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David Noel Edwards
David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony.

David Alan Miller, Albany Symphony’s American Music Festival, a tribute to social justice movements

By Sunday, May 26, 2019 Arts & Entertainment

Troy, N.Y. — If you haven’t spent time in Troy lately, then Albany Symphony Orchestra music director David Alan Miller would like to have a word with you. Several words, actually. (Okay, thousands of words.)

To say that Miller and the ASO have big plans afoot for events in and near Troy this month would be a ludicrously inappropriate understatement. It’s more like this: Miller and Co., including the Dogs of Desire, have spent the last 25 months or so making plans for this year’s American Music Festival May 30 to June 9.

The result is staggering in its scope and depth.

David Alan Miller loves the Berkshires as much as anyone. He frequently dines in Great Barrington. He loves Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony. But he loves Albany and Troy even more. And he’s not shy about it. One of most enthusiastic and articulate persons you are likely to meet, Mr. Miller was eager to tell the Berkshire Edge all about it when we met him this week at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy.

EDGE: What is the American Music Festival all about?

MILLER: The festival is all about New York’s leading role in social justice movements through history. And it really started from an historical perspective that I feel, as the orchestra of the capital of the state of New York, that we have a unique position to be able to tell these amazing stories of our shared history. I come from Los Angeles, where, of course, like everywhere, there is history. But in LA the history is pre-1900s.

When I came here to New York almost 30 year ago for this job, I was so struck by the richness of the historical cultural milieu in which Albany exists—the Berkshires, and the Saratoga Battlefield, and the beginning of the Erie Canal, Fort Orange, and the Beverwijck, and the fact that it goes back, really, as far as, well, certainly to the beginning of European civilization in America, and then far, far before that with the native cultures.

Clarice Assad. Photo courtesy Albany Symphony

So I want to be able to tell those stories. And I think as the orchestra of the state capital—we’re in a unique position to do that. And because we do so much music by living composers—you can’t get Beethoven to write a piece about the Adirondacks, but you can get Clarice Assad to write one. So, we have, through my tenure, increasingly, through our New Music activities, told these stories of our history and culture.

Since I knew that we’re in the middle of the celebration of the 19th Amendment and the suffragist period—you know, New York State granted the right to vote in 1917, and the Amendment wasn’t passed until the ‘20s, and there’s this three-year period in which New York is celebrating that, and as I began to look at it, I was just overwhelmed with how much of the pioneering work in the suffragist movement, along with abolitionism, and the abolitionist movement and all the movements in the 19th century, how this was the cradle of that.

And Susan B. Anthony was hard at work here, and Frederick Douglass, and of course Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, and Sojourner Truth being born into slavery an hour south of Albany. I was so struck at our opportunity to tell their stories.

And then, looking further, I remembered that this June, actually, is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the Stonewall uprisings in Greenwich Village, and that that is a very important international anniversary, and World Pride is going to be for the first time in the U.S. there in June. That’s where maybe these troubled times come in.

In these troubled times, remembering that we, the great state of New York, have always been a trailblazing state. And we have been at the forefront of assuring equality, and equal opportunity, and equal access, and we think of our role as the Seat of Immigration, and of the Labor Rights Movement, and New York is just this iconic state in terms of assuring people their rights.

Andre Myers. Photo courtesy Albany Symphony

So we wanted to kind of tell that story. And what we do at the Albany Symphony, because we have all these close relationships, particularly with emerging composers, is we began putting together different programs to tell different aspects of those stories. And so we have Dogs of Desire … and in this case we connected with all sorts of community partners ’cause we like to collaborate with other groups. So we’ve got—I was just this morning over at Albany High School working with 35 kids in their Select Chorus. They’re going to be performing this amazing Frederick Douglass piece by Andre Meyers in which four rappers actually rap parts of Frederick Douglass’ speech.

And then, Clarice Assad created a piece all about Sojourner Truth with Girls Inc. And I went to a section where she was working with these wonderful inner city high school girls in Albany. And in about a four-hour session they fashioned a song about Sojourner Truth and a rap about Sojourner Truth, and this incredible list of spoken word things about the lesson of Sojourner Truth and her famous ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech and how that is refracted through their lives today. And so there’s this wonderful connection with our community, with our history, and with all these incredibly gifted creative artists making art out of those things.

