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Lee Mills takes up the baton at Greenville Symphony

Conductor Lee Mills
Bradley Fuller
Conductor Lee Mills

Recently appointed Music Director of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, the 37-year-old conductor is excited to showcase what he sees as a gem of an organization and build community through the arts.

In this Sonatas & Soundscapes interview that aired Friday, June 14th, South Carolina Public Radio's Bradley Fuller speaks with conductor Lee Mills about his recent appointment as Music Director of the Greenville Symphony, his goals for the arts organization, and what has him excited to be living and working in the SC Upstate.


FULLER: Lee, congrats on being selected as Music Director of the Greenville Symphony!

MILLS: Thank you, thank you so much! I'm really, really honored to have been picked. I personally know a lot of the conductors that were in the in the final mix, and just to be even among them and then to have won the position is really such an honor.

FULLER: Well it was not an overnight process, I understand?

MILLS: No. It was not. My friends joke that we have the longest job application process of anybody out there. It was three years since I sent in my application in 2021.

FULLER: Wow. And that in a world of very tedious job applications all around!

MILLS: Yeah.

FULLER: What was your first impression of the Greenville Symphony when you had your audition concert, so to speak? And, I suppose, in the rehearsal leading up to that concert, what was your impression when you dropped the baton and sounds came from the orchestra? What feelings came to you or initial impressions?

MILLS: Well, you know, when I was picking the repertoire for my concert, on that program was Schumann’s Second Symphony. And everybody I know in the business was like “What are you doing? You’re totally not going to get this job,” because it's such a difficult piece to play. It's really, highly technical for the orchestra and a lot of people, when they do their music director audition, they put pieces on there that everybody's going to love playing, that come easily, that they can just feel great about themselves, and then they'll think greatly about the conductor. And it's all sort of the symbiotic thing.

But I love that piece so much and I just really felt like it was going to be the right piece for me to do here. And also, it kind of had a backwards audition element to it where I was thinking, “You know, if I do this and they can play it really well and they're eager to do it, then I know I'm going to want to be here,” you know, so it's kind of like me also testing the waters to see what the orchestra would be like under this piece. And I just remember the first rehearsal we did the second movement of the symphony, which is just crazy, very, very fast stuff in the strings—

FULLER: This wild scherzo?

MILLS: Yeah, yeah it’s the scherzo. And they have this “duh-duh-duh-DUH-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-DUH-duh-duh-duh [music imitation continues]

FULLER: I know, yeah. [laughter]

MILLS: And it never stops. It’s a perpetual motion machine. They have a bajillion notes. It's highly technical. And I was like, “Okay, my plan is: the first rehearsal I'm just going to start it in the tempo that I want to do it so that they know what the target is, and then we'll back it down and work through it.” And I started at tempo and they just played it, like, the first time through.

Lee Mills
Cicero Rodrigues/© Cicero Rodrigues / OSB
Lee Mills, Regente Linda Bustani, piano

I was like “Oh. Wow. That's really cool!” you know, so I was just really blown away by the dedication of the musicians. Beyond their technique and their talent and their artistry, the dedication of them to have shown up in that first rehearsal and be, like, ready to go was just…it blew me away. It really was very impressive.

That was something that really stood out to me. Sometimes I've conducted some orchestra that you start getting into the details and you see people slouching in their seats, or they’re eye-rolling. They're like, “I just want to play, like, come on.” This orchestra got more enthusiastic the more details I gave them, the more nitty gritty I got about, like, “No, this needs to be at the at the frog of the bow. It's got to be, you know, it's this ugly attack.” It’s, you know, just note-for-note getting those little details out that, really, I think, that's what really makes the piece shine or sparkle and not be something that's just kind of bleh, you know? And it's all in there. It's all in there. But we just have to pay a lot of attention to make sure that we're bringing out those things and not sort of just glazing over everything and playing the notes.

FULLER: Well, speaking of details making a big picture, you signed a contract for four years. Is there a goal you have, very broadly speaking, for your time? Say, in four years that maybe will have changed for the Symphony or for Greenville residents or for South Carolina, you know, some kind of take away or a few key takeaways that you might hope would happen under your leadership?

MILLS: I think my biggest goal--I have two of them right now and they're connected. I was actually talking to somebody about this earlier today, so that's a great question because I have practiced it.

FULLER: Perfect. Just like conducting.

MILLS: The thing is, I want us to be something that really connects deeply with our community and serves our community, because orchestras are—maybe with the exception of theater and ballet, other performance art—it's the only place that you can get thousands of people together, put them under some spell, take them on this beautiful journey together, and it doesn't matter who they are, where they came from, what their political beliefs are, what sports teams they cheer for—a friend of mine was like “Oh, well, sporting games bring people together.” I was like “Yeah, but you’re against—it’s us against them,” you know?

