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‘Just Top Notch’: Remembering Sarah Bryan Miller, Critic And Lover Of St. Louis’ Classical Music Scene

Sarah Bryan Miller last joined St. Louis Public Radio in studio in February 2020.
File photo / Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Sarah Bryan Miller last joined St. Louis Public Radio in studio in February 2020.

Over the weekend, the St. Louis region lost a beloved champion of its cultural institutions. Sarah Bryan Miller, 68, was the longtime classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She died early Saturday after a long struggle with cancer, one that lasted about a decade.

But even this past February, when Miller last joined St. Louis on the Air, she continued to live her life with grit and joy. She and host Sarah Fenske talked frankly about Miller’s illness, and when asked about her prognosis, she didn’t mince words.

“It’s gonna get me,” Miller said, “but I’m gonna make it fight for me.”

And so she did. To hear her friends tell it, Sarah Bryan Miller was determined to make the most of the time she had left. As recently as a month ago, when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was putting on chamber concerts, she still made it to Powell Hall — and then published a review, which would be her last.

One of Miller’s many friends was Mary Edwards, a longtime St. Louis Public Radio staffer and producer of Saturday night symphony broadcasts. She often traveled to and from Powell Hall with Miller and recalled Miller being as dedicated to her friends as she was to her profession.

Another friend, Adam Crane, remarked on how “present” Miller always was with him. He got to know her well after he began working for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 2008. Crane now works for the New York Philharmonic, and even after he left St. Louis, he and Miller remained in close contact.

“It’s hard to think of a world with Bryan not in it,” Crane said, adding that her integrity was “just top notch.”

When Miller first joined the Post-Dispatch in the late ’90s, Philip Barnes was struck by the intelligence of her writing, particularly her commentary on choral work.

“I knew her comments were coming from a place of being informed and also really caring about the genre,” the artistic director of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus said.

Miller was herself an accomplished mezzo-soprano. But it was more than her reviews that impressed Barnes. He described Miller as a true journalist, recalling her coverage of the contentious sale of classical music station KFUO in 2009 and citing her work on that story as one example of her “unwillingness to be fobbed off and to just accept the party line.”

When Barnes heard that Miller’s health was failing, he got to work on a unique idea that came to fruition earlier this year: a commissioned piece in Miller’s honor. “I Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto The Hills” is a setting of Psalm 121 by the British composer Judith Bingham.

Back in February, shortly after Miller and Barnes both joinedSt. Louis on the Airto talk about it, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus premiered the work, with Miller in attendance.

While the voice that Miller gave the region’s classical music scene particularly stands out, Miller was a person of many other talents and interests. She was a lay preacher at her church as well as a member of its choir. And at the Post-Dispatch, she sometimes strayed from music criticism to other topics.

“Bryan could contribute a lot more to my beat probably than I could to hers, and she wrote dozens of reviews for me,” said book editor Jane Henderson.

Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, praised Miller’s contributions and said the symphony plans to honor her publicly when performances resume.

“Bryan first was passionate about music as a musician herself,” Bernard said. “But as a writer — fabulous writer, reporter, storyteller — who truly understood her role and the importance of bringing a voice to arts and culture, especially music, in St. Louis ... her role and her importance, it was just tremendous.”

In February, when Miller most recently joined the talk show, she said that as she contemplated some of the biggest questions in life, she found comfort in her Episcopalian faith.

“I don’t know what comes next, but I believe something does come next, and I think it will be something positive. We don’t know the details. Speculating on that is above my pay grade. But I just take comfort from knowing that Jesus has our backs,” Miller said.

What will you miss the most about longtime classical music critic Sarah Bryan Miller? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the AirFacebook group, and help inform our coverage.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.