By Eric Dundon
The entire St. Louis Symphony Orchestra family mourns the passing of dear friend and longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch classical music critic Sarah Bryan Miller. She passed away November 28, 2020, after a decade-long battle with cancer. She was 68.
A staple of the St. Louis community for more than 20 years, Bryan—as she was known to those close to her—was a fixture at SLSO concerts, events, and international tours. She reviewed hundreds of SLSO concerts during the tenures of three different SLSO Music Directors, using her unmatched listening skills to pick up on the slightest nuances of the music. Her unflagging efforts introduced countless people to the joys of classical music.
Bryan was a champion of the SLSO. Patrons and staff saw her each week in Dress Circle Box S, seats 5 and 6. She carefully reviewed each concert, giving a constant voice to the institution. 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. 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 financial stability the institution enjoys today. The Post-Dispatch nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize for her thorough coverage of the orchestra.
Adam Crane, a former SLSO executive, said Bryan's work with the SLSO payed dividends for the orchestra.
"She was a critic in the true sense of the word and a real boon to the SLSO. Her reviews and reported pieces were balanced," he said. "She wanted the SLSO to shine and in making her comments in a review, her goal was to push the orchestra to be the best that it could be. I think she saw her role as a facilitator, a teacher, if you will, 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."
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.
She built a strong rapport with SLSO musicians, who appreciated her history as a performer.
“The fact that I had been a professional musician myself made a difference,” she said earlier this year. Miller sang professionally with several organizations, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She eventually transitioned from performing to writing, with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal before landing the job in St. Louis.
“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. She wrote about all things SLSO, from concert reviews to changes in personnel, institutional news to artistic features. She even toured with the SLSO on several occasions.
Her final review published on October 30, 2020—a review of a chamber music concert at Powell Hall, one of the first concerts in Powell 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 female classical music critic for the Post-Dispatch.
“She was a trailblazer,” SLSO President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said in a recent interview. “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 two daughters, a brother, a niece and nephew, and many friends. The SLSO will cherish her memory. Funeral services will be private; a memorial service will be in the future when choirs can safely perform. Memorial donations may be made to the music fund at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ladue; Opera Theatre of St. Louis; or the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Eric Dundon is the Public Relations Manager for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.