Mark and Ute Miller: Passionate stewards of classical music

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Mount Vernon Music Trio, Mark Miller, Ute Miller and Jennifer Humphries, will close the Sunday Classical Series at Winnsboro Center for the Arts Jan. 15 (Courtesy Photo)

Mount Vernon Music Trio will close out the Sunday Classical Series on Jan. 15 at 2:30 p.m. on The Bowery Stage at Winnsboro Center for the Arts.

Violinist Mark and violist Ute Miller, founders of Mount Vernon Music, will be joined by Jennifer Humphries on cello.

Though their home and studios are in Dallas, the Millers are committed to bringing classical music to rural East Texas, having served as teachers in Big Sandy, Sulphur Springs and Commerce, both at the public schools and Texas A&M University.

They have also continued their in-school concerts for kids.

“In 2016 we visited schools in Mt. Pleasant, Palestine, Lufkin, Mt. Enterprise, Mt. Vernon, Sulphur Springs, Greenville and Mineola, reaching over 5,000 children,” Mark stated. “Our ‘Town Musicians’ piece never fails to enthrall kids – the combination of story line, artwork and dramatic music draws them in every time.”

In addition to the school outreach, their program, “Musical Lifelines,” brought mini-concerts to shut-ins in Mt. Pleasant, Bonham, Quitman, Pittsburg, Paris, Lindale, Jacksonville and Mount Vernon.

The Millers are also professional musicians, having played with The Fort Worth Symphony, The Dallas Opera and The East Texas Symphony, among others.

The couple purchased the old Central Christian Church in Mount Vernon in the fall of 2005, where Mount Vernon Music programs are held. Renovations took a year.

In the fall of 2006, the Millers bought a home in Mount Vernon.

Mark grew up in California and took violin lessons, received a bachelor’s from the State University of New York at Purchase and then did graduate work at Indiana University under Joseph Gingold. He met his future wife, Ute, while they were studying at Boston University.

Ute grew up in Germany, studied and played there professionally, and then came to study at Boston University with the violist from the Julliard Quartet.

The Winnsboro News: Talk about the life of a classical music student.

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Mark Miller

Mark: We like to say that if a student can imagine being happy in any career other than music, they should probably do that instead, since there are certainly easier ways of making a living!

In my case, I actually started down another path of study briefly after high school, thinking I would go into journalism.

I did well, but after a couple of years I missed the violin so much.

An opportunity came up to study at Purchase in New York, and once I was there I knew I was in exactly the right place for me. I loved it.

That time of study for a young musician is just so priceless — learning lots of new music, developing technique on one’s instrument, enjoying mentors whose influence stays with you the rest of your life.

Ute: In Germany when I was very young, my parents asked me if I wanted to play the violin, and I said “Sure, why not?” without really even knowing what a violin was.

My father made my first teacher promise to tell him if I wasn’t cut out for it. Thankfully that didn’t apply in my case!

I switched over to the viola when I was a teenager, and knew it was the instrument for me. I fell in love with that warm sound.

I attended a conservatory in Frankfurt, where I studied music and also got my first professional orchestra work subbing in the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. That was a great experience.

I had wonderful teachers in college, including one I would ride hours on the train to visit for lessons in a different city.

In my final year with him, he took me and several other students to a viola festival in Holland. One of the guest artists performing there was Raphael Hillyer, the founding violist of the Julliard Quartet.

Hillyer invited me to come continue my studies with him at Boston University. Of course I said yes, and that’s where Mark and I met.

TWN: After you married you lived in Boston, Cologne, Germany and now, Dallas, since 1999. What made you choose Dallas?

Ute: You could literally say Texas chose us. When we were still living in Germany, playing full time in orchestras, we applied as a violin/viola duo for a program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. They were paying an allowance for young musical groups — trios, quartets, duos — to go and live in rural areas around the U.S., bringing live chamber music into places that typically wouldn’t get it. So we were contacted by a school hosting a residency in East Texas.

Mark: When we got the letter inviting us, I said “Is there really a town called ‘Big Sandy’?”

So I looked at the map, and there it was!

We ended up sharing a nine- month residency with a brass quintet from Wisconsin. We lived in an aging doublewide, and played some 45 concerts that year.

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Ute Miller

Ute: And we had a really cool piece written for us by a Boston composer.

Mark: And we released our first recording.

Ute: But we were soon developing connections with the music world in the DFW area, and after a couple of years of living in East Texas, we knew it was time to move to the city where there was more work.

Mark: Plus, my parents were getting on in age, my mother’s health had declined, and none of my siblings were near them in their town in California. We were in a good position to look after them, so they moved to Dallas and lived close by for several years.

