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Michelle Merrill to replace Luis Haza as symphony conductor, music director

Lindsey Adkison
The Brunswick News
November 30, 2017
Link to article here

For many music lovers in the community, the name Luis Haza has become synonymous with the Coastal Symphony of Georgia. For the last five years, the Cuban conductor and world-renowned violinist has served as music director for the orchestra, leading the concerts as well as choosing performance selections.

Haza will officially relinquish the title in April. He will hand the duties off to a new conductor, Michelle Merill. It has taken the symphony board time to find a suitable replacement for Haza, a Grammy winner and former member of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.

After months of effort, however, they selected Merill from a number of candidates, who currently serves as the associate conductor of the Detroit Symphony. There, she has been tasked with helping plan and conduct more than 30 shows a year.

Merrill is originally from Texas and has been touted as a “rising star” in the world of classical music. She has traveled extensively to perform, a passion she shares with her husband, Steve, who is principal percussionist for the Jacksonville Symphony.

Merrill studied conducting under Paul Phillips at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. She holds a master’s of music degree in conducting and a bachelor’s of music in performance.

In a statement from the Coastal Symphony of Georgia, board members note that she was selected for her ability to “bring musicality, artistry, verve and virtuosity to the Golden Isles.”

For her part, Merrill is ready to step into the role.

“I am really excited to be taking over from Luis. He has done a lot to grow the orchestra along with Jorge, the general manager. I’m really excited to help continue that and really to expand the orchestra and the breadth of who we are reaching — young people, older people and anyone in between,” she said.

As for following Haza, Merrill notes that, while she can never replace him, so to speak, she hopes to bring something new to the table.

“I think that, with anybody, you never want to imitate anyone. All conductors are so different and it’s not because he’s a man or I’m a woman. They are all just completely different,” she said. “I’d never want to replace Luis Haza, I will just be making my own brand and making the Coastal Symphony the best it can be … that’s my focus.”

Merrill will work with the orchestra’s general manager, Jorge Pena, to help create the musical program for the 2018-2019 season.

“I look forward to working with these great, high quality musicians to see what we can do to expand the repertoire and maybe take it in a little of a different direction, maybe adding more American music in, to showcase that,” she said.

In addition to the music, Merrill is also excited about getting involved in the community. Based in Jacksonville currently, she plans to become an active member of the Golden Isles community in the future.

“I love that I will be able to be involved more in the community,” she said. “I think it is really important for cultural leaders to be inundated with what’s going on locally. So I am excited to go meet Rotary Clubs and Lion’s Clubs … I want to work with people in the area and get their ideas too on how we can expand the symphony and take it to new heights.”

For Haza, he is excited about what the future holds for the symphony and is grateful for his time with the organization. He will lead his last performance in April.

“The orchestra has become a truly first-rate, professional orchestra with a level of music making that is something to be proud of,” he said. “The Golden Isles community should be very proud of it.”

On a personal level, Haza is grateful for all of the support he has received during his tenure as conductor, both serving as music director of the symphony and previously working with the Golden Isles Youth Orchestra.

“I am extremely grateful to the Symphony Society and the board for all that they have done. I am thankful for that support that has helped us to build a truly excellent symphony orchestra,” he said. “It takes a tremendous amount of work, dedication and financial support. I gladly will pass it along to Mrs. Merrill. I wish her all the best and all the success in the world.”

For his final performances, Haza and the orchestra will share the music of Richard Strauss, Carl Maria von Weber and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, among others, during its Feb. 19 concert. His final show, themed Hope and Triumph, will be on April 9. Haza will serve as a featured soloist for that performance.

“We have two concerts left this season. They are really wonderful for showcasing the entire orchestra, each section — the percussion, brass, woodwind and strings. It will really show how far the orchestra has come and it really is all about the orchestra,” he said.

As for looking ahead, Haza is excited for the future. He says his official retirement will be a time to enjoy being free to travel with his wife Dana and explore new interests.

“It will be wonderful. For the first time in my whole life, I will be able to be to take off when I want to go some place,” he said with a laugh. “There will be more spontaneity … so I won’t be encumbered or committed to a schedule in any way really.”

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