Our Music Director

Maestro Luis Haza
Music Director and Conductor

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Grammy-award winning conductor and violin virtuoso, Luis Haza is in his fifth year as Music Director and Conductor of the Coastal Symphony of Georgia and, for the prior 4 years, the Music Director and Conductor of the Coastal Youth Symphony. Born in Santiago, Cuba, Luis Haza has earned distinction in the United States and abroad for his roles as conductor, violinist, and human rights advocate. Mr. Haza has an extensive performing career, which included over 36 years with the National Symphony Orchestra. As solo violinist, he performed at the White House, appeared on television in the Dominican Republic, and performed the Washington premiere of Cuban composer Jose White’s Violin Concerto. Mr. Haza served as Music Director of the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras for 25 years, leading its premier ensemble, the American Youth Philharmonic, and overseeing its three other ensembles; Symphonic Orchestra, Concert Orchestra, and String Ensemble. In April 2002 Mr. Haza received the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Recording Academy (Grammy Awards) “Heroes Award”. In March 2004, the American Immigration Law Foundation presented him with the American Immigrant Achievement Award.

As conductor, he has led orchestras in North and South America, Europe and Australia. These have included the London Symphony Orchestra (including a compact disc recording for RCA Red Seal with acclaimed trumpeter Arturo Sandoval), the National Symphony Orchestra (including the highly praised premiere of Sandoval’s own trumpet concerto), the national orchestras of El Salvador, Panama, and Guatemala, the Conservatorium Symphony (Brisbane, Australia), as well as the ASAPH Ensemble (with which he produced the compact disc “A Taste for the Classics”). Mr. Haza has served as music director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center and the Prince William Symphony Orchestra. He also served as Music Director of the Virginia Chamber Orchestra, conductor for the Virginia Ballet Company, member of the Board of Governors for the Grammy Awards (NARAS), and was an Honorary Chairman of Fairfax’s “Spotlight on the Arts” Festival. From 1997 to 2001, Mr. Haza has served as Conductor for the Orchestra Program for the MasterWorks Festival for many years. As a recitalist Luis Haza’s collaboration with pianist Sara Wolfensohn has also been extensive.

As educator, Mr. Haza has worked with youth orchestras for over 25 years. He was active in the National Symphony Orchestra’s American Residencies, teaching, coaching, and presenting workshops and master classes nationwide. Mr. Haza has served on the faculty of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Fellowship Program, teaching violin to gifted students. A strong supporter of music programs in public schools and arts education, Mr. Haza has frequently served as adjudicator in orchestra festivals and competitions across the United States. This role has also taken him abroad, touring Panama with the National Panamanian Youth Orchestra.

Luis Haza began his performing career in Cuba at the age of 11. By the end of the following year, he had toured the provinces of Cuba, obtained his first professional post as Assistant Concertmaster of the Lyric Theater Orchestra and made his debut as conductor in a program that included one of his own orchestral compositions. After he came to the United States in 1964, he continued his studies on full scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music, Peabody Conservatory of Music, and the Blossom Music Festival, with teachers including Daniel Majeske, Efrem Zimbalist, Robert Gerle, Eduardo Vidal Aviles, as well as coaches Mstislav Rostropovich and Henryk Szeryng.

Mr. Haza’s commitment to the causes of freedom and human rights began at an early age when, for his support of democracy, Fidel Castro executed his father without trial. Haza made his first protest while still in Cuba, rejecting scholarship offers from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union (to study with David Oistrakh in Moscow) because of his political convictions. Mr. Haza’s background led him to become a spokesperson in broadcasts to Cuba, and his performances and interviews have been broadcast in Cuba and Latin America on Univision, Telemundo, TV and Radio Marti, and La Voz de El Cid Radio. Mr. Haza directed the gala “A Celebration of Freedom” for Ambassador and human rights advocate Armando Valladares at the Kennedy Center to benefit the Valladares Foundation, a non-partisan human rights group.

For all his achievements, Mr. Haza has been the recipient of numerous honors. In January 2002, Mr. Haza led the American Youth Philharmonic at New York’s Carnegie Hall in a concert titled “The Spirit of Freedom,” dedicated to the victims and heroes of September 11, 2001. His work has been recognized by President and Mrs. Clinton, Governor of Virginia Douglas Wilder, and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the last-named honor commemorating his 10th and 15th anniversary with the American Youth Philharmonic and the Northern Virginia Youth Symphony Association. In addition, the U.S. Congress and the Architect of the Capitol, in Mr. Haza’s honor, flew an American flag over the Capitol on Paganini’s birthday. In 1996, a scholarship was created in his name for the Kennedy Center Fellowship of the Americas. In 1994 he was chosen as one of the “100 Most Influential Hispanics” by Hispanic Business Magazine. In May of 2005, Mr. Haza was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities by First Lady Laura Bush. He also served on several grant-awarding panel committees for the National Endowment for the Arts.

