5 Questions to Mina Miller (Founder, Music of Remembrance)

Pianist Mina Miller is the founder, president, and artistic director of Music of Remembrance, a non-profit organization that focuses on remembering the Holocaust through music. Like the organization, Miller is currently based in Seattle, but she is originally from New York, where she received degrees from the Manhattan School of Music and NYU.

Seeking to apply the lessons learned from the Holocaust to our modern times, Music of Remembrance commissions works that bring attention to the experiences of others who have been excluded or persecuted for their faith, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Some of the composers they have commissioned since their founding include Lori Laitman, Nicolas Lell Benavides, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and the late Ryuichi Sakamoto. For its milestone 25th anniversary, Music of Remembrance has commissioned a new opera composer by Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. Before It All Goes Dark is based on the true story of a work of art that, unbeknown to the inheritor, had been looted by the Nazis from its original owners.

What led you to become interested in founding Music of Remembrance?

In 1998, I was established as a university professor and performing pianist. I wanted my next step to be one where I could use music to make a difference in the world. As the child of parents whose entire families were annihilated in the Holocaust, I had grown up with a visceral awareness of the power of memory, and of the vastness of stories that needed telling. Music of Remembrance was a calling for me, a way of pulling these strands together, and of seeking to give a voice to those who had been silenced.

Music of Remembrance presents Ryuichi Sakamoto's Snow Falls -- Photo by Jared Chang

Music of Remembrance presents Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Snow Falls — Photo by Jared Chang

What are some of the guiding principles in your work programming and commissioning for Music of Remembrance?

Over the past quarter-century, we have commissioned and premiered over 40 new works. Many of these commissions recalled the Holocaust and other historical atrocities, but — especially in the past decade — they have also focused on challenges to human rights in our own time. In programming our performances, we strive to bring past and present together, combining music that preserves memory with works that draw on those lessons to address urgent questions for today.

While we have commissioned works by long-established composers like Jake Heggie, Tom Cipullo, Lori Laitman, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, we have also sought opportunities to work with a talented new generation of composers like Mary Kouyoumdjian, Nicolas Lell Benavides, Sahba Aminikia, Eric Hachikian, and Christophe Chagnard. We especially want composers to create works that come from their own hearts and their own experiences, including Sakamoto’s Snow Falls, about the consequences of nuclear war; Hachikian’s Return to Amasia, about the Armenian genocide; Aminikia’s Stormy Seas, about child boat refugees; and Benavides’ Tres minutos, about a family and a border that separates them.

If you look at our programming, you’ll be struck by how our musical scope has grown. Our early seasons centered mostly on works for small chamber ensembles. Since then, our repertoire has broadened to also encompass choral works, choreography, film scores, musical dramas, and fully-staged operas.

People who’ve attended our concerts will tell you that we’ve never compromised our artistic standards. We’ve been blessed with an amazingly dedicated core ensemble of players from the Seattle Symphony, and we’ve been able to bring in world-class guest artists like mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who performed in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope at our most recent concert.

Music of Remembrance presents Sahba Aminikia's "Stormy Seas" -- Photo by Nick Klein

Music of Remembrance presents Sahba Aminikia’s “Stormy Seas” — Photo by Nick Klein

Over the years, Music of Remembrance’s scope has expanded beyond the Holocaust to address other issues of persecution. What are some of the topics and approaches that commissioned composers have taken in addressing those issues?

If the Holocaust teaches us anything, it’s the terrible price of silence in the face of injustice suffered by others. In our Holocaust-inspired commissions, we’ve emphasized the range of communities that were targeted: not only Jews, but other religious minorities, gay people, Roma, modernist artists, political critics, and resisters. Looking beyond the Holocaust, we’ve commissioned works about the Armenian genocide, the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, and the devastation of nuclear war. We’ve also commissioned works focused on continuing and contemporary challenges like religious intolerance, the worldwide refugee crisis, and border separations.

Music, and especially opera, has a power to reach people’s hearts in ways that textbooks and newspapers cannot. Rather than trying to teach dispassionate history lessons, our most effective commissions have been those that tell intimate emotional stories: the idealistic young lovers torn apart in Nazi Berlin; the Auschwitz survivor struggling for words capable of describing what she witnessed; the child boat refugees braving stormy seas in search of safety and new lives; the brother and sister allowed a brief supervised reunion at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Music of Remembrance presents Nicolas Lell Benavides' "Tres Minutos" -- Photo by Ben Van Houten

Music of Remembrance presents Nicolas Lell Benavides’ “Tres Minutos” — Photo by Ben Van Houten

How did the new opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, and its premiere tour, come about?

The opera, Before It All Goes Dark, came about with Jake’s discovery of a true story that Howard Reich reported in the Chicago Tribune. Gerald “Mac” McDonald, a Vietnam War veteran in the Chicago area, discovered that he was the sole rightful heir to a priceless art collection stolen by the Nazis from a great-great-uncle whom Mac had never heard of. His arduous voyage to Prague in search of this inheritance led him to embrace an identity that had been hidden from him, and through art he discovers a deeper truth in his life.

Before It All Goes Dark is our fifth major commission with Heggie and Scheer, and we know that, like the others, it will be very special. We’ll unveil the work in May 2024 in a three-city premiere tour at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall and San Francisco’s Presidio Theatre, and in partnership with Chicago Opera Theater at the Athenaeum Center. The production will star bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and mezzo-soprano Megan Marino.

What things can we look forward to next from you and Music of Remembrance?

There are so many more stories that need to be heard. Our 2023-24 season will include a focus on Native American experiences and the premiere of a new work we’ve commissioned about the current struggle for women’s rights in Iran. We’re convinced that music truly can matter for the world, and it’s this conviction that keeps us moving forward.


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