The Winston-Salem Symphony – Music Director Michelle Merrill Slips Into An Inspiring New Role

photos by JOHN JORDAN

There’s a new face on stage with the Winston-Salem Symphony, and Music Director Michelle Merrill couldn’t be more excited with her role – and it’s infinite possibilities! She’s the first female conductor for the symphony, and with that, the only female music director in the Carolinas.

“During my audition week back in May, I had a few audience members come up to say they had never had the chance to see a woman on the podium before,” Michelle explains.

She also attended a P.L.A.Y. music class during that week (Piedmont Learning Academy for Youth) – one filled with only girls.

“They were ecstatic that I was also a girl and in the running to be the music director. ‘I hope you get it,’ one girl said. ‘Yes! Girl power!’ chimed in another. There is something to be said for all of this, and for the empowerment it brings – and I can’t wait to go back to visit the class of young aspiring string players, so they can see their desires realized!”

While she’s honored to be the first woman in the Carolinas to have this title and be on the podium as the symphony enters its 76th season, Michelle’s greatest hope – first and foremost – is for the music to shine through.

“That is at the heart of what I’m meant to do!” she adds.

With an impressive background in conducting and a passion for bringing music to life, Michelle’s musical journey began with the piano, while growing up in small-town Canton, located in eastern Texas. Recognizing their daughter’s talent, her parents gave her a Casio keyboard, which led to an upright piano. But, Michelle switched instruments after being inspired by her older sister’s saxophone playing. Interestingly, this became a unique aspect of her identity as a musician and conductor, since the saxophone is not traditionally featured in orchestras.

Michelle followed her passion with undergraduate studies at Southern Methodist University, and later returned to SMU for her graduate studies in conducting. There, she met her husband, now the principal percussionist in the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida, and they have two sons, Davis (nearly six years old) and Emmett (19 months).

Michelle happily shares that she’s found amazing enthusiasm for the arts here in Winston-Salem – both for music and other genres. 

“There’s an infectious energy as you walk around downtown in the arts district or as you hang out in a local coffee shop,” she says. “People crave culture. People desire community. I feel the symphony is the merging point for those two wants. There’s also a trend to think outside the box to find ways to meet people where they are and to inspire them in ways that make them want to come see what the symphony has to offer in the concert hall. I love that!”

Speaking of location, most of the Winston-Salem Symphony concerts this year will take place at Reynolds Auditorium, as the Stevens Center will be undergoing construction. The first concerts of Michelle’s inaugural season are planned for September 23rd and 24th, with a program featuring Brahms Violin Concerto, where guest artist Kristen Lee will also make her Winston-Salem debut. This season will feature works from Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Beethoven, with guest artists including Michelle Cann, Edgar Meyer and Joe Lovano. The Pops season will include Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, The Music of Fleetwood Mac and Nia Imani Franklin returning with an evening of gospel and R&B. The annual “A Carolina Christmas” will continue this year when the symphony plays live with the classic holiday film “Home Alone.” Subscriptions are now available for the season, and single ticket sales begin August 1, 2023.

Known for exhibiting a natural ease and confidence in her conducting, Michelle believes this orchestra has the power to inspire every person who walks through the door, from all walks of life in the community.

“I am incredibly excited to be a part of the symphony’s mission to bring music to life!” she says.

For Winston-Salem Symphony ticket information, call the box office at 336.464.0145, or email Box office hours are Tuesday through Friday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Ticket sales and will-call are available at the venue one hour prior to each performance.


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