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Archive for March, 2016

Introducing Myles Miller

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What is your name?

Myles Miller

Where are you from?

Austin, Texas

How are you connected to the UNT Viola Studio?

I am a junior Music Education Major at UNT with a concentration in viola.

Did you choose the viola, or did the viola choose you?

I chose the viola in Middle School because I saw that no one at orientation had signed up for it yet.

Tell us about your viola! Who made it? How did you come to play this instrument? Does it have a name?

My instrument is a William Harris Lee Tertis Model 17″ viola that I purchased two and a half years ago specifically for my college studies.

Who is your favorite violist? (To listen to or as a mentor)

My favorite violists are William Primrose for his impact and skill, and Lawrence Power for his flamboyant showmanship.

If you could only play the works of one composer for the rest of your life, who would you choose and why?

I could easily see myself playing works by Antonín Dvořák for the rest of my life. His compositions are playful, fun, and at times deeply gorgeous and profound to listen to.

What is your favorite piece to play?

Either Cecil Forsyth’s Viola Concerto, the Bach Solo Suites, or Beethoven’s Romances in F and G.

If you could play any non-viola piece, what would it be and why?

I want to perform the Dvořák Cello Concerto, but common arrangements for it are regarded as pretty mediocre. It’s simply one of the most beautiful concertos written.

Do you come from a musical family?

Neither of my parents were necessarily musical, although my father dabbled in guitar and my mother managed a band for a few years.

What are your career goals?

My wish is to be the conductor of a grand orchestra someday.

What made you want to pursue music as a career rather than as a hobby?

There wasn’t any one thing that made me decide. It simply happened, and this is where I am now.

If you couldn’t be in music, what career would you choose?

I would be a historian, as History is my other biggest passion.

If you could take a lesson from any person, alive or deceased, who would it be and why?

Discussing music and philosophy with Leonard Bernstein would be indescribably amazing.

Who has been the most influential musician in your life?

I’m not sure if conductors count as musicians in the context of this question, but Bernstein and Karajan are especially important to me. Karajan for the sound he was able to pull from his orchestras, and Bernstein for the fresh interpretations and focus on musicality rather than nitpicking.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I crack jokes and distract myself so that I don’t end up shaking from nervousness before a concert.

What is your favorite memory, thus far, of being a musician?

My favorite memory is of the first rehearsal I ever had at UNT my freshman year. We were rehearsing the Schumann Piano Concerto and once the first chord hit, I was hooked. The sound of the A minor sonorities ringing throughout the hall sounded to me as a completely different beast than what I was familiar with in High School. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the rehearsal.

Do you have any skills or hidden talents your fellow studio members wouldn’t know about?

I can answer virtually any question regarding history from the late Bronze Age up to around the Vietnam War. Like I said, History is one of my biggest passions.


The Mother Of Us All, by Myles Miller

Susan B. Anthony, (image credit Biography.com)

Susan B. Anthony, (image credit Biography.com)

The Mother Of Us All, the second and last collaboration between the composer Virgil Thomson and the poet Gertrude Stein, is an underdog of twentieth-century opera. With few performances and fewer recordings, the work lies beneath a mountain of other compositions favored by the public and struggles to find its way into the limelight. However, despite this relative obscurity, Thomson and Stein’s masterpiece deserves far more recognition than it currently receives. An amazing combination of style and substance, the duo channeled the emotions of more than a century of activism and political understanding into a two-act staging.

