Marketing the arts can be a chancy business, but no one sells classical music better than David Alan Miller.
Now in his 21st season as the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Miller knows that it’s not just interesting programming or international artists that will get people into his concerts. It’s getting kids involved and entertained and enjoying the sounds of the music.
That’s where the Sunday Symphonies for Families comes in. This year, there are three of them, and for each, Miller will don an alter ego: Beethoven will visit this Sunday; Michigan Miller will be looking for the “Lost Symphony” on Feb. 9 with help from Papa Haydn, who’ll be checking in with Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Stravinsky; and Coach Dave will lead “String Training” on March 23.
“I got the idea when I was in Los Angeles,” Miller said. “As the assistant and then the associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it was a big part of my job to lead family and educational concerts. At my first family concert in LA, I had to do a program on superheroes. I thought, ‘Why not play a superhero?’ ”
Miller said he decided that instead of a guy in a suit standing in front of the orchestra, he would make it more theatrical for the kids and be “Super Orchestra Man.”
“Kids have a visual world and expect more from their heroes,” he said.
Albany Symphony Orchestra Sunday Symphonies for Families
WHERE: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday and 3 p.m. Feb. 9 and March 23
HOW MUCH: $18 adult, $12 child
-- 10:45 a.m. April 29 at the National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs
-- 9:30 and 10:45 a.m. April 30 and May 1 at Congregation Ohav Shalom, 113 Krumkill Road, Albany
HOW MUCH: $6, children 2 and younger free
MORE INFO: 694-3300; www.albanysymphony.com
The concert was a great success and got Miller thinking. By linking how he appeared and what he did to pop culture, he could use this premise to teach a musical idea. In short order, he conceived other “heroes,” which came to include “Beethoven Back to the Future” with Beethoven bursting out of a time machine to talk about how he revolutionized classical music and conducting a premiere of his new works; and “Michigan Miller,” who was looking for the lost symphony and modeled after Indiana Jones seeking the lost ark. He also created “Cowboy Dave,” born in the U.S. and talking about American music, specifically works of Aaron Copland, as a play on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Another favorite was “Cat Man the Opera” on the Batman movies, in which Miller could talk about opera and conduct famous overtures.
“Pretty soon I had a whole dossier that had 25 to 30 personas,” Miller said, laughing. “Audiences were always changing, so I could add or recycle them. Cowboy Dave proved so popular that I had six different Cowboy Dave shows.”
Broadening music’s reach
But Miller wasn’t sure how much of an audience he was reaching until his aunt told him about a friend of hers that she had taken to a concert.
“This was a woman who never went to orchestra concerts,” Miller said. “Anyway, they got to this concert late, and the woman said she recognized what the orchestra was playing was by Beethoven. My aunt asked her how she knew, and the woman told her she’d been to David Alan Miller’s family concerts.”
That story underscored much about what Miller was coming to realize, he said.
“So often, people are intimidated by orchestra concerts. They don’t know how to dress, how to behave. Although these family concerts are for kids from 10 to 12, family comes. So the concerts are a friendly introduction to open the eyes and ears [of everyone] to the magic of this great classical music,” Miller said.
The concerts are also inspiring and satisfying for Miller.
“It’s a beautiful thing and life affirming to hear these kids singing ‘la, la, la’ to Beethoven’s Ninth. It’s magical,” he said. “And I get beautiful feedback even in Price Chopper, where a parent told me it was all my fault that his kid wants to be a violinist.”
When Miller came to Albany, however, there were no family concerts, although there were a few Tiny Tots concerts for 3- to 6-year-olds. The Tiny Tots shows are weekday events and use a chamber-size orchestra. Those this season will feature Cowboy Dave.
“I began [family concerts] the first season,” he said. “In LA, I did some 15 or so each season and recycled the best of them.”
Over the years, as funding has come and gone, the number of family ASO concerts has varied, with no more than three each season, not counting the Magic of Christmas. Of all of his personas, the most popular has been “Coach Dave,” he said. That program, which fits music with sports, has each team (brass, woodwind, strings, percussion) dressed in different colored T-shirts. Everyone cheers and high-fives, and then each team plays something. Miller, as the coach, uses baseball imagery to determine what’s the right baton (bat) to use to conduct a little Tchaikovsky, Sousa and Britten. All of this takes place within 50 minutes.
“The kids learn things about the music without realizing they’re learning it,” he said.
The concerts and working with a persona are hard to do.
“I want them to be intensely educational and entertaining,” Miller said. “I work with familiar repertoire for the orchestra that is new to the kids. I eschew pop, television music, because kids already get that. It’s best to give great music they’ve never heard. I build the concert around a genre or a composer.”
On Sunday, Miller’s favorite, Beethoven, will be the guest. He will talk in a heavy German accent, wear huge eyeglasses and generally look like a “real scary guy.”
“I won’t be there,” Miller said. “Beethoven will magically appear, and once he’s out of his initial disorientation, he’ll talk about how he’s trying to write an opera [‘Fidelio’]. Then he’ll share a top secret and have a sing-along [the Ninth] and give it a world premiere.”
While Miller believes he may be one of the few conductors who have alter egos for family concerts, there is no denying how valuable they have proved to be in building a future for the art form.
“They’re real audience-builders,” he said. “So many come to the regular concerts after visiting the Sunday concerts.”