DSO names new assistant conductor

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Michelle Merrill joins the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday as its new assistant conductor.

Merrill comes from Jacksonville, Florida, where for three seasons she was guest conductor at the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. In Detroit, she replaces Teddy Abrams, who left last summer to become musical director of the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky.

"I am beyond thrilled," Merrill says. "Detroit is a place and orchestra I've wanted to be involved with from the minute I heard about everything they're doing."

It's been a bit of a whirlwind. Merrill auditioned just two weeks ago. "When I was offered the job," she says, "it was a dream come true."

As assistant conductor, Merrill will act as understudy, stepping in if another conductor can't make a performance. In addition, she will lead the Pops on occasion and conduct the Young People's Family Concerts as well as the DSO's Education Concert Series. She makes her first appearance with the orchestra Nov. 12 in that series.

Merrill stands out in the conductor field on two counts. First, at 30, she's young in a profession that ordinarily favors age. In addition, she acknowledges she's the rare woman in the field, but shrugs off any significance to that. (She is not, however, the first woman in this position at the DSO.)

"I don't ever really think about it," Merrill says, "but it is unusual. When I've done conducting workshops, I'd often be the only woman. But it never occurred to me I needed to break some glass ceiling or anything," she adds. "Conducting is just what I wanted to do."

And as it happens, it's possible Merrill could have missed her life's calling had she not knocked on one particular door one Halloween decades ago.

"My big story is that when I was trick-or-treating at 7 or 8, a lady handed out her piano business cards attached to the candy. So I asked my mom and dad," Merrill says, "and they said sure."

Those lessons unleashed a passion, one she would later broaden to include the saxophone and more traditional orchestral instruments.

"I loved to practice," Merrill says, something parents of most music students might well envy. "I used to turn friends down when invited to go to Six Flags amusement park because I preferred to practice."

Merrill grew up in a small town east of Dallas and did her undergraduate and graduate work at Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts. That's where she met her husband, Steve Merrill, who's head of percussion at the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to Jacksonville, Merrill has also been the assistant conductor of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic. In 2013, she was awarded the prestigious Ansbacher Conducting Fellowship by the Vienna Philharmonic and the American Austrian Foundation.


Michelle Merrill

Title: DSO Assistant Conductor

Previous job: Guest Conductor — Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra; Assistant Conductor — Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic

Education: Master of Music in Conducting, Southern Methodist University

Age: 30