Conductor David Alan Miller has one foot in Sarasota and the other in Albany, New York, but his mind is occupied by the 19th century as he prepares to lead the Sarasota Orchestra's performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 next month.
Better known as "Eroica," the 1802 work is twice as long as any of Beethoven's earlier compositions. What's more, it's considered to be the demarcation between the classical and romantic eras of music. With her keen appreciation of "Eras," Taylor Swift would surely understand.
Miller, who has been the artistic director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra for 32 years, was in Sarasota earlier this month to conduct its "New York, New York" program.
The concerts, which ran the gamut of Big Apple artists from George Gershwin to Billy Joel, were a rousing tribute to the place where “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.”
Miller may have been celebrating New York, but he had nothing but praise for Florida's Cultural Coast at the concert. "I'm fortunate to be working in Sarasota," Miller says. "The orchestra's brilliant musicians play at the highest international level."
“Eroica” is a monumental work, and it’s fitting that it will take place at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, which seats 1,700. It is part of the Masterworks series in the Sarasota Orchestra’s 75th anniversary season, which will be officially celebrated with a concert and gala on Feb. 15, 2024.
In addition to “Eroica,” Miller will conduct Overture to Die Fledermaus by J. Strauss, Jr. and Michael Torke’s concerto for violin and orchestra “Sky” during the concerts on Nov. 3-5.
Originally conceived as a tribute to Napoleon, Beethoven's "Eroica" honors the heroic ideal. After the French revolutionary crowned himself emperor, mimicking the royalty he helped to dethrone, Beethoven changed his mind and dedicated his symphony to the hero in general, not an individual.
To prepare for the upcoming concert, Miller has been researching the differences between the design and sounds of instruments during Beethoven's time and the present. Miller calls himself an "originalist" when it comes to classical music, a term usually associated with discussions of the U.S. Constitution.
To make "Eroica" sound more like the way it did when it was first performed, Miller is having percussionists use the wooden drumsticks that were common in the early 1800s instead of the "fluffier" models employed today.
That tweak will give a more authentic — and martial — sound to the symphony, Miller explained during a recent telephone interview from his home in Albany. For better or worse, heroes have historically achieved their stature through military means. This originalist performance of "Eroica" will reflect that.
The percussion adjustments are just part of Miller's effort to achieve authenticity with "Eroica," which he calls "the freshest piece I know. It feels like the first time every time."
While using modern instruments, Miller has worked with Sarasota Orchestra Librarian Paul Greitzer in his journey to recreate the original sound for the masterwork.
"My objective is to see how we can evoke or elicit the original sound without changing instruments," Miller says. "We can lessen the bow stroke; we can make woodwind instruments more distinct."
Miller says that 85% of a conductor's job takes place during rehearsals. The concert that the audience sees is just 15% of his work, he says.
Miller isn't the only artist who has been pondering the differences between modern-day instruments and those of yore in anticipation of "Eroica." That subject also has been top of mind for Hugo Bliss. The horn player recently joined the Sarasota Orchestra after serving as a music fellow during the Sarasota Music Festival this past summer.
The buttons on Bliss' horn and the finger movements of modern-day horn players didn't exist in Beethoven's time. "Back then, horns made a sound like hunting horns," Bliss said in an interview in the orchestra's offices in Holley Hall.
Bliss and his colleague Joshua Horne will share horn duties during the upcoming performance of "Eroica." The concert is a challenging prospect for Bliss, who is finishing up his senior year at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
Joining the Sarasota Orchestra while still in college is the kind of opportunity that doesn't come along every day. Bliss says he is grateful to Juilliard for allowing him to complete his studies in New York while performing in Sarasota.
A native of Seattle, Bliss comes from a family of professional musicians, dancers and arts educators. His parents will be coming from Seattle to Sarasota to see him perform in “Eroica.”
Miller helped Bliss make the jump from music fellow to full-time orchestra member. While the Sarasota Orchestra searches for a new music director, Miller has been helping to audition new musicians, along with the orchestra’s “creative partner” Peter Oundjian.
A multi-Grammy Award-winning conductor, Miller served as assistant and associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1987–92 and music director of the New York Youth Symphony from 1982-88. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley and earned a master's degree in orchestral conducting from Juilliard.
Miller has been serving as musical adviser to the Sarasota Orchestra in the wake of the July 2022 death of Bramwell Tovey, The former conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tovey was selected as music director of the Sarasota Orchestra after a nationwide search, but never got to assume the role.
Because of the interruptions to live arts caused by pandemic lockdowns and the death of Tovey, there has been turnover at the Sarasota Orchestra. Currently there are nearly 10 openings for musicians at the orchestra as well as the music director position, Miller says.
One musician vacancy was created when Hannah Cope Johnson, who joined the Sarasota Orchestra as a principal harpist in fall 2022, left after one season to join the Metropolitan Opera as principal harpist.
Miller doesn't blame her. "That's the best harp job in the business," he says.
Miller first conducted in Sarasota 26 years ago, back when the orchestra was called the Florida West Coast Symphony.
He was called back to the Sarasota Orchestra by a phone call offering a conducting engagement on the last day of 2019. He came to Florida the following week to begin rehearsing with the orchestra, for concerts that were never performed because of the Covid shutdown in early 2020.
Despite the disappointment, the adversity helped strengthen the ties between Miller, a native of Los Angeles, and the Sarasota Orchestra.
Miller attributes his growing relationship with the orchestra partly to his manager and also because of the chemistry between him and the musicians. "Alchemy" is a word you will hear more than once if you talk to Miller about music and the Sarasota Orchestra.
Another metaphor comes to the fore during an interview: Back in the politically incorrect days, a person might have made a distinction between a fling and a marriage, like the one that Miller has had with the Albany Symphony for more than three decades.
Says Miller: "My relationship with the Sarasota Orchestra is something in between those two things. My relationship is deeper than guest conductor." Taylor Swift might call it a "Lover" era.
Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.