Miller Porfiris Duo are Anton Miller, violin, and Rita Porfiris, viola
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Anton: I was fortunate to have many mentors during my early musical studies. As I look back at those early days, it strikes me that I was musically nurtured every step of the way. My earliest influence was my mother. She played the violin and spent countless hours with me on the instrument. Her universally positive encouragement made me believe that I was capable of achieving anything I put my mind to. Her early support still gives me belief in everything I do. I also had many violin instructors along the way who gave me invaluable information and direction. My studies in England as a very young child and then my time at the Vienna Hochschule für Musik as a teenager gave me a foundation and understanding of music that prepared me for the initial stages of my career. Even with this background, it wasn’t until college that I really learned the importance of living a life in music. I can directly attribute that understanding to both of my collegiate violin teachers, Franco Gulli and Dorothy DeLay.
Rita: I come from a restaurant family, not a musical one like Anton. I was lucky to be surrounded by a thriving classical music scene both in New York and Arizona growing up; and immersed in orchestras and chamber music from a young age. I was given opportunities to be coached by musical heroes such as members of the Juilliard, Amadeus, Budapest, and Guarneri quartets. Then at Juilliard, being one of the last generations to study with William Lincer which paved the way for an early career as a professional orchestral violist. In that life I worked with Bernstein, Celibidache, Tilson Thomas and Eschenbach and even got to play chamber music with some of them. Being able to work with the legends in all genres – chamber, orchestra and solo – has without question shaped me as a person and artist.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Covid-19 has been a huge challenge. We had an entire season of concerts postponed and cancelled. In normal times the greatest challenge is to find a balanced schedule of travelling and performing. We travel all over the world to perform and usually find that we have very little time for just relaxing. During “the great pause” of 2020 you would think we would finally get some down time, but now we are dealing with the world of remote teaching, rehearsing, and performing. We are having to gain a certain competency in audio engineering, video editing, and related subjects, and miss being able to communicate in the moment with a live audience.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
We tend to love whatever it is that we are working on, but do particularly love our latest CD ‘Threaded Sky’. All of the composers (Read Thomas, Bright Sheng, Mani Mirzaee, and Krzysztof Penderecki) were living at the time we recorded and we had lots of input from most of them. Bright Sheng even flew down for the recording of his work, since it was a premiere recording! The music is extremely varied and there is something for everybody on this disc. We worked hard to achieve a high artistic level of ensemble and instrumental playing and have been rewarded with what we believe is a spectacular performance of these works.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Every one of our performances is memorable for us because they are always unique events with a unique combination of audience members. A few stand out – the time we played for an aboriginal tribe in a remote village in the mountains of Taiwan, where our performance was likely the first time any of them had experienced Western classical music. We’ve never seen such a wonderful reaction when we began to play – the young, old, and in-between, leapt to their feet and even began dancing to our music. It was one of the smallest audiences we played for (no more than 30 people) but was certainly the most enthusiastic. There was also the time last season when we played in a prison in Iceland. They cheered every time Rita played on the C string.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Serious compositions for violin and viola duo have generally been written more recently with the most notable exception being Mozart. His two String Duos and the Concerto for Violin and Viola with Orchestra (Symphonie Concertante) are pillars of the classical era. We have performed the Symphonie Concertante numerous times and it’s always a blast. Even so, since most of the repertoire we play and record is more recently written; those works are most interesting to us and probably are our strongest performances. We enjoy performing music written by composers of all cultures and backgrounds and have a particular affinity for music written in the 1920s through 1940s. One of our favourite duo concerti is Arthur Benjamin’s Romantic Fantasy (1935), a lush beautiful piece that doesn’t get programmed enough. Last time we played it was in Baltimore in 2014. We recently performed Manuel de Ponce’s Sonata à Duo (1924) in Mexico to great praise for our interpretation. Another favourite duo is Ernest Toch’s Divertimento Op. 37 No.2, (1926) which is on our third CD. Our recording may be only one of three that exist. There’s a funny story about one of the other recordings, by Heifetz and Piatigorsky. Toch wrote a Divertimento Op.37 no. 1, a completely different piece for violin and cello. Heifetz decided he wanted to record Op. 37 No 2, and perhaps just thinking No. 1 was a cello version of No.2, asked Piatigorsky to play it on the recording. They arrived at the studio to find that Piatigorsky had prepared No. 1, the cello piece, which would not work with Heifetz’s preparation of No 2. Guess who then had to learn an already difficult viola part on the cello? When we first heard the recording, which appeared to be the only one available of the work, we were so confused-since some of the parts are unplayable on the cello, they just skipped them. Also, in the editing they moved sections around out of order, completely changing the piece. So you see, we were determined to do it “right”! We particularly enjoy performing our silent film concerts. We try to mimic what would have been done back in the day by performing only period-appropriate music with these silent films. Most of the time Rita has to arrange the music for violin and viola, so we’ve gotten to know some terrific art songs from the 1880-1920s. We play without a monitor and visually coordinate with the film while playing, so every performance is slightly different. Lately these have been our most requested shows.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
