Join Ryan and Dr. Joe Miller for a sit down interview on being a grounded choral director. We explore his strange route through pre-med into choral directing, his routines, funny teachable moments, and a lot more!
Joe Miller is conductor of two of America’s most renowned choral ensembles: the Westminster Choir and the Westminster Symphonic Choir. He is also director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. In addition to his responsibilities at Westminster, Dr. Miller is artistic director for choral activities for the renowned Spoleto Festival USA.
His 2015-2016 season with the Westminster Choir includes a concert tour of the eastern United States, a residency with Carnegie Hall, several national radio broadcasts, and their annual residency at the Spoleto Festival USA. Dr. Miller has made three recordings with the Westminster Choir. Their latest CD, The Heart’s Reflection: Music of Daniel Elder, has been hailed by Minnesota Public Radio’s Classical Notes as “simply astounding.” His debut recording with the Westminster Choir, Flower of Beauty, received four stars from Choir & Organ magazine and earned critical praise from American Record Guide, which described the Westminster Choir as “the gold standard for academic choirs in America.”
Performances by the Westminster Choir and Joe Miller at the Spoleto Festival USA have earned critical praise. The New York Timesdescribed their 2014 performance of John Adams’ El Niño as “superb” and wrote, “Meticulously prepared … the chorus was remarkable for its precision, unanimity and power.” The Wall Street Journal praised the same performance, crediting “the fine Westminster Choir and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, under the direction of Joe Miller.” The Post and Courier wrote about their 2015 performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “This was an evening of near-flawless execution and many moments of ravishing beauty and power. It will go down as a highlight (maybe even THE highlight) of this year’s festival, and, I think, as the work with which Joe Miller established his credentials to lead an extended choral/orchestral masterwork, not just recreating Bach’s music but also putting his own interpretive stamp on the whole.”
As conductor of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, Dr. Miller has collaborated with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors, earning him critical praise. The New York Times wrote about Symphonic Choir’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Cleveland Orchestra, “Joe Miller’s Westminster Symphonic Choir was subtle when asked and powerful when turned loose.” Recent seasons have included performances with the Philharmoniker Berliner and Sir Simon Rattle; The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin; and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and Gustavo Dudamel.
Reflecting on the role that choral music plays in the nation’s cultural life, he said at a Chorus America conference, “Choral music in the United States has seen unprecedented growth in the past several decades. The influence of our past leaders is part of our fabric, but we must seize this time to create a new vision based on the foundation that has been laid before us. We must keep the traditions but be willing to change in order to build a vision for the future.”
Dr. Miller earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in choral conducting from the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music education and voice from the University of Tennessee.
The moment you knew you’d dedicate your life to music
After a youth full of sports, and eventually going to school as a pre-med student, Dr. Miller chose to transfer to music education (voice concentration). After teaching for several years, Dr. Miller went to graduate school in Cincinnati and fell in love with the art of conducting.
Worst musical moment
While employed in his first tenure-track professorship, Dr. Miller forgot his score. The concert had to be delayed 45 minutes while someone ran to his house to grab it. Dr. Miller never forgot his score again!
The proudest musical moment
Dr. Miller’s proudest musical moment was when he was at his first job at West High School in inner city Knoxville, TN. His kids went to festival and did better than they had ever done, but the major accomplishment was that his students all showed up, did well, and felt proud.
Another was when his college choir in California applied to sing at the Western Division ACDA Conference and was accepted. He had trouble fielding a tenor section that year, and got accepted anyway!
Dr. Miller feels as though he’s deeply grounded and is able to put it into perspective for different situations. His perspective on music is that is essential and comes from deep within. It’s not always feel-good, and explore tough subjects. His grounding comes from knowing the score very deeply – through “decomposing” the score.
Most excited about right now
Dr. Miller is excited to be working on a production of Orff’s Carmina Burana with the choreographer Shen Wei for the Spoleto Festival USA 2016.
Advice for your younger self
He wouldn’t change anything. But he’s say “Relax”.
What makes a great conductor?
Be a great musician. Learn to express.