When Ambrose Miller was studying music at Britain’s Cambridge University in the late 1960s, he found the program at the time “too academic to be inspiring.”
“So I did an extraordinary thing,” he said during a brief interview Friday, en route to an appointment at the Royal Palace. “I left Cambridge to continue my [preliminary coursework] at London University. The fact is, no one ever does that.”
The move from the prestigious music academy to a less elite one is representative of Miller’s penchant for bold, even risky moves. The characteristic was again evident in 1981, when Miller set out to establish the European Union Chamber Orchestra.
Since then, the 49-year-old, an accomplished viola musician in his own right and a talented composer, has had little time for anything but managing his brainchild.
The orchestra, in town last week to mark the 77th birthday of King Norodom Sihanouk, now includes 50 musicians from nine European nations and has performed in countries ranging from Venezuela to Bahrain.
Miller recalled that mobilizing what began as a 25-member orchestra proved a challenge, given the cost of purchasing airline tickets and booking rooms, as well as the sheer difficulty of finding the talent.
“Playing in a chamber orchestra as opposed to a full-blown orchestra is a valuable experience for any musician,” Miller said. “Considering its intimate scale, every musician counts. But this requires a high degree of discipline and precision.”
Miller, who previously worked as a manager for London’s Royal Opera House and for a leading agency for musical artists, said he envisioned the chamber orchestra as an “uncontentious symbol of the European Union.”
“As long as we continue to make nice noises, I feel we’re beyond criticism,” he said, referring to the sometimes heated debate over European unity.
Miller’s instincts appear to have been on target. When it was launched, the EU Chamber Orchestra offered two public performances a year. Since then, its annual schedule has swelled to 70 performances and its size has doubled. But even with this rich and varied past, Miller termed Thursday’s performance at the ballroom of Hotel Le Royal “something special.”
“It was, of course, especially gratifying to perform in honor of King Sihanouk’s birthday,” he said. “This is our very first performance in Cambodia, and the public response has been terrific. Tickets were sold out more quickly than anyone imagined, and the audience was clearly pleased with the performance.”
A ballroom was packed with well-dressed Cambodians and expatriates attending the concert. Although reprimanded by director Kees Hulmann for applauding in between movements, rather than at the end of pieces, the audience seemed to enjoy the rare treat of live classical music.
For Miller, this response signaled the universal appeal of Western classical music, which he said is too often “written off as boring and elitist.”
Red-faced and talkative, Miller appears to exemplify the egalitarian approach to classical music he promotes. “Well, I surely hope people find it elite,” he said. “But elitist…that’s absolute nonsense. Classical CDs are snatched up by people from a wide variety of backgrounds. And there are scores of radio stations in Europe that play nothing but classical music….People listen to it for one reason: It’s fun to listen to.”
Miller sees the EU Chamber Orchestra as one more vehicle for bringing Western classical music to a broader audience, while “raising the profile of a united Europe as such.”
An avowed internationalist, he also insists the orchestra’s performances outside of Europe be a “two-way cultural street.“
“There is a tendency among us Europeans to be inward looking,” he said.
“When our musicians return to their respective countries, I hope they’re better able to view Europe in a broader international context,” he said. “After all, there’s a whole wide world out there.”
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