New TSO conductor Miriam BurnsHitting a High NoteConductor Miriam Burns Takes the Baton at the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra
By Jason Dehart
Miriam Burns will tell you point-blank: The act of conducting is more than waving a stick around in time with the music. And being a conductor is about more than just standing at a podium directing musicians.
“You’ve seen people up there and it looks like they’re just beating time . . . It’s easy to do that, but in order to really express the music – and what you want to do through gesture – is to communicate to the orchestra how you want the phrasing, showing the music,” she said.
“You want to show the music and the gesture, not just beat time. And that’s the difference between an OK conductor and a great conductor. Because you shouldn’t have to say the words; you should do as little talking as possible, but be able to express the music through the gesture. Not everybody has the aptitude for that, and I’m not sure why; it’s rather mysterious.”
Sixteen years of experience and skill – and her philosophy that music means more than just notes and rhythm – led the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra in June to hire Burns as its new music director and conductor. She is the fourth conductor in the history of the organization.
“Miriam Burns brings a high level of expertise to the TSO, and an expectation that our orchestra can continually increase its capacity for producing outstanding performances,” said Mary Bedford, president of the symphony. “During her audition, she conducted a performance that many of our musicians noted as truly inspirational – and the audience concurred.”
From Musician to Conductor
Burns has an impressive resumé. After a public-school music education in Ohio, she attended Ohio State University before transferring to the prestigious Mannes College of Music in New York. She also studied at the Aspen Music Festival and the Yale School of Music.
During her college years, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violin performance and became a chamber musician with the New York String Orchestra and the Quartet Program, and was an original member of what is known today as the Chester String Quartet.
Violin may have been her first love, but Burns said later became enthralled with the art of conducting.
“I became interested in conducting during the first year at Mannes,” she said. “I had the privilege of playing under a very gifted conductor, Semyon Bychkov, who was actually my first teacher. He conducted so vividly, and so vividly expressed the music, that I tried to play from memory just to watch what he was doing. There was something electrifying about his music-making, and the gesture.”
And so Burns began her transition from orchestra member to full-time conductor.
“Semyon was my first teacher, but my main teacher was Yakov Kreizberg, who is actually Semyon’s brother,” Burns said.
“They are two different people with the same technique; it’s a Russian technique, and there is a definite school of Russian techniques that gives one the language of being able to express the music very vividly through the hands.”
Beyond the Baton
Again, there is a lot more to the job than being expressive and communicative. A conductor has to wear many hats, she said.
“As a conductor, you’re many things in addition to waving your arms around,” Burns said. “You’re a diplomat; you’re in some ways a psychologist. Sometimes you have to be a traffic cop. On the other side of the podium you’re a fundraiser, and you have to deal with the (symphony’s board of directors) and the public. You’re constantly promoting the orchestra to the community, and you have to have the personal skills it takes to relate well to people. You have to know how to get the best out of people without them feeling manipulated in any way.”
A good conductor also has to know the repertoire, she said. It is especially helpful when auditioning for a job.
“I’ve conducted all the Beethoven symphonies numerous times, all the Brahms symphonies; I’ve plowed through most of the major repertoire, so it’s luxurious . . . it feels better,” Burns said. “Just because you’re not doing it for the first time. There’s nothing like having experience that makes you feel even more at home.”
Burns, who lives in New York, is contracted to be in Tallahassee 10 weeks a year for auditions and performances. When not in Tallahassee, she is the music director and conductor of the Kenosha Symphony in Wisconsin and the Orchestra of the Redeemer in New York City. She also is conductor of the C.W. Post Summer Music Festival, where she passes on her conducting skills. In addition, she has conducted on the international stage at Bournemouth Symphony in England, the First Ladies Symphony of Poland, and in September will conduct the YinQi Symphony of Taiwan. Back home in the States, she has been guest conductor at the Milwaukee Symphony, the Syracuse Symphony, the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, the MasterWorks Festival, the Skaneateles Festival and the New York AllState Orchestra.
For all that traveling, though, Burns said she fell in love with Tallahassee during her auditions in March.
“I’m really excited. I like the town very, very much,” she said. “I thought it was pretty – I like the fact it’s hilly, and people seem nice, and it felt like a good fit with everybody – the board, the musicians, the audience. It’s a vibrant university town; I love that, and I felt that it would be a good fit.
“I feel at home here,” Burns said. “I actually felt, during that week in March, that I could live here. It doesn’t feel small-townish. Even though I probably won’t be moving here, I felt like I could live here and be comfortable. And I’m looking forward to getting to know everybody. I’m very hands-on. I like to be accessible to everyone . . . (A conductor) is essentially the artistic ambassador to the community, and you want the orchestra to be highly visible in the community so that everybody knows about it and knows what’s going on. You want to create a buzz so that people want to come to the concerts.”