David Alan Miller
The Albany Symphony Orchestra was considered a standout in the classical music world long before it received a Grammy this winter.
The 84-year old organization, which operates on a budget of just $2 million a year, actually is known as one of the country’s most innovative orchestras because it plays challenging works by living American composers.
David Alan Miller, its music director for more than two decades, has received some prestigious industry awards, and has served as guest conductor for major orchestras all over the world. The ASO is the only orchestra to have played Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music Festival twice, and its reputation has drawn such artists as Yo-Yo Ma to Albany.
But Miller said none of these achievements have had quite impact the Grammy has had.
“I think maybe because the Grammys have such broad appeal and there is such awareness of them,” he said. “People I don’t even know have been stopping me on the street. It’s wonderful.”
The ASO is hoping to parlay that buzz into financial support. It is in the midst of its first Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, seeking $12,000 toward the production of three more CDs, two of which Miller feels have their own shot at a Grammy.
This year’s nomination was the first in the orchestra’s history. But Miller almost didn’t make it to the January 24th ceremony. He had a concert in Albany the night before and didn’t think he could get to Los Angeles in time for the afternoon event. But his wife insisted, so he and his 14-year-old son Ari, an aspiring rap singer, took a whirlwind trip to California.
He was there to hear his name called for Best Classical Instrumental Solo – over five competitors, including the New York Philharmonic and the Calder Quartet – and to make a brief acceptance speech.
“It was a great feeling, a feeling of immense pride,” he said.
The winning recording says a lot about the ASO and its place in its industry. It is The Conjurer, a percussion concerto by John Corigliano – a 1999 Oscar recipient for the score of “The Red Violin” – and featuring soloist Dame Evelyn Glennie.
Miller called Glennie – who will headline the ASO’s American Music Festival at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s EMPAC Theater May 17 – “an incredible virtuoso, an incredible human being.”
“She is profoundly deaf and has managed to rise to the top of the percussion world,” he said. “She plays without shoes so she can feel the vibrations with her feet.”
The Conjurer is a piece few large city orchestras would have attempted, let alone recorded.
“The bigger orchestras really seem to have trouble doing daring things,” Miller said. “When I visit other orchestras I am often struck by how little innovation there is, how little sense of adventure or taking chances.”
One reason for this is that the larger the orchesta, the more daunting its’ financial challenges. Most major city orchestras have budgets of $100 million or more, 50 times that of the ASO.
“I told one composer our budget and he said ‘that is the size of most string trios I know!’” Miller said. “Chamber music groups have larger budgets than ours.”
While a small budget has its challenges, it also makes the ASO less dependant on subscription sales and wealthy patrons. And that gives it more artistic freedom.
“The orchestra business is a very conservative field,” he said. “The people who support orchestras tend to like the music that they like, which often tends to be, not surprisingly, the great classics of the distant past.”
This also limits the recordings these large orchestras make, since they need recording to be a profitable venture. The ASO never looked at it that way. For it, recording is a service to the composers and a way to get the original music it performs out to a worldwide audience.
“What makes us unique in the recording space is that we simply don’t do recordings of pieces that already exist,” Miller said.
The ASO is constantly engaged in recording projects, with up to five CDs in the works at any given time. Each takes a few years, and an average of $70,000 to produce. It has a goal of releasing three recordings over the next two years, all unknown pieces by American composers.
Raising $12,000 on Kickstarter would help with this ambitious plan. But that is not the only reason for the campaign. The popular crowdfunding site allows people all over the world to discover an organization and make a small investment in it, in return for an incentive such as, in this case, CDs and concert tickets. “It is a good way to reach out to a broader audience, a new audience,” Miller said.
The campaign runs through April 27. If successful, it could be the first of many.
“We are never done raising the money we need for our existence, let alone these projects,” Miller said.
Public outreach and education are a large part of ASO’s mission. Miller and others from the orchestra make hundreds of school visits each year, helping students from pre-kindergarten through high school develop an appreciation for classical music. Their work with the Troy School District resulted in the resurrection of a strings program after 40 years, and a similar program in Averill Park inspired 90 percent of students district-wide to take up instruments. The orchestra caters to families with its theatrical Sunday Symphony and interactive Tiny Tots concerts.
These programs and others earned the ASO the first Leonard Bernstein Award for Outstanding Educational Programming from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). It has since won the award a second time.
Miller also has received Columbia University’s Ditson Conductor’s Award, the oldest award honoring a conductor for commitment to American music, and ASCAP’S Morton Gould Award for Innovative Programming.
The industry’s regard for Miller is evident in the fact that he has been asked to guest conduct for some of the country’s major orchestras, as well as symphonies in Europe, Asia, Australia and Canada.
Not surprisingly, he has been courted a bit, but said he is happy in Albany.
“I must say I have been so satisfied artistically here,” he said. “I want to be sure everyone here understands just how unique our institution is.”
It was the ASO’s creative reputation that attracted Miller in the first place. He grew up in Los Angeles, and returned there after earning his master’s degree in conducting from Juilliard. He spent five years working as Associate Music Director with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. When he learned of the opportunity in Albany, he knew it was for him.
“Even back then, the Albany Symphony had a reputation as one of the orchestra’s that played the most new and unusual music, and that was something that interested me, " he said. "It was an exciting job to get, and given the small budget it was a pretty high profile job.”
At that point, in 1992, the orchestra’s budget was a mere $750,000. Miller said the ensemble he took over was “very part time” and made up of people with varying skills and experience.
But “it was always a wonderful group of people who played for love,” he said. “In a lot of big, full-time orchestras, it feels very much like a job.” They are behind their instruments, sitting in their chair, day after day, and you sometimes lose some of the wonder of being able to make your living in music.
“The Albany Symphony Orchestra has lost none of that. It really is a passionate, exciting group of musicians. So I was excited then and continue to be excited working with them. That is really what keeps me here.”
Upcoming Albany Symphony Orchestra Events
Scheherazade -Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece – Scheherazade. The ASO has paired it with Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto -perhaps the greatest American violin concerto of the 20th century, featuring young virtuoso and child prodigy Simone Porter, and a new work by composer Chen Yi. 7:30pm. Palace Theatre, Albany.
Cirque De La Symphonie – Cirque de la Symphonie brings the magic of cirque to the music hall with an exciting adaptation of artistic performances widely seen in theaters and arenas everywhere. 7:30pm. Palace Theatre, Albany.
Tiny Tots: Cowboy Dave Around the World – Take a trip with Cowboy Dave and the Albany Symphony all over the world, from England to Spain, Hungary to New York! He needs your help saving the world’s music from the "miserable music miser" by dancing, marching, flying and singing the music of Strauss, Copland, Sousa, Brahms, Bizet and others. 10:45am. National Museum of Dance, Saratoga.
For the complete calendar of events, visit www.albanysymphony.com