EDGE: But you’ve been championing up-and-coming composers for years. This is like a culmination of that?

MILLER: It’s not a culmination, but it’s something we continuously do. It’s maybe the thing we feel is most central to our core. We can certainly play pieces by living and young, emerging composers, and that’s already a great thing. But the idea of commissioning emerging composers and working with them to fashion a piece, and bringing it to full fruition, and having it be somehow about our collective history is even more powerful than just playing a neat piece by Young Composer X.

EDGE: It seems that what you are doing is far above and beyond what other major orchestras are doing in terms of championing new or unknown composers.

MILLER: I hope so. We just believe that’s very central to our mission. That’s our core mission. We embrace all the great composers of the past, and we play them at the highest possible level.

EDGE: Your core mission is not necessarily the core mission of other orchestras . . .

MILLER: Isn’t that sad?

EDGE: It is! And it’s truly remarkable.

David Alan Miller conducting the Dogs of Desire in 2018. Photo courtesy Albany Symphony

MILLER: It’s remarkable that it isn’t … that’s what I think. What I think is remarkable is how many orchestras neglect the present. As an example, not to mention an orchestra, but there was a big piece in the New York Times recently—the big banner Sunday piece about an orchestra that does virtually no new music. And they said, “Oh, well . . .  they do new projects, like they’ll stage a Mozart opera or a Bach cantata.” And I thought, “But that’s not new music!”

EDGE: New compared to the Middle Ages?

MILLER: Different orchestras, as you know, have different cultures. But to me, any orchestra that isn’t championing music of our time is essentially assuring that you will become a museum culture.

EDGE: Leonard Slatkin, for example, has always been a champion of new music, but it was always a struggle for him, wherever he was music director, to program as much new music as he wanted, because people perceive it as a box office loser.

MILLER: We perceive it as a box office winner.

EDGE: That’s good!

MILLER: And it’s proven to be that. What happened was, the mission of the orchestra championing music by living composers started before I got here. Maybe 45 years ago. I’ve only been here less than 30 years. There was a board chair, a past board chair who really believed in it. And for many years, I heard that argument: “Oh, well, if you only played Carmen Suite, we’d sell more tickets.” And then we brought in some very savvy marketing consultants. And they pretty much said, “Play mainly whatever you want. It’s really about how you position it, and it’s really the hook you use and the way you tell your story.”

And also, thanks to Justin [Cook] in the last 10 years, we’ve doubled our subscription base—and we’ve doubled our single ticket base. Now, we started very low [laughs] but we’ve doubled it at a time when you see all these trends of people going to things descending—we were just on an incredible incline.

EDGE: That speaks well of this state, of New York.

MILLER: It speaks well of the state, is speaks well of us, it speaks well of our incredibly inquisitive public here. But it also speaks well of the fact that when you do compelling work, whether it’s new or old or whatever, people want to be there, and it’s actually much easier to create an exciting narrative around the world premiere of a new piece than it is around even a great piece that’s been played, you know, over at Tanglewood, and over at Saratoga, and down in the City, and yes, we’re doing it also, and that’s lovely. But it’s very hard to build exciting momentum around that.

EDGE: People like new stuff.

MILLER: People usually do like new stuff, and so I’ve always been puzzled by the Classical—so-called Classical Music world—being so risk-averse and so new-art-averse. If you look at museums, I mean, or you look at art—the art scene—or you look at film, even dance—all these fields, mainly what’s newsworthy is what’s new. And somehow, orchestras haven’t quite, or hadn’t quite . . . I think they’re beginning to change.

EDGE: You are leading the way. The Albany Symphony is leading the way for major orchestras like Chicago and the BSO and whatnot. You’re leading the way, and maybe they’ll follow.

MILLER: Well, you can’t quote me saying that. You said that.

EDGE: All you have to do is nod.

MILLER: We do what we believe in. We believe in living music. And we’re very proud of that. And it’s in no way to minimize or diminish our love of—or our commitment to—or performances of the great canon. But we believe we will make the greatest impact by finding and nurturing the voices of today.

EDGE: Now, here’s a tricky question: How are you going to do that and celebrate the Beethoven anniversary [in 2020] at the same time?

