Conductor Rebecca Miller: ‘Nobody wants to be given opportunities because of their gender: talent has to be there’

Conductor Rebecca Miller. Picture: Richard Haughton

Conductor Rebecca Miller. Picture: Richard Haughton - Credit: Richard Haughton

A married conductor and pianist collaborate on a recording of rare concertos that champion little known women composers

Rebecca Miller and Danny Driver are two musicians well-known on the North London circuit: she, as the conductor whose New Professionals Orchestra used to be based at Hampstead Parish Church; and he, as the pianist who once ran the Hampstead & Highgate Festival.

But not everyone will know that they’re also married to each other. And they sometimes work together – as they do on a new CD of rare piano concertos for which he plays and she conducts.

Like many music partnerships, theirs first began through working side by side – in a concert at which Driver played and Miller conducted Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Since then, joint-ventures haven’t been so frequent, Miller says. But this Hyperion disc offered the opportunity to make a statement about something they both champion: female creativity in music.

All the works on the CD are by women composers: none of them exactly household names, though there’s a following these days for Amy Beach – or Mrs HHA Beach as she demurely styled herself, respectable late 19th Century Boston housewife that she was.

Women of her class and status weren’t encouraged to pursue careers in music, and her talent as a pianist was repressed. But when her husband died, she flowered as a composer. And her piano concerto is, Miller believes, “a work that rivals any of the greats”.

Most Read

It shares the disc with another concerto by Dorothy Howell: a composer who enjoyed success during the 1920s when she was championed in the Proms by Henry Wood, but then vanished into obscurity until her death in 1982.

“There were great expectations of her when she was young,” says Miller, “but perhaps too great. People called her the English Richard Strauss, and she was inhibited, I think, by that. In later life she talked about burning her scores – although a fair amount survive, and I have plans to explore them in future concerts with the Southbank Sinfonia.”

Miller has just taken the job of Associate Conductor to the Sinfonia, combining it with teaching at the Royal Academy of Music’s junior department and being Director of Orchestras at Royal Holloway, University of London.

All those roles give her a chance to encourage female conductors, in much the way she champions female composers; and she has opinions about how to do it.

“When I started to conduct,” she says, “I never thought there was anything unusual about it: the door seemed already opened. But here we are, years later, still talking as though it WAS unusual. Which suggests something’s wrong.

“Nobody wants to be given opportunities because of their gender: talent has to be there. But I know from the classes I teach at the Academy that girls are reluctant to come forward. So I’m in favour of positive action along the lines that some orchestras are starting to take. The Southbank Sinfonia and the City of London Sinfonia are both setting themselves targets for the engagement of women in leadership roles. I think that’s a good move.”

Meanwhile, Miller juggles her own leadership roles with the occasionally conflicting one of raising children – which, she says, is one reason that stops her and her husband from working together as much as they’d like.

“Working with Danny is fantastic because we know each other so well, we’re each other’s biggest fan and biggest critic; and to be able to sit at the dinner table and talk through the issues in a piece is wonderful.

“The only problem is that if we’re both playing the same concert, who is there to babysit?”

Rebecca Miller and Danny Driver in concertos by Beach, Howell and Chaminade with the BBCScottish Symphony Orchestra, out now on Hyperion.