Tania Miller

Tania Miller is guest conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

In their second concert of the season this weekend, “Epic Romance,” the Madison Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Tania Miller, crafted a program that delved into the introspective nature of the romantic aesthetic. After only four rehearsals, Miller generated a strong relationship with the MSO, making the concert especially memorable.

Miller has made waves on the conducting circuit. When she began her 14-year tenure with the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia, she was the youngest and first female to hold such a post in Canada. She made a name for herself engaging with her community, curating innovative concerts, and investing in new compositions, commissioning over 75 works. 

 The concert began with “Home” by Michael Oesterle, the fourth movement of his larger symphony, “New World,” originally commissioned by Miller in 2014. Invoking Dvorak’s symphony of the same name, Oesterle’s work reflects on the mix of emotions that accompany the immigrant experience. Oesterle, a German-born Canadian, wrote the work while an anti-immigrant sentiment began to surface In Quebec politics.

Dividing into three distinct sections, “Home” is rife with contrasting moods with varying tempos and dynamics that make it demanding on the orchestra. Quite familiar with the piece, Miller led the MSO through the shifting musical surface as if the orchestra was her own. The piece begins with a mechanistic percussion soli with xylophone, woodblock, and snare.

As each section of the orchestra enters, the texture grows more complex yet playful. Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire concert came in the second section, when Miller lifted a clenched fist as the low brass entered with a deep sonority, her gesture perfectly expressing the powerful anguish of the music.

The piece ends with a twelfth-century Icelandic hymn, which was sung by the very talented assistant principal cellist Mark Bridges after being asked to do so by Tania Miller. Accompanied by Karl Lavine on solo cello, Bridges brought the piece to a warm close, much to the delight of his compatriots in the orchestra, whose smiles communicated their support. As the audience applauded, Miller held up the score of “Home,” pointing to Oesterle’s name printed on the cover.

Grammy-winning cellist Zuill Bailey joined the MSO for their second selection, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Elgar wrote the primary melody after waking up from a surgery he was unsure he would survive and finished shortly after his wife’s death, so the piece is deeply emotive, which showed through Bailey’s rendition.

It took until the third movement for the orchestra and soloist to sync in. This movement, set in a distant key, stands apart from the others and sounds as if the cello breaks the fourth wall to speak directly with the audience. Bailey’s heavy use of vibrato, expert dynamic contrast, and oral gestures communicate well the dramatic fourth movement, which ends with a cyclic return of the concerto’s opening melody, bookending the work.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Bailey’s performance was his instrument — a rare instrument constructed in 1693 by Matteo Goffriller. Slightly larger than the modern cello, it has a wonderful bass tone to match its higher solo register. What a treat to hear such a rare instrument still making beautiful music.

Bailey chose Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” for an encore. Hearing him unaccompanied highlighted the songful tone he can draw from his instrument. While Bailey had recorded this piece as a duet with guitar, this solo rendition suffered nothing from the absent guitar accompaniment.

In her prelude lecture, Beverly Taylor remarked that when playing Tchaikovsky “fast is good, loud is better, and fast and loud is best,” and Miller seems to agree. Throughout the work, the Maestra kept the MSO pushing forward, breathing new life into Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. She displayed wonderful control over the orchestra as if she carried a quiver of gestures that matched perfectly the mood of each musical section.

During decrescendos, her arms seemingly stretched out the musical surface, subtly pulling it thinner and thinner until silent. And during loud sections, her gestures challenged the orchestra to match her excitement. While the sound of the orchestra was entertaining enough, watching Miller brought a new dimension to the performance.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was the highlight of the evening. As was the case with the first two pieces on the program, the symphony was composed during a time of turmoil in the composer’s life, and the music reflects this. From beginning to end, the MSO sounded cohesive and strong, able to keep up with Miller’s tempo and shape each phrase to the greatest rhetorical effect. Set off by the beautiful horn solo delivered by Linda Kimball, the second movement was a shining moment.

Running time is (2 hours and 5 minutes with one intermission)

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