Rather than easing into retirement with a move to Stratford, John Miller is probably working harder now than at any other point in his life.
At a time when most concert presenters are being cautious, Miller has added a sixth week for the 12th annual edition of his Stratford Summer Music Festival, which kicks off with a free open-air concert by the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and fireworks at Lower Queens Park on the Avon River on Monday at 8 p.m.
Growing steadily from a modest start in 2000, the festival is now the biggest event of its kind in the Golden Horseshoe.
Although the current summer music programme is only a dozen years old, its roots go back to the early days of theatre in the town. Glenn Gould was a regular Summer visitor at Stratford in those days, and Miller is taking advantage of this fall’s 80th anniversary of Gould’s birth to bring some high-powered classical performers to the southwestern Ontario town.
“This season is even more important for us, because if there was any musician who believed (in the musical potential at Stratford), it was Glenn Gould,” says Miller.
In honour of the great Canadian pianist, the festival has invited Simone Dinnerstein, Gabriela Montero and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet to join notable Canadians Jan Lisiecki and David Jalbert to present solo recitals this summer.
Further in the Gould vein, there are recitals by notable organists, concerts by three young pianists Miller believes have bright futures, and a concert performance by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt of their hit play, Two Pianos, Four Hands.
On top of all that, Miller has been able to arrange two concerts by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, which he hopes will become a permanent summer resident at the festival.
“It’s the right thing that Stratford have a music programme as strong as the theatre programme,” Miller declares.
“Thanks to what theatre has accomplished, the Stratford brand and infrastructure are very strong,” he says. People who love theatre are also likely to love music. Six decades of steady tourism also mean there is no shortage of accommodations and places to eat.
Miller says his push to grow the music programming every year is merely a reflection of the “brash optimism that led to the founding of the Stratford Festival.”
The artistic producer thinks that not being a professional musician has allowed him to see the larger business picture more clearly. Miller also gives credit to a long list of artistic advisors (including retired CBC Radio producer and master classical programmer Neil Crory), community and corporate sponsors, and two provincial grant programmes for bolstering the festival’s success.
Even with six weeks of programming that includes jazz and world music — a lot of it performed for free on a barge on the Avon in the centre of town — full houses are never guaranteed. And anecdotal evidence suggests there may be fewer tourists on southern Ontario’s sun-baked roads this summer.
“Every season, I bite my nails about how ticket sales will go,” Miller admits. But then he looks at the growing line of annual posters that line the walls of the festival offices. “Then I have this here-we-go-again moment. I love that moment; it moves me.”
There is no sign that Miller has reached the limit of his musical dreams for Stratford.
He talks about how the University of Waterloo is opening a new campus in town with an Open Text connection that has potential for new musical experiments.
He also mentions that there’s a parcel of land not too far away that would make a prime home for outdoor orchestral concerts. “There’s nothing more beautiful than a symphony under the stars,” he adds, with a twinkle in his eye.
“Stratford Summer Music is my kitchen, and I’m its chef,” Miller says.
And, right now, he’s cooking with gas.
For all the details on this summer’s concerts at Stratford Summer Music, click here.