The last live SLO Symphony concert any of us will attend for a while was performed just two weeks before the stay-at-home order was issued in the State of California. In a twist of irony no one could makeup, the title of that concert was Sounds Like Home, and Anna James Miller, the Symphony’s brand new executive director was in attendance.
“I was warmly welcomed,” said Miller, who began working with maestro Andrew Sewell almost immediately to develop a shared vision for the Symphony’s future.
“Andrew is an incredibly collaborative partner,” Miller continued, “and we’ve already conceptualized new outreach programs and brainstormed new business model ideas to help us weather the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
We caught up with Anna while she was still wrapping up her duties as Communications Officer for the Kitsap Community Foundation, which
serves the entire Kitsap/North Mason region in the state of Washington. Kitsap is a county about the same size as ours, located across Puget Sound from Seattle. When she assumed the reins at the SLO Symphony on May 15th, she brought with her more than a decade of performing arts leadership experience in such places as Seattle Opera, a dance company, a theater festival, and three city symphonies.
But more than that, Anna Miller brings a rare combination of qualities that make her an ideal fit for the job. Born into a musical family (Dad is a multiple-Grammy-award-winning professional cellist of world renown; Mom is a music production lighting designer), Anna left home for college at 17 to pursue a career in classical ballet. Over time, the realities of being a professional dancer—the short career, the risk of injury, the pressures of staying in top physical form—began to take its toll. So her career goals morphed from being a performer to working on the other side of the curtain. But she still possesses the sensibilities of an artist and the empathy she needs to advocate for them.
Additionally, Miller has strong analytical talents that few musicians possess. Her grandmother, you see, wired the historic Connecticut farmhouse where Anna was born, for electricity, telling her granddaughter later: “It was just like following a dress pattern.” She passed along that talent to Anna’s mother, who was more than proficient with a light board. These decidedly non-artistic abilities would come in handy in Miller’s administrative life.
Enhancing this unusual set of skills is Mill- er’s leadership style. As a graduate student at Gonzaga University, Miller studied “servant leadership”, a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, builds better organizations, and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. As a woman with a naturally youthful appearance, Miller faced numerous incidents of sexism and ageism during her early years as an arts executive director.
“I realized that in order to become a leader that others respected and followed,” she explained, “I needed to lead from a place of service, to invest in the success and fulfillment of others, and to do work that speaks to my heart.”
Well worth a Google search for more detailed information, here are the 10 tenets of servant leadership: Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to the Growth of People, and Building Community.
“In a real way, I am grateful for the challenges I faced early in my career,” Miller said, “because I never would have connected with the academic community at GU, or found myself as a servant leader otherwise.”
SLO Symphony is a venerable institution, enhancing the cultural landscape of our county for almost 60 years now. The orchestra’s Concerts in the Cohan series is an anchor for the city’s Performing Arts Center. The Symphony offers beginning, intermediate, and advanced musicians opportunities to learn, expand their skills, and perform; and its Music Education programs transform the lives of hundreds of children each year.
“The musicians have a level of polish and precision that is rare among community orchestras,” said Miller. “Their partnership with the Performing Arts Center makes a world-class symphony experience within reach for our entire county and beyond.”
Miller’s immediate goal is, in her words, “to create an entirely new business model for the Symphony that will allow our community to continue to experience music during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, the old model was to hold concerts in a packed hall, sell tickets, make money, and support the Symphony’s next concert. What do we do now? Miller and her team are exploring all options: Do we assemble the orchestra on stage in front of an empty hall and put the concert online? Do we have the musicians play separately (but together) from home? Do we develop a drive-in concept like the old drive-in movie theaters? No decisions have been made as yet, but do look for them this month (maybe even today) at www.slosympho- ny.org or find them on Facebook.
“Beyond that, I want to help the entire arts community in our region recover from the significant losses caused by countless event cancellations during the stay-at-home mandate,” said Miller. “My vision is that the Symphony not only survives but thrives during this crisis. The biggest silver lining of this pandemic would be for the creative solutions we develop this year to become a national model that makes our art form truly accessible to everyone who wants to experience it.”
In addition to the adult orchestra, the Youth Symphony was accustomed to holding weekly rehearsals and instruction. Now, parents and students alike are struggling without their usual daily activities, social interactions, and creative outlets.
“We must find innovative ways to reach students and keep them engaged in the short term,” said Miller. “And in the long term, apply our format to an expanded model that will allow deeper interaction, broader reach, and greater program accessibility in the post-Covid-19 future.”
For me, and I suspect for many, there is nothing as thrilling, as sweet, as soul-satisfying as that moment when the conductor raises his baton, looks meaningfully at the musicians assembled before him, and with one downward stroke, fills the room with a wall of sound whose beauty transcends language, race, religion, beliefs–all the “differences” we humans perceive as keeping us separate. The music unites us, magically transporting us to a place where those differences melt away, leaving beauty, hope, and happiness in their place.
And so, while Anna, her husband Bryan, and their daughter, 1 1⁄2-year-old Cassidy, get accustomed to their new home on the Central Coast, the San Luis Obispo Symphony gears up for what will undoubtedly be an unprecedented season. Sounds Like Home, the concert she heard back in March, will probably not be considered as a theme any time soon. But in the coming months, Anna James Miller and the San Luis Obispo Symphony will find surprising, rewarding ways to keep the indisputable magic of music alive for all of us.
Now, more than ever, the San Luis Obispo Symphony needs your support. You can help by going to slosymphony.org.