TWN: Your connections to East Texas go back a while. Talk about your involvement in the Sulphur Springs ISD Strings Program and how you came to settle on Mount Vernon for a music venue.

Ute: During our year in Big Sandy, one of the school districts in the area heard about the new program in Sulphur Springs and sent us up there to talk with the people in charge. Then the program was just focused on one elementary school, but the teacher and principal showed a lot of commitment and vision.

Mark: Together with A&M Commerce they hired us the next year. We taught in several schools in Sulphur Springs, in Commerce Elementary, and at the university.

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Mount Vernon Music is located at the corner of Yates and Leftwich Streets in the former Central Christian Church building. (Courtesy Photo)

Ute: We had gotten to know some people in Mount Vernon in those first years, playing several times there for things involving the Franklin County Historical Association. Some years after we moved to Dallas, attorney B.F. Hicks let us know that the old Central Christian Church was for sale.

Mark: We had been looking for some way to revive the activity and spirit of our original “Rural Residency” and were curious enough to come out and take a look. We went with a couple of friends from the Dallas Symphony. The old building needed some TLC, but we saw potential, and the acoustics were terrific. It felt right, so we took the plunge and bought it, and incorporated MVM a couple of months later.

TWN: What’s coming up for MVM in the next month/year?

Mark: We are looking forward to the renowned Oasis Saxophone Quartet on Saturday, January 21 at 7:30 pm. These four guys produce an irresistibly refined and expressive sound, and they do have amazing chops!

Ute: In February we’re presenting a program in MVM Hall titled “Shall We Klezmer?” which should be a whole lot of fun. It will be like visiting an interesting faraway place and sampling the flavor of their culture. Klezmer is the incredible traditional music of Eastern European Jewish culture.

Mark: It’s a kind of musical stew of Hebrew melodies, folk music, dance tunes, gypsy influence and even jazz.

TWN: You both have active teaching studios in the city. Does teaching keep you on your toes?

Mark: Teaching is the perfect foil to complement what we do as performers, where we share the result of our own musical and technical work on whatever piece we’re performing. When we teach, we try and guide that work process from the vantage point of another person with his or her own challenges and needs.

Ute: The advice we give one student might be totally different from what we give another. And each time we appreciate the things we learned from our own teachers a little bit more. Sometimes it takes a student with a particular problem to awaken a forgotten tip that we got long ago from one of our mentors.

TWN: Talk about what the audience should hear from a professional-level violin performance.

Mark: I think the quality of sound is what draws people to any instrument that is well played, and of course that holds big time for the violin. In the program we’re doing in Winnsboro on the Bowery Stage, the violin takes on a few very different roles, but it’s a good actor, and I think people will enjoy how it slips from one style to another.

TWN: Talk about what the audience should hear from a professional-level viola performance.

Ute: Absolutely what Mark said about the sound quality.

Unfortunately, the viola is frequently the most overlooked of the stringed instruments, maybe partly due to the middle range it occupies.

And there is still this crazy idea that violists tend to be weaker violinists who were looking for an easier part to play.

I assure you that was not the case with me!

TWN: Talk about the program you have planned for the Sunday Classical Series.

Ute: Planning this program was a bit like laying out a menu, and we think it makes for a very balanced musical meal! We start with Beethoven and his duet for viola and cello, first heard with Beethoven himself playing the viola part and a wealthy friend and amateur musician playing the cello.

Mark: We get a glimpse of Beethoven’s humor in the title of the manuscript “Duo for Viola and Cello and Two Obbligato Pairs of Glasses,” alluding to both men needing glasses while playing.

Ute: Maybe they had to wear glasses because his handwriting was bad!

Next up are a couple of duets for violin and viola by jazz violinist Benedikt Brydern. This composer really knows what he’s doing, and the music is a great show of what both instruments can do — in a very upbeat, engaging musical style.

Mark: One of these pieces was commissioned by us, and is called “Bebop for Beagles.”

He actually wrote music about our dogs!

Ute: We also play some wonderfully colorful music by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu.

His “Duo No. 2” for violin and viola doesn’t get played so often, but it is a very moving and energetic piece.

Afterwards, we return to Beethoven and join our friend Jennifer Humphreys in one of the best trios ever written for these three instruments.

Like several other pieces of his including the Fifth Symphony, it is in the key of C minor, and showcases Beethoven’s stormy character. Really great music.

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Mount Vernon Music Trio will be in concert at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15, at Winnsboro Center for the Arts.

For tickets, call 903-342-0686.

 

 

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