The pipe organ was so powerful, that Mark Miller remembers the instrument shaking him to his core. That’s how he first began to fall in love with it. “My dad was the minister of a church that had a pipe organ,” said Miller, who now resides in Plainfield with his husband of 28 years. “At the end of the service when the organ would be playing loud I would just run down the aisle to be next to the pipes, they just vibrated my whole body… It drew me to it.”
On Sept. 18, The Discovery Orchestra will be giving and recording an interactive performance centered on Miller, a classically trained organ player. The performance and recording will take place from 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. at Hauser Auditorium, in Basking Ridge at 131 Martinsville Rd. This event showcases French composer Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, a nearly 150-year-old piece that is one of the few symphonies to feature the pipe organ. “I think a lot of western European composers didn’t know what to do to integrate the two, but this is an organ symphony I have adored it since I was 12 years old,” Miller said.
Given the interactive nature of the upcoming Discovery Orchestra event, technical aspects of the symphony will be broken down for those in attendance throughout the performance.
Miller himself first encountered the piece circa Christmas of 1979, when his parents played it on the turn table, and he was moved by how spiritually striking the symphony was. He recalled thinking it was the best thing ever, which he realizes was probably strange for a 12-year-old. However, Miller also notes he didn’t have a typical upbringing. “I’m Black, I was born in Burlington, Vermont and adopted a week later by white parents,” he said. “There were seven of us kids and five of us where adopted. Korean, white, Black it was a really cool time growing up before cross racial adopting was really a thing.”
Though classical music has been a life-long love for him – been classically trained at Yale and Julliard – he’s especially started grappling with his relationship to the Western cannon over the past decade. Around the time of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown shootings, Miller started to reflect deeper on the landscape of the works intended to feature primarily white performers showcasing the work of white composers. “I work in sacred music and I work in churches and I’m trying to write music that crosses over between my experiences and Anglo spaces and African American spaces,” he said. “It’s been kind of a journey to deconstruct white supremacy in sacred music.” Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Miller said that he noticed more Western classical music institutions likewise making an effort to more heavily feature the work of diverse composers and bring in more varied performers. It’s an expansion he hopes will continue. “We just need to keep on expanding and adding,” he said. “You have to learn new repertoire.”
The Sept. 18 event is free to attend, though The Discovery Orchestra asks that attendees be at least eight years old. Those interested in going can add their name to the event’s guest list at discoveryorchestra.org.