertoire is vital to the existence of the arts, and vital to our own experience of creativity and of the arts of our time. Without it, it changes what classical music is. It becomes something that is never-changing, never-moving. When you add contemporary music, it becomes something that is vibrant, that's dynamic, that's a part of our time and part of our world."