VICTORIA - At the symbolic entrance to Canada's oldest Chinatown stands the ornately decorated Gate of Harmonious Interest. Although erected in downtown Victoria as recently as 12 years ago, the lantern-clad structure pays tribute to a community with 155 years of history.
To honour that history, the Victoria Symphony commissioned University of Toronto composer Chan Ka Nin to write a new orchestral piece. Not surprisingly, given his own Chines background, he turned to the gate for his title.
Harmonious Interest received its March 15 premiere at the McPherson Playhouse with the composer in the audience and a rather remarkable woman on the podium.
For the past decade, Tania Miller has presided quietly over the transformation of a modest community orchestra on Canada's West Coast into an ensemble of some distinction, whose recent initiatives have included an Emily Carr Project (with five premieres and a pair of interdisciplinary concerts honouring the iconic Victoria artist) and a Cage 100 Festival, whose tribute to the near-legendary American avant-gardism included the orchestra's first live-streamed concert.
Born in Foam Lake, Sask., Miller thought of herself as an aspiring pianist until tendinitis directed a career change built on a debut conducting her high school band at the age of 16.
It was at the University of Michigan, where she obtained master's and doctoral degrees, that the conducting bug really bit. Winning an audition for assistant conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey eventually led her to becoming the only woman to lead a major Canadian orchestra.
"The professional world wants you to be a conductor and not a woman", she quipped over breakfast eggs recently. "I've always been a driven person, so it became even more exciting for me to be in a field occupied by men. I was naive at first. I just wanted to be a conductor. But the meaning of successful leadership has changed. It doesn't necessarily mean inspiring fear from the top."
Her concertmaster seems to agree. Himself a violin graduate of Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music and a doctor of medicine, Terence Tam praises Miller's collegiality, dedication and devotion to hard work.
Tam's accomplished playing as soloist in the famous Butterfly Lovers Concerto paired with Dorothy Chang's Strange Air completed the Chinatown celebration concert otherwise focused on Harmonious Interest.
The new work turned out to be what its composer calls a seven-movement "symphonic theatre" piece, involving two actor-singers, a dancer, a solo percussionist and a soloist on the Chinese wind instrument known as the hulusi. Built around the experience of a Chinese immigrant who arrives in Victoria in 1884 and meets a professional letter writer, Harmonious Interest is unique in its form and eclectic in its content, with one scene even set in a kitchen as the immigrant tries to learn to be a cook. With pot, wok and other kitchen utensils turned into musical instruments played with chopsticks, this scene alone gives the new work special interest.
Is Tania Miller optimistic in hoping the Victoria Symphony can tour Harmonious Interest to places such as Vancouver and Toronto' With some editing and restructuring, the work has the potential to reach beyond the southern tip of Vancouver Island.