But it doesn't matter. None of that stuff matters at all, you know? And everybody is brought together on this singular moment in time that never will repeat itself ever again. Even if we do a second performance the next day, it's going to be different. The audience itself is part of the performance. They bring an energy. They Inspire the musicians in different ways. Everything's just this intricate connection in that moment.

And while we're all going on this same journey and I'm trying, through music, to tell this story that the composer wrote, everybody brings their own personal experience in there at the same time. So while it is a collective moment, it's also a very, very intimate, unique, personal moment. Somebody's remembering their grandmother who passed away a couple of years ago. Somebody's remembering an ex-lover that they once had and were totally passionate about. Everybody brings all of these experiences and we create this collective thing, and I think that it can be so good for the human spirit. For our health. I mean, there are even now several peer-reviewed studies about the importance of music on our physical health. You know, I think it's a great way to bring the community together, so that's my first goal: to just reach as far out into the community and embrace as much of the Greenville and the Upstate community as we possibly can.

And then that goes hand-in-hand with being an excellent artistic organization and thinking about, you know, Greenville is such an exciting place and has so much to offer and it's making so much news right now and it's just this very cool city. And I still get the impression, sometimes, that people feel like we have to bring in things from the outside to Greenville—especially when it comes to art. But here’s this gem that’s right here and we need to celebrate it and actually start exporting it, however that means, you know? Maybe we can go on…like, how cool would it be to go play in Carnegie Hall? Or, you know, get out into the world and show?

Because these musicians really do play at the very top of the levels that I've heard. They're incredible musicians and so it's kind of like we have these roots that are the community, and they come up through the tree that is the symphony, and then blossom out onto the branches and the leaves which is us sort of bringing Greenville out into the world and saying “Look what we have here. This is so cool.” So yeah, it would be great to see the concert hall full of people, you know, tourists that come from all over the region to come and hear us and just have that experience and that pride—I think those are my two big goals here.

Cicero Rodrigues/© Cicero Rodrigues

FULLER: It's one of my own refrains, too, just telling people here in South Carolina how much our state offers and how much is available, like, really close by. And for a state of its size, I've sometimes—just sometimes—found it to be a bit siloed, as if people aren't even aware. I'm like “Oh, you know this isn't a big state you can get on the road and in three, four hours be at the other end of it, and then hear some great music.” And, you know, we have “100-Mile Barbecue,” I think they call it—you hit the road, you go that far, supposedly, to get some good barbecue. Or maybe it's “Hour Barbecue,” but same idea. Okay, we can do 100-Mile Mahler, or 100-Mile, you know, Amy Beach, or what have you. So I would very much be with you there.

Well, you mentioned embracing Greenville, and when you're not on the podium or poring over your scores, studying them measure-for-measure, part-for-part, how do you plan to embrace the city and the state, if at all?

MILLS: Oh, I definitely plan on embracing this state. I told somebody—I think this came up in my audition week during a pre-concert talk—one of the things when I was in Rio de Janeiro, I just became so ingrained in the city. And my boss was from Rio and lived there all of his 40 years of life—at one point he said “You're more Carioca,” which is the noun for somebody who's from Rio, “You're more Carioca than I am” because I just jumped in. And one of the things I love to do is go hang gliding, actually, and I took Simone Porter, who was my soloist at my audition. She came down and played the Barber Violin Concerto with me in Brazil. And while she was there, during the day before the concert happened, I took her hang gliding and the artistic director was like “What are you doing?!” when he found out. “What if something had happened!?” [laughter]

FULLER: I’m going to have to learn a concerto!

MILLS: But it was so fun and thrilling and somebody asked, you know, “What's going to be your high-stakes, you know, we-could-kill-the-soloist-by-accident thing and cancel-the-concert kind of activity that would happen here?” And I was like “Well, I think we should go out to the BMW track and I can drive race cars around” like—

FULLER: Or hike Table Rock maybe? [laughter]

MILLS: Yeah, you know? I just love getting involved and discovering. I love learning about places and just sort of burying myself in the culture of an area. And I'm very excited about some of the things around here. I'm also really excited about getting to know other artistic organizations, and not even [just] artistic organizations. Business communities and working with everything that's going on in Greenville and finding integrations between what we do and what they're doing. I really think when people collaborate, we build something that's much, much bigger than the sum of our parts.

I mean, a symphony concert is exactly that, right? We're putting 80 people together plus the 2,000 people in the audience, and somehow we create this thing that's just absolutely surreal, you know, with that. So, looking to collaborate and getting to know better all of the organizations and corporations and people and institutions that exist around us—I'm really excited about that part.

FULLER: It's clear you have a lot of knowledge, thoughtfulness, and enthusiasm for your craft, so all best and may you and the Greenville Symphony go from strength to strength as you step into this role of Music Director.

MILLS: Thank you.

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Originally from Greenwood, SC, Bradley Fuller has maintained a deep interest in classical music since the age of six. With piano lessons throughout grade school and involvement in marching and concert bands on the saxophone, Bradley further developed musical abilities as well as an appreciation for the importance of arts education.