By Eric Dundon
At any given St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert over the past 20 years, Dress Circle Box S, seats 5 and 6 were taken. Those were the seats of Sarah Bryan Miller, the longtime classical music critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
From those seats, Bryan—as she was known to those close to her—carefully listened to countless SLSO concerts, picking up on the nuances of performances that escape most listeners. For more than 20 years, she got to know the orchestra and its musicians and they, in turn, got to know her. If there was an SLSO concert, Bryan was there, listening intently, thoughtfully. Even through a prolonged illness, Bryan faithfully reviewed performances at the SLSO, at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and at music institutions throughout the region, giving voice to the arts.
After a decade-long battle with cancer, she passed away peacefully on November 28, 2020. She was 68.
A staple of the St. Louis community, Bryan was a fixture not only at SLSO concerts, but at community events and international tours. She reviewed hundreds of SLSO concerts during the tenures of three different SLSO Music Directors: Hans Vonk, David Robertson, and Stéphane Denève. Her unflagging efforts introduced countless people to the joys of classical music.
Adam Crane, a former SLSO executive, said Bryan’s work with the SLSO paid dividends for the orchestra.
“She wanted the SLSO to shine. In her reviews, her goal was to push the orchestra to be the best that it could be,” he said. “I think she saw her role as a facilitator, a teacher, tasked with imparting her knowledge to the community. And in doing so, she played a major part in elevating the status of the SLSO beyond St. Louis.”
Although critics give honest feedback, Bryan wasn’t shy about the quality of the orchestra.
“I really believe St. Louis can be very proud of its orchestra,” she said during an interview with SLSO staff in April 2020.
She also wrote regular feature articles about the SLSO, from its education programs to introducing new Music Directors to the community. She is remembered not only for her voice, but in her quiet resolve to keep writing as long as possible.
“She was tireless in letting the world know just how much St. Louis ‘punched above its weight’ in musical life and her courage and determination in the face of her long illness were inspiring,” shared former SLSO Music Director David Robertson.
In 2001, her reporting led the Taylor family to double its financial commitment to the SLSO, a fundraising challenge that would eventually raise $80 million for the SLSO and put it on the path to the financial stability the institution enjoys today. The Post-Dispatch nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize for her thorough coverage of the orchestra.
Bryan, a trained mezzo-soprano, worked tirelessly to advance the awareness of classical music throughout the St. Louis region, ardently supporting all classical music organizations large and small. With her background in opera, she particularly enjoyed choral music and often wrote glowing remarks about the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. Her work also covered Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Chamber Music Society of St. Louis, Missouri Chamber Music Festival, St. Louis Chamber Chorus, and many other ensembles and events.
“Bryan was a true advocate for the musical arts in St. Louis. Her tireless devotion to the SLSO was only a small part of her influence here for decades. She was a true friend to the small presenters and arts organizations in this city,” said Scott Andrews, SLSO Principal Clarinetist, and Director of the Missouri Chamber Music Festival. “Bryan stayed in touch with musicians and ensembles she felt were important to highlight and did everything a person in her position could do to support and encourage live musical performance in the city.”
She built a strong rapport with SLSO musicians, who appreciated her history as a performer. Bryan sang professionally with several organizations, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She eventually transitioned from performing to writing.
“I remember the first time I met her, she already knew my playing and style from our concerts and wanted to try to understand my history—both musical and not so musical,” wrote SLSO Principal Violist Beth Guterman Chu for a celebration of Bryan’s 20th anniversary with the Post-Dispatch in 2018. “We had many things in common. In talking to her, it became immediately clear how important observation was to Bryan and how it has shaped her work.”
Her personal philosophy in reviewing concerts was to be charitable to performers who leave their hearts on the stage.
Her final review was published on October 30, 2020—a review of a chamber music concert at Powell Hall, one of the first concerts in the hall in several months. In her typical accessible voice, she praised the quality of the musicianship, remarking that the concert “demonstrated once again that the musicians in this orchestra really are of the first rank.”
Bryan deeply valued her relationships with musicians and institutions in St. Louis. She knew many personally and took great interest in their lives and personal projects. Her role was less of a critic, and more of an advocate.
“There’s an old saying that nobody loves a critic. You proved to me that it’s just not true. Thank you all for your kindness and generosity, your friendship, and your stories. You have all made a difference for the better in my life, and I am grateful beyond words,” she once said.
Bryan was a pioneer in many ways. She was the first woman classical music critic for the Post-Dispatch.
“She was a trailblazer,” SLSO President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said. “She was among the first to give a voice to women writers, and she was highly respected.”
Although quiet in nature, Bryan’s voice loomed large throughout the classical music industry. The SLSO will miss her candid feedback, constant presence, substantive coverage, and more than anything, her friendship.
Sarah Bryan Miller is survived by her family and many friends. The SLSO celebrates her legacy in concerts dedicated to her memory November 27–28, with conductor Gemma New leading Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, alongside music by Edward Elgar and Jake Heggie featuring mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, a nod to Bryan’s distinguished career as a singer and the first artist supported by the Sarah Bryan Miller Fund.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.