Standing before one of the Palace Theatre’s ornate staircases, Albany Symphony Orchestra (ASO) Music Director David Alan Miller announced last week yet another ambitious project for the small city orchestra.
The ASO will kick off their 86th year in October with a gala performance from world-renowned pianist, Emanual Ax. Securing the Grammy-winning artist shows Miller won’t be letting off the throttle to promote the brand of the orchestra he first joined in 1992. His passion and excitement, when speaking in front of a group of reporters and dignitaries, was contagious.
“An orchestra is something that is such a source of pride,” said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, prior to Miller’s announcement. “it is something that helps us to stand out. And, I am not going to talk anymore because I’m so excited to get to what the season is going to be.”
The past handful of years has made for an historic timeline for the orchestra. Miller and his performers debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2011, and have since played again. Less than two years later, the ASO welcomed world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma to play with them in Albany. And, last January, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of the United States recognized the orchestra with a Grammy Award.
“It’s about building the brand and it’s about the perception, because not many orchestras in the country – especially when you go past the Big Six or the Big Seven – not that many orchestras have won Grammys.” Said Miller. “If I had to list the three most important things we’ve done to enhance our visibility and brand in our community, and nationally, recently, they would be the two visits to Carnegie Hall for ‘Spring for Music.’ We were the only orchestra to ever visit twice, so that really elevated our stature here. And, then playing with artists like Yo-Yo Ma, and then, as well, the Grammys. So those are three different ways to enhance the visibility of the orchestra in the community and in the larger, national discussion. They’ve done different but equally, powerful valuable things for us.”
Last June, the Orchestra also earned their 31st American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Award, receiving the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music. The honor is bestowed upon orchestras of any size, pitting Albany’s troop against those from the metropolises of New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. The 31 awards the ASO has earned, is more than any other orchestra in the country.
Miller’s focus on playing contemporary American music has been stead-fast through the majority of his near 23-year career with the ASO. Miller said, this focus is what sets the ASO apart from other orchestras.
“Many orchestras spend 95 percent of their time playing dead Europeans, all of whom are great. We spend 50 percent, or 60 percent of our time playing dead Europeans and the rest of our time playing living Americans. And, all of our recording activities have been of new pieces that are not otherwise available, or haven’t been recorded. All of our commissioning and work, has really elevated our visibility. … So I attribute all our national successes to the daring, artistic projects we pursue.”
In 2003, Miller received the Ditson Conductor’s Award from Columbia University for commitment to American music.
The 2015-2016 season launches with “An Evening with Emanual Ax” on Oct. 10, where Ax is expected to mingle the classics of Verdi, Franck and Mozart in with contemporary work from Jessica Montgomery. The line-up of performances is to include violinist Benjamin Beilman, featuring Thaikovsky in November; pianist Joyce Yang playing Rossini’s William Tell and more in December; and cellist Roman Mekinulov, with guest conductor JoAnn Falletta, showcasing works from Leaonard Bernstein, Miguel del Aguila and Brahms in January.
Percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who earned the Grammy with the ASO for recording John Corigliano’s “Conjurer Concerto For Percussionist & String Orchestra,” is scheduled to return for two-day performance of “Dream Machine” in April.
“You’ve got all Beethoven for a solid weekend in February, then you have this incredibly adventurous thing in March that is really as edgy as any orchestra is doing,” said Miller. “ To me that kind of reflects who and what we are. We’ve got the grand tradition of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, and we’ve also got really exciting new things happening that other orchestras aren’t even beginning to try. I feel that’s what makes us so special. That’s what’s so exciting about us.”
March’s performance will feature several pieces, including three of Mozart’s piano concertos reimagined by six composers – Christopher Cerrone, Timo Andrews, Robert Honstein, Andrew Norman, Jacob Cooper and Ted Hearne – in “To Walk With Giants.”
The upcoming season is one many are already excited about.
“When we talk about the Capital Region… we’re very fortunate to have really four strong pillars – whether it’s higher education, whether it’s health care, whether it’s government, whether it’s technology,” said New York State Assemblyman John McDonald. “Separate and apart from all those, we rely on the arts to really be the strong underpinning of the quality of life in our Capital Region.” The state assemblyman cited spoke of the struggle area schools often face, cutting arts from their curriculums when formulating annual budgets. “We are fighting very vociferously to make sure we reinforce the fact, to provide the support, to expand our arts. Because, let’s face it, at 86-years young this did not happen overnight. It was basically a continued commitment of the education system, of government, but more importantly not only philanthropists but those in the business community to support the arts.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.