In July 2006 Mr. Haza was featured as the closing event of the Bellagio Dialogue on Migration in Bellagio, Italy. The Bellagio Dialogue on Migration was a project of the German Marshall Fund, with generous support from the Rockefeller Foundation, designed to advance and enrich the ongoing debate about migration in the United States and Europe. Mr. Haza was also featured in the July 2007 Reader’s Digest Selecciones’ feature article, “How to reach the American Dream.” In March of 2010 he was featured in Newt Gingrich and Jackie Cushman’s book “5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours.” The College of Coastal Georgia in April of 2012 presented him with the Volunteer of the Year Award.

As a violinist Maestro Haza performs on a 1707 Pietro Guarnerius di Mantua and a Jean Baptiste Vuillaume picture bow from the Napoleon collection.

Michelle Merrill to replace Maestro Luis Haza as
Music Director and Conductor

For the last five years, Luis Haza, the Cuban conductor and world-renowned violinist, has served as music director for the Coastal Symphony of Georgia, leading the concerts as well as choosing performance selections. Haza will officially relinquish the title in April. He will hand the duties off to a new conductor, Michelle Merrill.
It has taken the symphony board months to find a suitable replacement for Haza, a Grammy winner and former member of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. The board selected Merrill from a number of candidates for many reasons, including her ability to “bring musicality, artistry, verve and virtuosity to the Golden Isles.” For her part, Merrill is ready to step into the role. “I am really excited to be taking over from Luis. He has done a lot to grow the orchestra along with Jorge, the general manager. I’m really excited to help continue that and really to expand the orchestra and the breadth of who we are reaching — young people, older people and anyone in between,” she said. Merrill currently serves as the associate conductor of the Detroit Symphony, which included helping plan and conduct more than 30 shows a year
Merrill is originally from Texas and has been called a “rising star” in the world of classical music. She has traveled extensively to perform, a passion she shares with her husband, Steve, who is principal percussionist for the Jacksonville Symphony.
Merrill studied conducting under Paul Phillips at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. She holds a master’s of music degree in conducting and a bachelor’s of music in performance.
Merrill notes that, while she can never replace Haza, she hopes to bring something new to the table. “I think that, with anybody, you never want to imitate anyone. All conductors are so different and it’s not because he’s a man or I’m a woman. They are all just completely different,” she said. “I’d never want to replace Luis Haza, I will just be making my own brand and making the Coastal Symphony the best it can be … that’s my focus.”
Merrill will work with the orchestra’s general manager, Jorge Pena, to help create the musical program for the 2018-2019 season. “I look forward to working with these great, high quality musicians to see what we can do to expand the repertoire and maybe take it in a little of a different direction, maybe adding more American music in, to showcase that,” she said.
In addition to the music, Merrill is also excited about getting involved in the community. Based in Jacksonville currently, she plans to become an active member of the Golden Isles community in the future. “I love that I will be able to be involved more in the community,” she said. “I think it is really important for cultural leaders to be inundated with what’s going on locally. So I am excited to go meet Rotary Clubs and Lion’s Clubs … I want to work with people in the area and get their ideas too on how we can expand the symphony and take it to new heights.”
Maestro Haza is excited about what the future holds for the symphony and is grateful for his time with the organization. He will lead his last performance in April. “The orchestra has become a truly first-rate, professional orchestra with a level of music making that is something to be proud of,” he said. “The Golden Isles community should be very proud of it.” On a personal level, Haza is grateful for all of the support he has received during his tenure as conductor, both serving as music director of the symphony and previously working with the Golden Isles Youth Orchestra.
“I am extremely grateful to the Symphony Society and the board for all that they have done. I am thankful for that support that has helped us to build a truly excellent symphony orchestra,” he said. “It takes a tremendous amount of work, dedication and financial support. I gladly will pass it along to Mrs. Merrill. I wish her all the best and all the success in the world.”
Haza is excited for the future. He says his official retirement will be a time to enjoy being free to travel with his wife Dana and explore new interests. “It will be wonderful. For the first time in my whole life, I will be able to be to take off when I want to go some place,” he said with a laugh. “There will be more spontaneity … so I won’t be encumbered or committed to a schedule in any way really.”