Mark Miller (left) turns pages for pianist Joel Schoenhals as Ute Miller plays a classical piece at a recent performance at Mount Vernon Music.

Mark and Ute Miller: Bringing music and people together

Former SSISD Strings instructors bring classical sound to Northeast Texas

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

August 21, 2008 - Mark and Ute Miller are on a mission. The classical musicians want to bring music to "people who wouldn't otherwise hear it." Their mission has taken them from concert halls to the halls of Sulphur Springs schools, and finally, to the small town of Mount Vernon, where they are in their third season of presenting classical music in a down-home setting. Though it wasn't really in their plans, their mission eventually led them to buy a church.

"We never aspired to be church owners," Mark said during a recent interview. "We were doing concerts for Texas A&M University in Commerce, pulling in our friends and colleagues from Dallas. We had a party at the end of every season. In the summer of 2005, we found out that old Central Christian Church in Mount Vernon was for sale. It struck a chord with us, so Ute and I took the plunge and bought it."

Mount Vernon attorney B.F. Hicks helped the Millers incorporate as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Hicks was familiar with the Miller's mission to bring music to the masses.

Though the Millers were firmly in the world of professional orchestras, "it was not enough. We were doing all we could (to bring people and music together), it just wasn't enough."

Both musicians had grown up in small towns and had to travel for their violin lessons and a big orchestra experience. They appreciated the need for classical music in rural areas. They had friends who had been involved in a program that provided funding for music outreach, so they applied for and received a one-year grant.

"In 1995, Ute and I were on a national endowment grant," he said. "They happened to send us to Big Sandy where Ambassador College arranged for our first full recital at Northeast Texas Community College. B.F. brought a whole bunch of people to the concert in Mount Pleasant."

The couple, both violinists, ended up coming to Mount Vernon several times that year.

"We played at the depot," Miller said. "We played at the courthouse. The response was so warm. Mount Vernon just seemed like a natural fit."

When they took possession of their building, it was in less-than-perfect condition and lacked proper climate control. The first season, 2006-2007, presented some climate-specific issues.

"We didn't have central heat or air," Miller said. "It was a bit of a challenge, especially in winter. During our first New Years' show, fuses kept blowing."

Thanks to the success of Mount Vernon Music, Inc. and the generosity of volunteers like Hicks and contractor Ken McDonald, the building has "central heat and air with a separate climate zone for the back area where we keep the 1898 Steinway grand piano," Miller says.

The piano was donated to the non-profit organization by Tom Wilkinson.

"Being that old, the piano has been around," Miller said. "It has a different sound and it fits beautifully in the space."

The space, as Miller calls it, has great acoustics.

"The congregation was a break-off group from the Church of Christ a century ago," he explained. "They couldn't abide the ban on instrumental music, so they broke."

Miller says that "no matter where you sit in the building, the sound is great. We won the lottery with acoustics. Just about anything you do in there sounds good."

Raised in a small town in Northern California, Miller began his love affair with music when his father gave him violin lessons.

"I loved it," Miller said. "When I was a teenager, I left it for a while, but missed the violin so I decided to go back."

Miller received his bachelors at the University of New York.

"I was playing at a music festival in California," he said. "There was a wonderful teacher there who invited me to attend UNY. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. It's an intense art school."

Miller did graduate work at Indiana University, studying under the direction of world-renowned teacher Joseph Gingold.

Miller met his wife Ute when they were both students at Boston University.

"Ute had done some graduate work in Germany, but had come to Boston to study with the violinist with the Julliard Quartet," he explained. Soon, the couple was "playing music together." They will celebrate their 20th anniversary this month.

The couple has lived in Boston, near Cologne, Germany and since 1999 have made their permanent home near White Rock Lake in Dallas.

The Millers are no strangers to Sulphur Springs music lovers.

"We can't take credit for starting it, but we were here at the beginning of the Sulphur Springs Strings Program," Miller explains. The couple was in town on a Rural Residency Grant for a year and then stayed on another year with Sulphur Springs ISD as artists in residence. Both Mark and Ute play with the Northeast Texas Symphony. The couple has also purchased a second home in Mount Vernon.

"If it were financially possible, we'd move to Mount Vernon," Miller said. "The reality of it is, a lot of our income comes from playing with orchestras and teaching."

Bringing people into the process is what Mount Vernon Music is all about.

"That's why we do what we do," Miller explains. "We're all in this together."

Now that Mount Vernon Music is a thriving entity, the Millers have adopted a new mission.

"We'd like to have a strings camp, like Round Top," said Miller.

With the Miller's talent, passion and focus, it's a good bet we'll be hearing chamber music all over the woods of Northeast Texas in the near future.

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The next program hosted by Mount Vernon Music is The Agnes Burns Memorial Keyboard Series, a series of events underwritten by Tom Wilkinson in honor of his late aunt who taught piano lessons to many students in Mount Vernon, at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 30 at Mount Vernon Music Hall, 402 Leftwich Street, Mount Vernon. Former Mount Vernon resident and pianist Holly Blake will perform selections from Haydn, Schubert and Granados. There is no charge for the performance.

Holly Blake began her piano studies at the age of eight. After 10 years of study with Betty Whitlock, Ms. Blake was accepted at Baylor University as a student of Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Piano Krassimira Jordan. Ms. Blake graduated from Baylor with a bachelors of music in piano performance in 2007. She is the recipient of a full assistantship from the Graduate School of Music at Baylor, where she currently studies piano with Jane Abbott-Kirk.

Ms. Blake attended the Bsendorfer International Piano Academy in Vienna, Austria in 2006. Her teachers included Krassimira Jordan (Baylor University), Carol Leone (Southern Methodist University), and Wolfgang Watzinger (Vienna Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts).

Ms. Blake has been teaching piano for nine years. After completing her graduate degree next spring, she plans to continue her studies for a doctorate of musical arts in piano performance and pedagogy.

On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 28-30, MVM will present the Whitlock/Clinton Chamber Concert, featuring Joel Schoenhals, Jolyon Pegis, Kristin Jutras.

On Saturday, Oct. 11, the group will host a Country Fest Concert.

On Sunday and Monday, Nov. 16 and 17, Four Strains of Strings and Piano is on the bill.

A Cappella Christmas will be Saturday, Dec. 13, with other performances scheduled through March of 2009.

Visit their website, www.mountvernonmusic.com for information and ticket prices of specific performances.

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