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Tania Miller gets her turn at the Illinois Symphony podium with works by Barber, Beethoven and Nielsen

A woman smiles with eyes closed as she leads a symphony orchestra
Tania Miller is the third of four finalists to take the podium this season with the Illinois Symphony, conducting works by Beethoven, Barber and Nielsen.

The third of four music director candidates will lead the Illinois Symphony on Saturday in works by Beethoven, Samuel Barber and Carl Nielsen.

The program, titled "Captivating Contrasts," showcases guest violinist Timothy Chooi with Tania Miller at the podium. The two Canadians have worked together frequently, reuniting in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal for Miller’s first of two engagements auditioning for the ISO’s top job.

Miller is based in Vancouver, but the Midwest reminds her of home.

“I grew up in Saskatchewan, which is the middle of Canada, surrounded by wheat fields,” Miller said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.

It’s not her first time in the region. Miller is a University of Michigan graduate, where she worked with former ISO music director Kenneth Kiesler.

“I have a love for being in British Columbia and the beautiful, natural world that’s here, but I really love the people of the Midwest,” Miller said. “I grew up in a very strong community — a love of music and hockey, of course.”

Miller is particularly excited by the prospect of serving not just one, but two communities. The Illinois Symphony maintains dual presences in Springfield and Bloomington-Normal.

“I’m most passionate about sharing music with people and how music changes a community and brings it closer together,” she said. “I’m looking forward to meeting the orchestra and meeting the people that are there.”

Miller was music director of Canada’s Victoria Symphony for 14 years and has worked with the Vancouver Symphony, at the Carmel Bach Festival and Banff Summer Festival of the Arts, to name a few. Recently, she was named artistic director of the Brott Music Festival and leads the National Academy Orchestra of Canada and Brott Opera.

With the longest opera resume of any finalist, it seems fitting that Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No. 3” opens the Feb. 17 program at Illinois State University. It’s one of four overtures Beethoven wrote for his only opera, “Fidelio.” Beethoven had scrapped an early version of the overture, now referred to as “Leonore Overture No. 1,” but the wind section found “Leonore No. 2” to be too difficult to play.

“But he got very carried away,” Miller said. “In a sense, he created an entire opera within this one overture. It is full of this drama that changes throughout what is about a 15-minute overture.”

Version four ultimately stuck to the opera, but No. 3 is beloved for its range as a standalone piece.

A woman with short, dark hair and a black, gauzy blouse stands against a turquoise backdrop
Todd Rosenberg
Todd Rosenberg Photography
Tania Miller

In addition to opera, Miller has expertise in baroque and contemporary orchestral music — passions she brings to the table as a music director.

“All of these different directions come into how I program and how I think about relating to audiences,” she said. “I want them to experience the drama that’s there in opera, the way to express love or tragedy. I also want people to experience the beauty of baroque music where we are in the moment, spontaneously ornamenting things. And that takes us to the opposite extreme of music of our time, which also opens up how we listen.”

'It's about warring elements'

“Fidelio” premiered in 1805, a week after Napoleon invaded Vienna. It's proximity to the Napoleonic Wars is echoed in the rest of the program, demonstrating how social and political contexts permeate music, speaking to its current time and also transcending it.

“Here we are in a world that’s filled with lots of war, of course, but also conflicting ideas,” Miller said. “It seems very stirred up right now. That’s what this music is also doing.”

Danish composer Carl Nielsen wrote his “Symphony No. 5” between 1920 and 1922.

“He says of it that he’s not aware of it being necessarily inspired by World War I, but also admits, how could it not have been?” Miller said.

Nielsen used an unconventional structure — framing the second of just two symphonies with no attached subtitle into two protracted movements. Snare drum figures prominently in the first movement, beginning with the ratatat tat of a military march and devolving into unhinged cacophony at odds with the rest of the orchestra.

“Nielsen would say it’s about warring elements,” Miller said. “About joy versus sadness or about peace versus chaos. This is what he’s exploring.”

Written on the heels of World War II, American composer Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto,” by contrast, is arrestingly beautiful and introspective. It’s also a big ask for the soloist, despite the violinist it was written for, Iso Briselli, initially complaining that it wasn’t virtuosic enough. Yet some of the world’s best violinists — Itzak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Hilary Hahn and Joshua Bell among them — keep it in their repertoire. Timothy Chooi makes his Illinois Symphony debut with the piece.

“In the overall package, when we compare Beethoven, with Barber and with Nielsen, we are emotionally going through an extraordinary journey of a lot of warring elements and a lot of contrasts and opposites,” Miller said. “And I do think that is one of the great explorations music brings to us.”

Maestra Tania Miller leads the Illinois Symphony Orchestra in “Captivating Contrasts” on Saturday, Feb. 17, in at the ISU Center for Performing Arts, 351 S. School St., Normal. Tickets are $21-$63 at 309-438-2535 and ilsymphony.org. Use the discount code FRIENDS for buy-on-get-one 25% off.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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