Greg Milliren’s first job with the Minnesota Orchestra didn’t involve playing flute—but he has now been our associate principal flute for six years and counting. Later this week you’ll see him and his golden flute at center stage as he solos in the Carmen Fantasy for Two Flutes and Orchestra, with Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel as the other soloist. This week he shares his thoughts on Sommerfest and his history with the Orchestra, his favorite composers, hobbies and more.
Q. Tell us a bit about your upcoming solo on July 24 and 26.
A. Sommerfest Artistic Director Andrew Litton wanted to add a little variety into our waltz concert this year, so I told him about François Borne’s Carmen Fantasy for Two Flutes and Orchestra, a death-defying set of variations based on music from Bizet’s Carmen. Though it was originally written for a single solo flute, there’s a version for two flutes arranged by Jim Walker, former principal flutist of the LA Philharmonic, with whom I studied while in Los Angeles.
This is the first time this version will be performed accompanied by a full symphony orchestra. Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel and I usually don’t play together, since we switch off on first flute parts, so this is a rare treat for us to team up on the same piece. It’s all flash and fun, as well as being full of dance rhythms, so it fits well with the waltz theme of the concert.
Q. And how about Sommerfest in general—what do you like about it?
A. I enjoy seeing everyone enjoying themselves out on Peavey Plaza and the festival vibe from all the various food and drink vendors. We try to make summer have a different feel since it’s such a nice time to be in Minnesota.
Q. Your flute stands out from the rest of the section. How did you come to play it?
A. All the flutists in the Orchestra play on flutes made by different makers. My flute was custom made for me about five years ago by W.M.S. Haynes Company in Boston, one of the oldest flute companies in existence. By all appearances it’s a 14K rose gold flute with silver keys, but if you look inside the tube it is actually dual layered, the inside layer being a silver/platinum alloy. While I have always loved the look of gold, I still wanted to retain some of the zing in the sound one gets from silver flutes. I also own a piccolo made by newer company called Keefe Piccolos, also in the Boston area.
Q. If you could turn back the clock and pick a different instrument, which would it be?
A. I have always loved the sound of the horn, and there were times I had wished I had learned to play it. I suppose I still could take it up as a hobby someday! I also took piano lessons as a child and would like to return more seriously to that someday too.
Q. Were other members of your family involved in music while you were growing up?
A. Not professionally, but my mother, who encouraged me to sign up to play in band class in fifth grade, sings in church choir and plays piano. The main influence of music from my father when I was growing up was his love of oldies, classic rock and Garrison Keillor. My younger sister played trumpet for a year and my younger brother played saxophone through high school, but we all ended up in very different kinds of careers, me being the only professional musician.
Q. Before you were a flutist with the Minnesota Orchestra, you worked in the Ticket Services Department (TSD). How did that come about, and what did you learn?
A. I did my undergraduate studies at the U of M as a music major, and during that time I started working part-time at TSD because I needed a little extra money and I wanted to be close to my favorite kind of music. After I graduated, I ended up working in TSD full-time as the Box Office Manager for a few years, since I enjoyed the work and I wanted to take some time away from school before starting a master’s degree.
During this time I briefly thought about taking a completely different career route into Information Technology, but ultimately decided I missed music too much to not pursue it seriously. I really loved the people I worked with in TSD, some of whom have become good friends and still work for the Minnesota Orchestra. I learned a lot about customer service, managing people, marketing, ticketing, web design and event production while I worked there. These were skills that were quite useful when I was freelancing in Los Angeles while helping manage a couple of small non-profit chamber music series and designing websites for a handful of clients.
Q. What have been some of your favorite performances with the Minnesota Orchestra over the years?
A. The most recent concerts in Cuba were really special and served as a clear example of how live orchestra concerts make a positive difference in people's lives, bringing joy, healing and solace as well as forging connections between people. I really enjoy whenever we do Richard Strauss or Prokofiev with Osmo because I think it showcases our partnership with him just as well as when we do Beethoven or Sibelius. My first concert with the Orchestra was a Symphony for the Cities concert at the bandshell in Hudson, WI and that holds a special place in my heart just because it was my first and because a bird, who made its home in the bandshell, dropped a surprise on my white jacket. I've heard this is good luck!
Q. Who are some of your favorite composers?
A. I have my favorites from every era. I love Handel’s music for its beauty and elegance. Haydn’s music is like enjoying a dessert before dinner. I love Berlioz for the intense energy in his music combined with a clean, brilliant use of the orchestra. Mahler’s symphonies are amazing for their grand scale and exploration of every facet of the human experience. I love Respighi’s tone poems with their vivid orchestral colors and extravagance. Shostakovich had both his dark and light sides, and they are both captivating and wonderful. Stravinsky has such great and varied artistry. And although they aren’t household names yet, there are so many wonderful contemporary composers. I quite enjoy minimalist music and get a thrill from many of Philip Glass’ compositions.
Q. What types of music do you enjoy listening to, aside from classical?
A. I enjoy most kinds of music, but I often find myself relaxing to Dance/Electronica when at home. That might not sound very relaxing, but I find it so since I don't have to concentrate too hard on it and I like the sound and atmosphere it creates. I like listening to jazz in the car on the way to work in the morning.
Q. What do you do in your free time?
A. I’m a bit of a sci-fi and fantasy geek and enjoy reading epic fantasy novels, including Game of Thrones. I also enjoy watching anything Star Trek or Star Wars, as well as any kind of anime with a space or fantasy theme. I don’t play a lot of video games, but whenever a Legend of Zelda game comes out, I have to play it. My husband Dan and I like to travel whenever we can, either to new places or to visit friends in familiar places, as well as cook and play with our dog Sadie. We love visiting rustic vacation places on rivers and lakes.
Q. What do you like most about performing with the Minnesota Orchestra?
A. I’ve always enjoyed playing in orchestras in general, but the Minnesota Orchestra is the only place where I’ve felt such a strong sense of purpose toward the betterment of our local community. The Orchestra sounds great, of course, but the reason to sound great is because we want to show the world what Minnesotans are capable of accomplishing when we work together.