The opera begins with Susan B. Anthony writing letters advocating her cause, worrying whether or not her fight is even possible to win. Stein and Thomson narrate the scene, and the whole passage sounds as if taken straight from a book. The plot moves forward into a political meeting between famous figures of U.S. history. Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Comstock, and Thaddeus Stevens all represent the male establishment, while two humorously named veterans of the Civil War, Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen, mock the politicians’ overly somber demeanors during political discourse. Susan B. Anthony declares herself to the assembly and begins debating with Daniel Webster, who throughout the debate refers to her as “sir”. This specific title in reference to Susan B. is historically important with no explanation as to why located within the libretto. In the media of the nineteenth century, the suffragettes were often described as “unsexed” or “manlike” with newspapers going so far as to refer to the suffragettes as actual men. This kind of slanderous dialogue led to Sojourner Truth, another well-known suffragette, famously baring her breast during a speech in Indiana (Truth being the deliverer of the iconic “Ain’t I A Woman” speech).
Susan B. Anthony next dreams of the allies to her cause and how, in the end, their assistance is meaningless if women themselves do not rise up together to achieve the right to vote. The scene is marked by the VIP’s of politics, again Johnson, Stevens, and Webster, finally taking a serious interest in the idea of women’s suffrage, and Susan B. lecturing Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen on the differences between the rich and poor. In the final scene of the first Act the opera begins to truly take on a political slant, as Susan B. argues that perhaps marriage is necessary only because men are helpless without women to guide them. Proceeding from this dispute, Susan B. and the chorus rise up together and declare that all people of this nation will one day obtain the vote.
The second Act opens with Anthony and the supporting cast addressing the double standard of women being required to take the man’s name in marriage, and Jo the Loiterer’s girlfriend, Indiana Elliot, refuses to marry Jo until he agrees that she will not have to take the name of Loiterer (Stein’s playful libretto here shows its face again, as “Loiterer” is obviously not a real last name). Anthony accepts an invitation to speak to a gathering of politicians at the behest of a crowd of fervent supporters. She returns from the speech with a new air of confidence, having spoken convincingly enough that the reactionary politicians of the government have deliberately written the word “male” into the Constitution out of plain fear of her movement. This new confidence is shadowed by only one doubt; that if Anthony succeeds, women will become as weak and as afraid as the men who are resisting this movement towards equality. In contrast to this doubt, Jo the Loiterer and Indiana Elliot finally agree to be married, each taking the other’s last name and becoming Jo Elliot and Indiana Loiterer. Finally, in a stunning display of choreography and composition, Susan B. Anthony sings her closing aria summarizing a life well-lived and one that was dedicated towards a singular purpose. As the final notes of the aria fade away, Susan B. becomes a statue in front of the Capitol, symbolizing the eternal achievement of the movement that brought women the vote.
Gertrude Stein’s libretto, combined with Virgil Thomson’s unique compositional style, lends this artistic accomplishment a sense of unity nestled between abject dissonances. The lyrics are often direct in their message, yet interspersed between them are series of nonsensical phrases that seem to digress from the main subject. At the same time, Thomson feeds us a musical landscape of minimalism and romanticism that flows between the words, at times almost as if they are completely separate yet whole. In Thomson’s own words, the score is “a memory-book of Victorian play-games and passion…with its gospel hymns and cocky marches, its sentimental ballads, waltzes, darned-fool ditties, and intoned sermons… a souvenir or all those sounds and kinds of tunes that were once the music of rural America.”
Rehearsing this opera presented a challenge. As an orchestra, we were immediately met with an unfamiliar work and had no context of what it should sound like and no idea of how to bring it together. With many disjointed rhythms and eclectic harmonies composed throughout each scene, the first rehearsals sounded similar to an orchestra warming up before a real performance. To tackle a work like this, one where the orchestra did not possess any familiarity with it beforehand, the rehearsals required slightly different tactics than what would be expected of a standard symphony or even a more well-known opera. The early rehearsals consisted of attempts to run through the opera as far as we could, with intermittent pauses in playing that were filled with explanations as to what would be happening on stage during a section had we been actually been performing, and also a brief synopsis of what was happening in the plot. Eventually the orchestra felt more comfortable with each scene and had an idea of what the whole picture was meant to sound like. When the vocalists finally joined us for rehearsals, the opera truly began to take on a polished form. We were now able to hear a cohesive melody above our minimalist, repetitive sections of quarter notes and down-beat chords.
Along with trying to make an unfamiliar opera sound true to form, this was my first time to be principal of a viola section. This meant that I had to also account for and be responsible for an entire group of violists that was as unfamiliar with the work as I was. I spoke with a few of my friends and fellow violists in the UNT viola studio, along with my professor, for some insight as to what would be expected of me as principal and some tips on how to bring the section together. Recommendations ranged from holding sectionals to offering enticements, such as chocolates, when the group performed admirably. While I personally felt that the music was simply not difficult enough to merit full sectional rehearsals apart from the orchestra, and the director, Dr. Stephen Dubberly, bought chocolate and other candies for the whole orchestra at every performance, I was left with the role of being a micromanager. I would give suggestions and directions on how to perform certain passages in the music, such as where to shift and what position to play in, and all the rest of the basic instructions that a principal is tasked with delivering. In the end, the group did not need much more than the occasional fingering suggestion or technique advice, and I ended up being extremely proud with my section’s progress.
Despite the pride I took in my section and the relatively little work that I had to do because of their strengths, being principal of the viola section for this opera was still a privilege that I do not take lightly. Being in an orchestra and playing an instrument requires hard work, but it is work that I love dearly more than anything else in my life. I am appreciative of the people in my life that allowed me the position and provided me with an experience that will stay with me and guide me through any and all future endeavors as a violist. In the words of Susan B. Anthony, “I don’t want to die as long as I can work; the minute I cannot, I want to go.”

An interview with Liesl-Ann DeVilliers, Principal Violist of the Dallas Opera, by Valeria de Kuspa

Where are you from?IMG_2278

I was born in Bronxville, New York,  but I grew up in South Africa.

What is the most valuable experience South Africa gave you?

I think it turned me into somebody with a lot of perseverance. You have to put up with a lot down there, things are very disorganized. You have to make sure that you want to do it, that is the biggest thing I took from there.

How did you become a musician? Was viola your first choice?

I started when I was five years old, on piano. My mother took me to Yamaha in Canada and when we went back to South Africa she found me a great piano teacher. I got a piano performance bachelor’s degree and I played violin in high school. Viola was not my first choice at all but when I landed on it I realized this is what I want to do.

