Michelle Merrill’s life story is not so different from others who have grown up to become professional artists in one medium or another. The new musical director and conductor of the Coastal Symphony of Georgia, Merrill began life as small town girl, hailing from the East Texas town of Canton (pop. 3,000), and began her lifelong love affair with music at church, as is the case with a number of musicians.
“I graduated with a class of 101, about a third of which I had known since kindergarten,” she said.
Music wasn’t alway at the forefront of her life. Merrill grew up on five acres of land, and, by the time she was 4 or 5, was riding barrels on her family’s quarter horse, Falcon Prince, whom, she said, looked just like Black Beauty.
“I loved animals, and in addition to our horse, dogs and cats, I also had at one point or another, a hamster, albino rat, iguanas and a hedgehog,” she said. “My mom was a homemaker, and right-hand helper to my dad who was a Dallas firefighter, and both were as active and adventurous as anyone you would ever meet.”
Music entered Merrill’s life as it enters the lives of countless other people — in church. She began singing in children’s choirs and playing kiddie handbells, but started taking piano lessons because, she said, of Halloween.
“I was around 7 or 8, and trick-or-treating in the neighborhoods when I received a bite-sized candy bar with a business card for piano lessons attached to it,” Merrill said. “When I dumped the candy out that night, I found it, asked my parents if I could start taking lessons, and they said yes.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Merrill said she never had to be reminded to practice.
“I loved learning something new every week, and would look forward to my time at the piano each day,” she explained. “Later, I would pick up the saxophone — that’s what my older sister played, and I wasn’t going to take any other instrument suggested to me.”
She increased her practice, and occasionally frustrated her friends.
“Friends would try to get my parents to make me stop so I could go to a theme park with them, but I continued,” she said. “I was in love with music. It gave me a connection to my world outside of my small town, and I found at a young age that it was one of the best ways to express and embrace emotion.”
Following high school graduation, Merrill attended college at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, as a double major in saxophone performance and music education. During her sophomore year, she began taking private conducting lessons, and said she derived joy from studying the intimate details of the musical scores. Their history and context in music solidified Merrill’s desire to become a conductor.
Before being named the music director of the Coastal Symphony of Georgia in the fall of 2017, Merrill had served as an assistant conductor with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and as associate conductor with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. She now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., with her husband, Steven Merrill, who is the principal percussionist for both the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and the Coastal Symphony of Georgia.
Under the direction of former music director and conductor, Maestro Luis Haza, the Coastal Symphony of Georgia had established itself as a source of traditional classical music. Although Merrill won’t veer too far off the path set by Haza and his predecessors, she said audiences should anticipate a few changes.
“We have a very diverse mix of music in store, including a piece written in 2017, by a young composer named Connor Brown, who we hope to have in attendance for rehearsals and performance,” she said.
Merrill said the upcoming season is full of old favorites, classic melodies and some surprises.
“The warhorses of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky will grace the stage, but we (will) also take time to celebrate American music — taking pride in our national identity and cultural heritage,” she said. “Additionally, we are honored to be a part of ‘Bernstein At 100,’ which is a worldwide celebration of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, the composer, conductor, educator, musician, cultural ambassador and humanitarian.”
“Berntein At 100” is a two-year global celebration of his life and career, and connects the Coastal Symphony of Georgia with more than 2,000 events on six continents.
The Coastal Symphony of Georgia will open its 2018-2019 season on Oct. 1, and featured compositions will include Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide” and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.” The concert will be listed on the “Bernstein At 100” online calendar of events, alongside well-known orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, Houston Grand Opera and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Although Merrill won’t pick up the baton until Oct. 1, she has been onboard with the orchestra for nearly a year, and had a hand in planning this season. Planning on the 2019-2020 season is already under way.
Some personnel will remain the same. Jorge Pena, general manager of the Coastal Symphony of Georgia, will stay. His role, Merrill said, is very different from that of the musical director. Pena is in charge of hiring musicians, negotiating contracts with guest artists and setting up and taking down for rehearsals, among other duties.
Typically, the regular season concerts are held at night, but board members are looking at some other options, Merrill said.
“We are already looking into ways to expand our audience base through various programming, including outdoor pops shows, a family holiday concert and an educational concert for students,” she said. “We have also planned smaller events throughout the community, called ‘salons,’ that we hope will attract newer and more diverse crowds to our organization.”
Glynn County is home of the only symphony orchestra between Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, and it brings a dimension to the local arts scene that other offerings cannot.
“Hearing live music is an experience like none other,” Merrill said. “And not only an experience within yourself, but also a shared experience with those seated around you, and those seated onstage.
“Whether there is a specific program or theme to the piece doesn’t matter; everyone experiences the music in their own unique way, tailored by their past and present, the emotional mountains and valleys they may be going through, and their outlook on life.”
Merrill explained the the role of music in people’s lives.
“Music is this combination of sounds, notes and rhythms that collectively please, or assault, the ears,” she said. “It gives us a united experience that leads us anywhere and everywhere we may, or in some cases, may not, want to go.
“Music provides a way to express and feel things that would not be possible any other way, and in that sense, it is unlike anything else you could ever experience.”
For details about the upcoming season, which opens Oct. 1, visit www.coastalsymphonyofgeorgia.org.