MILLER: How do you know we’re celebrating the Beethoven anniversary?

EDGE: Uh . . . I don’t know if you are, but I kind of feel that you won’t ignore it.

MILLER: Usually, when there’s a big anniversary like that, we completely ignore it. When it was Bernstein’s anniversary we didn’t play a single shred of Bernstein. And it turned out great, because everybody else was Bernstein, Bernstein, Bernstein. And we just didn’t do it.

EDGE: So maybe you will ignore the Beethoven anniversary . . .

MILLER: No, actually, we aren’t going to ignore it. We’re going to do an entire season about it . . . The orchestra has a very interesting take on the Beethoven anniversary, and it’s not playing Beethoven.

EDGE: Okay. Speaking of Beethoven, let’s talk about composer-performers.

MILLER: We’re actually showcasing a number of them. A perfect example is Clarice Assad, a Brazilian-American composer. She’s written this beautiful piece about Sojourner Truth. She’s doing a late night jazz piano vocal performance of her own that’s all Brazilian-inspired jazz of her own creation. That’s Friday night.

Molly Joyce. Photo: Sarah Midkin

Molly Joyce is doing three different things, composed her own performance, a spoken-word performance on Saturday. She’s got this incredible song cycle that we’re doing, also Saturday, which is a response to Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin,” (the Miller Girl). Then she’s also doing her own performance. So we actually have triple-threat composer-performers who are performing on the festival.

I hope you’ll encourage your readers to look at the website and see the multiplicity of opportunities. Like, if you just come Saturday, you can see like seven absolutely unique events just in that one day. If you come Friday night, through Saturday, you can see 15 different events.

EDGE: Everything from folk music to hip hop …

John Corigliano. Photo: J. Henry Fair

MILLER: Folk music to this incredible John Corigliano film that we’re premiering. We’re doing a sneak preview on Friday night that we made with him about his so-called AIDS Symphony. Everything from film events to Saturday morning at 9:30—this amazing vocal quartet is performing all new music, four brilliant women who just graduated from the Bard Vocal Arts Program, the “IAMIAMIAM.” They’re doing a whole vocal quartet performance of works by women about women. Then the spoken word piece in the afternoon, and the full orchestra with John Corigliano and David Del Tredici in the evening. So, all sorts of just . . .  an incredible panoply of different sorts of things.

EDGE: It’s so enormous in scope . . .

MILLER: That’s why I hope people will hang out for the day—or a day or two—with us because it’s so hard for me to speak about [a specific event] to come to. There’s a piece about Frederick Douglass, there’s a piece about Sojourner Truth, there’s a piece about the suffragists, there’s a dance piece about Stonewall. I hope nobody misses anything.

EDGE: How large a staff does it take to do all that?

MILLER: It takes double the staff that we have [laughs]. But we have a very dedicated staff. An incredible staff. And our musicians—just the amount of notes that some of them will be playing over the course of seven days, between rehearsals and concerts—other orchestras couldn’t do it. Our musicians are so flexible and so nimble. And just in terms of the collating and the arranging of all these different elements, it’s a couple years in planning, and it’s really a hard thing. But we love it, and we’ve gotten great support from New York state: the state arts council. And that’s really the only way we can pull off this very expensive endeavor.

EDGE: So the American Music Festival happens every year and has been going for 20 years. Are you involved with it every year?

MILLER: Completely. It’s curated mainly by me.

EDGE: And it takes two years to plan it. So you’re already planning . . .

MILLER: That’s why I told you about the Beethoven year. We’re already almost done with the Beethoven year. And next year’s festival is all . . . we have to put little pieces in, but it’s basically all laid out. So we’re really working on the festival after next year’s. And we actually have to put in a gigantic grant in a month to see if the state will fund next year’s festival.

EDGE: I would think they’re likely to.

MILLER: Only if your wonderful readers from the Berkshires come over and stay the night!

EDGE: It’s about food and lodging?