What characteristics do you value the most about the viola?

It’s a soulful instrument. It’s really flexible, I feel like you can play violin repertoire if you want (the flashy stuff) but if it’s in your nature you’re going to play stuff that is beautiful. You’re an inside voice in the orchestra, so you get to fill out what everyone else is doing. As much as they want to deny it, we make them sound fantastic!

What is the best advice you ever got?

You need to value yourself. You need to feel like you’re worth it and you deserve it. To me that’s been a very valuable thing that I’ve only recently learned. What’s real is who you are and what you can do, not the fear. Don’t feed the fear!

How do you manage any performance-related stress on your body through Opera season?

That’s a multifaceted question. There is emotional stress and physical stress. There are certain things you can do. I think the most important thing you can do is make your body strong through diet and exercise or what have you. You need the physical stamina. I have a chair made for me in the opera that has a longer seat because my legs are long. They’ve added padding to the chair and they added a 2’’ platform. If I sit on a different chair I can immediately feel the difference.

What is your favorite piece of music written for viola?

Honestly, I like a lot of the transcriptions that are coming out now of vocal stuff that has been arranged for viola. The Walton and the Bartók have good learning points in them, but it’s not what I listen to. I would say that I’m a classical girl, the tunes are beautiful and they sound so beautiful on the viola and there’s not enough of them yet! It’ll take time I guess.

If you weren’t a violist, what would you do?

I would be a doctor or a nutritionist or something like that. I wouldn’t be a medical doctor as in medical school because that’s not what I believe in, but I would be educating people on what’s going on in alternative medicine. Definitely more holistic.

What has been a particularly challenging obstacle to overcome as a violist?

There’s a lot of things that can be very challenging. For example, counting can be challenging because I’m not very good at it. I work it out and I can do it, but it’s not something that comes very naturally to me. It takes a lot of brain power. Sometimes the hardest thing is getting the sound that I actually want. Especially that connected sound, one that flows from one note to the other. There are people who can do that very well and I am on the “not so much” side.

Tell us about someone who has been important in your journey.

There are two people definitely. When I was in high school I had a piano teacher, Marietjie Hesse. I was in an art school in a class with very talented people. People who are having successful solo careers now I was with in high school. It’s very challenging to say the least. You feel like you can’t do anything. It’s hard. Marietjie would tell me, “You CAN do this! You can absolutely do this. We will work it in.” She gave me faith in myself. Just because other people are fantastic doesn’t mean you can’t get there. Susan Dubois did the same thing for me when I came to UNT. I remember her asking me innocently “have you learned the Bartók?” and I was like “Omg no! You’ve got to be kidding, you think I can play the Bartók? Seriously? NO. ”  I was thinking to myself “I can’t play the Bartok …I’m not even close!” She told me I could. I thought of it the whole time as out of reach for me, but she made me feel like it was all in my grasp. It’s just how you focus yourself to get there.

Please share with us your favorite book!

My two new favorite books are also by a favorite author, Brené Brown“Daring Greatly”  and Rising Strong are two amazing books and I’m always very interested in the psychology behind things and how people think. Very well written and easy to read. It’s not a story book but a story about how you think and who you are.

Audition/ pit advice?

I feel like I did it by myself. Susan helped me with my concerto and she was fantastic, we got it done. I felt like I could present it in a way that felt authentic to me. Then I had to learn opera excerpts and because I’m Suzuki trained, I had to listen to them in the sea of opera stuff and pick out the viola part. I had to teach myself that I have to listen, that I know what I’m doing when I’m playing in the opera. It’s not like the symphony where you watch the conductor then that’s it. There are singers. If you’re not listening to the stage it causes a lot of problems and everyone will hate you. It’s a lot of listening to recordings and to this day I have to know where I fit in all the time. When a singer comes in you need to know where you are and what to do.

Did you ever play the opera at UNT?

Perhaps, long long ago…

Did you plan to play in the pit or did it fall into place?

I fell into it, but I’m not sorry about it because I really like it. I do play some symphonic literature when opera season is not on. I have to tell you, if I had to play symphony orchestra 365 days a year I would be bored and unhappy.

Do you have a favorite Opera conductor?

The previous director Graeme Jenkins was an exceptionally entertaining, very compelling person. As a conductor he had a great way to describe how things need to sound. “It needs to sound like she’s stabbing you” or “cut her head off”! You need to understand what’s happening in the music to understand the opera. He’s just returned to do Jules Massenet’s Manon with us this March, but it was great when he was here more. He brought the music to life in a way that other conductors struggle to do.

How are you connected to the UNT viola studio?

 I’m an alumna. You are the only student I know from the current group, but I’m very connected with Dr. Dubois still, and she will send students to me that she can’t take and she recommends me as a teacher. I am also on the viola faculty for the Summer String Institute. When I teach there and I watch the other teachers at it I get a refresher of what I learned long ago.