We love all forms of art and are avid fans of visiting art museums. We once took a three day “museum” trip to Rome and went to 13 different museums!! Along with other art forms, music’s history and its grounding in the essence of the human experience is incredibly inspiring for us. It’s a gift to be able to communicate through our music with audiences and to bring music to all corners of the globe. We love our fans and draw enormous inspiration from their energy. We also are fans of self organized “triathlons” where we kayak for an hour, trail run 5-7 miles, then bike 20-30 miles. Being out in nature has inspired countless musicians and composers before us and we are no exception!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
We always try to programme works that have some current relevance (living composers, commissions, music based on personal experiences) We also like to explore composers and repertoire that has not received the attention they deserve. It’s interesting for us to always look for new repertoire so we generally try to mix and match unfamiliar works with more recognizable pieces. We’re also fortunate that Rita is a master arranger and a number of the pieces we programme are either her transcriptions or have been edited by her. In deciding on programmes, we are always thinking of what our audience might want to hear and what repertoire works together.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
That’s an interesting question and, honestly, the audience is more important to us than the venue. We have played in so many different spaces that we’re pretty much used to all different kinds of halls. Whether large or small, boomy or dry, as long as we have the ability to connect with our audience we are happy. It’s an incredible thing for us that each concert we play feels like a special event for us. No two concerts feel the same and that’s because of our relationship with the audience. We have played in the small villages and the largest cities in the world and do enjoy returning to places, not usually because of the venue, but because of the connection with the community.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
In our experience, audiences are hungry for live music concerts. If you are able to do a good job of communicating the art, it doesn’t matter what genre music it is. We play outreach concerts for people that have never been exposed to classical music and the response is extraordinary. We believe that once someone experiences a classical music concert in person, they’re very likely to get hooked. This is especially true for young people. When we go into schools and play, they universally respond to the sounds, the skill, the musical meaning, and content of our communication. But the same is also true of playing concerts in bars, or prisons; as long as the content is relatable, people want more. Be approachable. Be relatable. Communicate the composer’s intent.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Our definition of success is to make great art and to share it with others. We have been fortunate to have an incredibly busy career so far and hope to always be travelling/ performing, meeting new people and performing for them. Every time we’re on stage we give 100%, and through the years all of those performances add up to fulfill that definition of success for us. In addition to live performances, the contributions of recordings we’ve made are also an important part of our success and career. We are fortunate to have made four critically-acclaimed recordings so far, all very different and unique, along with significant airplay all over this continent and throughout Europe. Success for us is reaching people and touching their hearts with our music.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
As we teach at the Hartt School in Connecticut, and as we travel internationally to festivals as performers and faculty, we mentor a number of young artists. To excel at a high level in our field takes an incredible amount of commitment. The ones who are successful know that being an artist and musician is a way of life. You have to believe in yourself and the value of what you offer. You have to approach every aspect of making music with respect for the art and respect and understanding for your audiences. It takes a lot of lonely hours practicing to hone the craft but it’s essential to never forget why we do it. It should not be for personal aggrandizement but for the love of sharing and communicating with and to others. And please, please don’t take yourselves too seriously. Look for humour and beauty everywhere.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Hopefully back out on stage, performing with colleagues, for live humans! That’s where we would like to be in 10 months’ time, as well as 10 years’ time. It takes a pandemic to really simplify things, doesn’t it?
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being able to create music with like-minded individuals, with food and drink after!
The Miller-Porfiris Duo has been delighting audiences since 2005. Recent seasons have seen tours around the United States, Europe, Taiwan and Israel; appearances on the Chamber Music of Little Rock, Chamber Music Pittsburgh, Tel Aviv Museum, and Sheldon Friends of Music series; and collaborations with Lynn Harrell, Jamie Laredo, and Joseph Kalichstein.