Since Tania Miller's debut in August 2003 at the very popular Victoria Symphony Splash, the Foam Lake, Saskatchewan native has stamped her musical identity onto the Victoria Symphony, revamping virtually every section of the 55-piece ensemble.
According to expert observers who have followed the orchestra's development during her tenure, Miller has markedly improved how the group makes music and where it stands in the community.
Timothy Vernon, Pacific Opera Victoria's artistic director, has enlisted the Victoria Symphony in his productions for more than 30 years. He hasn't always been pleased, but since Miller has taken charge, Vernon says it's always a pleasure to lead her refashioned group in the pit of the Royal Theatre, where both the Victoria Symphony and Vernon's opera company perform. "She has strengthened the orchestra as a playing body immeasurably. " She has made some excellent hires, in consultation with the colleagues in the orchestra itself. The orchestra has improved more than what I would have expected," Vernon says.
Victoria Times Colonist classical music reviewer Kevin Bazzana has also been impressed with the quality of the orchestra under Miller's leadership. "There's no question that the orchestra today is better than it has ever been, both in terms of personnel and leadership," Bazzana says.
"I've heard other musicians say this, too - locals as well as visitors. Technically she's very accomplished, and in turn she's raised the technical level of the orchestra; it's a tight, polished ensemble now, and I don't think there's anything they couldn't play."
The nine new violinists, especially new concertmaster, Terence Tam, have impressed Vernon, although the contentious dismissal of the 20-year-veteran concertmaster Pablo Diemecke generated a legal fight and internal acrimony.
Miller has also filled assistant principal and principal second violins chairs, and has hired a new principal cellist, a new principal and second bassoon, a new principal and second horn, a new principal trumpet, a new principal percussion, and a new second trombone and tuba.
All of these changes may be attributed to an idealism the then 33-year-old Miller had when she came to the job as the first woman to lead a major Canadian orchestra.
Despite few female conductor role models, Miller has never believed her gender should affect the way she does her job. She admits, though, that being both young and a woman made her feel she had to prove herself, a challenge, she believes, that exists for every young conductor, man or woman.
"When conductors stand on the podium, they don't really have much time before an orchestra has decided how much they are feeling inspired or not by their work," says Miller. "I have always felt that upon first appearance I had to prove myself."
Now 43, Miller believes that her growth strategy and her determination are paying off. When she started, she wanted to peel through as much orchestral repertoire as she could.
"In my first six or seven years, I refused to conduct anything twice. I really wanted to learn as much repertoire as possible, so I was constantly throwing myself into new scores,"" she says from her home in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband and two boys. She commutes to Victoria for 13 weeks a season.
As she revisits repertoire, she feels that her understanding of the music and her confidence as a conductor have grown. "The truth is you've got to have the experience of performing these works to really be great at them," she explains. "As conductors we can only get better and better with age."
From the outset, Miller was determined to give her audience, which Bassano describes as "very conservative, even by symphony orchestra standards," the time-tested repertoire, but also to guide them toward unfamiliar territory in contemporary music.
For the past eight years, she has offered a new-music festival. In September 2011, Miller presented a program inspired by iconic west coast artist Emily Carr, which included five new commissioned works. Last November, the orchestra celebrated the 100th anniversary of John Cage's birth. In February, to celebrate the 155th anniversary of Canada's oldest Chinatown, the Symphony commissioned a new work by Chan Ka Nin, which it incorporated into a multimedia festival in the Victoria Chinese community itself. Next season, the focus is on Ligeti.
Miller also incorporates new music into her two classical series, the Legacy and the Signature, the way an art curator might organize an exhibit to show the influences of masters on some more challenging contemporary artists' work. She says she wants to be a guiding hand for her audiences and Bazzana feels that audiences like her nurturing approach.
Contracted through 2015-16 with an option for an additional season, Miller concedes she has had to recalibrate some of her initial ambitions to accommodate her audience's appetite for new musical experience, which she insists is greater than some people might give Victoria, a Canadian retirement haven, credit for.
"When I first came in, I had all these ideas for new series, new directions. And I realized I couldn't move as quickly as I wanted to. It would be unwise to do so," she adds. "I really want the organization to be healthy and strong and for the orchestra to be foremost in everybody's mind."
The 24th edition of the Victoria Symphony Splash concert takes place August 4 in the Victoria Harbour. About 40,000 people are expected to attend.