MILLER: Heads in beds. And, understandably, they’re concerned about bringing people to places that they haven’t been before. And I hope part of the story that you’ll tell is that, for Berkshire residents that haven’t been to Troy, Troy is just exploding with interest as a city. It was once this great industrial city, but like so many of your—and our—industrial cities in Massachusetts and New York, it fell on hard times. When we say that Troy is the new Brooklyn—they say that about a lot of cities. But Troy really is the new Brooklyn. There are more unbelievable breweries, and brew pubs, fabulous restaurants, ethnic and fine dining, incredible clubs and activities in Troy that are going on, that everyone in the region now just converges on Troy. It’s an incredible scene here. That’s part of the reason why we’ve built the festival here. We sensed that this was coming. You see it in this concert hall [EMPAC], that Troy is just an incredible destination.

EDGE: What are the festival’s biggest events?

MILLER: The two big banner events on the first weekend are the Friday night that I mentioned, which is five collaborative world premieres, which are going to be absolutely incredible. And they’re prefaced by the film with John Corigliano, and they’re succeeded by Clarice Assad’s incredible late-night program. So if you got here at 5 on Friday night, you could have an unbelievable evening of events just Friday night. But Saturday is the big day where we start at 9:30 a.m. and we go literally until 11:30 at night with almost no breaks.

EDGE: Do you have a favorite event?

MILLER: There’s a program that I’m particularly excited about—since this is a festival about social justice movements, and “Sing Out,” which is about speaking out . . . I’ve always been interested in the fact that there are so few successful spoken word pieces for orchestra—I mean, there’s “Peter and the Wolf,” and there’s “Lincoln Portrait” . . . spoken word with Chamber Orchestra.

EDGE: Did you provide the texts [for your composers]?

Evan Mack. Photo: Jaimee Dunning

MILLER: No, they provided the texts. So, one—Evan Mack—a wonderful, actually, Saratoga-based composer—mainly an opera composer—was struck by Justice Kennedy’s famous same-sex ruling. So he excerpted parts of the actual written ruling, and he created this amazing narrative piece for instruments with voice. And then . . . Jorge Sosa—another composer, a Mexican-American composer based in New York City—he was interested in Sotomayor’s dissents. So he picked four dissents where she really felt that decisions were decided incorrectly, that she felt very strongly about, and he wrote a piece about Sotomayor, using her text, called “I Dissent.”

And then there are another two pieces that have nothing to do with Supreme Court justices. But, in retrospect, maybe they should’ve all been about the Supreme Court [laughs].

EDGE: How far does this extend into the present day? What’s the most current example?

MILLER: Those are the most current: the Sotomayor and Kennedy. Sotomayor is still dissenting, so that’s very much of today. So in terms of text and materials, it really does come up to the present. I did sort of explain to the composers—as I was asking them to write pieces—that we really were anchoring it in the suffragists of the 19th and early 20th century—and in Stonewall in the 1960s—but that they were welcome to kind of take that as a jumping-off point and do whatever they wanted. I didn’t dictate anything more than that. And I find that even when I do dictate to composers, what they come out with is invariably not what I asked them to do, and, fortunately, invariably 10 times more inspirational than what I had in mind. So I’m very comfortable now, since I’ve done this a lot, with just letting the composers dream. That’s part of the excitement. And, I have to say, that’s one of the really—for me—thrilling things about the festival . . . We spend such a long time planning, but it’s only when the scores begin to arrive a couple months before, that I really get excited. Because it’s like, I’ve had this kind of vague notion, or a skeleton of what the idea is, and now I see the meat on the bones, and it’s so exciting how these creative artists—each one in their own, unique way—have come up with incredibly artistic ways of telling theses stories.

EDGE: Have we missed anything?

MILLER: Yes. This is the first year the American Music Festival has expanded to be two weekends instead of just one. On the second weekend, there are four big, free outdoor community concerts, drawn somewhat from the repertoire of the Friday night concert—the “Dogs” concert—but then each of those concerts will actually include Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Because that’s kind of like this wonderfully abstract but powerful statement of human perseverance, triumph of the positive, and all the things that I think social justice movements are trying to express in a more concrete way. And then we’ll also do a big folk song sing-a-long. But on each of these concerts there will essentially be a premiere drawn from the Friday night concert on the previous weekend. And what’s wonderful about those? They are all in big, outdoor venues, in Schuylerville, Schenectady, Hudson . . . so kind of a two-hour span of geography. And it’s like a big, family thank you—fireworks and sing-alongs—real celebration for the whole community.

EDGE: Clearly, you are helping young composers better understand the role they ought to play in their local communities. They’re learning this from you, are they not?

MILLER: I hope so. I think that the new generation of composers is much more—for want of a better term—market-savvy and community-savvy. I think that. And maybe that’s just the reality of being an artist in the present time. When there’s so much entertainment opportunity [laughs]—then, to break through, to do something to make you pay money to come see my show, I think composers have gotten a lot more savvy about understanding that they need to connect to community. They need to have an interesting story they’re telling. It’s not enough just to write. I always find it so humorous when a composer shows up and says “I hope you like my new symphony, Symphony Number Five.” And I’m like, “You wrote a piece called Symphony Number Five in the year 2019? Why don’t you call it ‘Somebody Ate My Lunch’? [laughs.]”

Everything needs to have—it’s crass to say—a marketing angle. Pieces need to have a sense of place. I mean, why does Albany need an orchestra? Why does Boston need an orchestra? What is the reason or purpose in community X, Y or Z to have an orchestra? There’s an orchestra over there in the next town over. We could say to everyone, “Well, you know, New York City has a perfectly good orchestra, so we don’t need an orchestra here. Just go to New York. It’s only two hours on the train.”

But why does Albany or the capital region or—name your city—need an orchestra? It’s because we need to define ourselves as something unique and powerful and meaningful that speaks to our community. And that is really, I think, what all of this is about. We don’t want to just be a generic orchestra that says, “Our orchestra plays Beethoven almost as well as the New York Philharmonic, or maybe even better,” (which I think we do—actually better. But that’s just a style issue). Albany has an orchestra because it tells you about Albany and the capital region and our history and our heritage. It also gives you a wonderful dose of Beethoven and Bach. We so do not want to be an elite entity.

David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony. Photo: Eric Berlin

EDGE: Not all orchestras are trying as hard as you are to achieve that.

MILLER: I think a lot of orchestras are understanding that our future—not only our survival, but our future vitality—is going to come from the way we embrace our community and engage with our community. And that doesn’t mean saying, “All right, once a year we’re going to have a free concert, and you get into the concert hall.” No. It’s going out there and saying, “Not only are we going to play in your local park, we are going to collaborate with your local chorus.” That is what was so great: There we were, in the small town of Little Falls, playing with this wonderful amateur chorus that has never sung with an orchestra, let alone a professional orchestra. And there they are, partnering with us, in this piece that was created for their community, in their community. And that is a powerful kind of art making.

EDGE: Hell yeah!

MILLER: Orchestras, I think, have somehow sort of lost a lot of years of not realizing how valuable that kind of art making can be.

EDGE: It’s unusual.

MILLER: But I don’t understand why it’s unusual. It seems so logical. It’s like, what do people want? You have to ask yourself, “What do people want?”, not “What do people want when they ask for Tchaikovsky?”

What turns people on? What excites them? What moves them? What is the purpose of art? Art is to help people look at the world differently, or freshly, or in an unjaded way. And we need to create art that does that in exciting, powerful ways that maybe—ideally—haven’t been thought of before.

So we have to go back to those original questions: Why were orchestras created in the first place? What is the value of an orchestra to a community in the capital region in 2019? ‘Cause I think the value is very different, and I think that, for many years, orchestras got untethered from that value question and just said, “We are an orchestra. We do X, Y and Z. We play this repertoire, you come, dress up, we’ll play it, it’ll be great. I hope you like it.” This really is not what art should be about.

I also wanted to say, I go to the Berkshires a lot. I love the Berkshires. One of my very favorite restaurants in the entire Northeast is the Prairie Whale in Great Barrington. There are so many people that I meet in the Berkshires who have never been to Troy, New York. What is that about? It’s like . . . kooky! Troy, New York, is a fascinating town — one of the great 19th-century industrial cities that’s been revitalized. People who like Great Barrington or love Lenox should just check out Troy. They would love Troy. I think that’s part of the storytelling. And, yes, we want to create, tell the story of a place in a way that’s so compelling that people want to come. We want to be the Sundance Film Institute of the Northeast for music, for orchestra music.


An all-access pass to the American Music Festival is $99. Individual event tickets are available. For tickets and more information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar.

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