Coming Together, Fall 2020

Dear PUO, present and future,

Full of good intentions, I had planned to send this out about a week ago. I’m glad something held me back, in light of President Eisgruber’s message last Friday. I am deeply disappointed that we will not be together, but I must admit, I’m not surprised. Tragedy might have ensued had you come back. And now we know exactly what we’re dealing with, as lousy as that reality may be.

The challenge is now (and always has been) how to build a sense of musical community without live ensembles in the same room. What we cannot do is rehearse together, live, even in subsets; so, here is a partial listing of what can do.


As announced before, no returning students will have to audition. To restore your membership, all you need to do is sign up here. I do need for you to tell me that you’re in, and participation in our activities will be required for membership in PUO. As always, members will still be entitled to the 50% lesson subsidy.

New students

I would like for potential new members to submit a short video (~5 minutes) on this form by September 4, 2020. A passage or two from any piece of your choice that displays some contrast will do — there will be no orchestral excerpts this year. If you submitted a recording for the Arts Supplement, you may re-send that. When the new members are admitted, we’ll start things off with Zoom meetings.

The Music

The major performance project will be to assemble a virtual performance of Steve Reich’s The Desert Music (I’ve talked about this before). A magnificent 45’ setting of texts by William Carlos Williams, its “minimal” style makes it possible to record using click tracks and previously laid down instrumental tracks. There are recordings of the work on Spotify — I recommend the recording conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. As you will hear, it is a big piece, with plenty for everyone. I cannot imagine being able to do it in less than the whole term. All members will participate; everybody plays.

A required part of PUO will be some guided listening sessions that will happen in regular PUO time. Ruth Ochs and I have discussed looking at some composers of the African diaspora. There will be a short introduction, then we will listen, and discuss. Some of this music can be placed alongside canonic repertory that may have served as an inspiration (such as Antonin Dvorak and Florence Price). Since we cannot play this music, it’s important today that we start a listening exploration to discover what we are — and what we have been — missing.

I will also invite some high-profile visitors to Zoom with us. Even the biggest names will have some time on their hands.

Software Development Update

Testing is still going on by our terrific audio engineers to find that magical low-latency platform that might enable small groups to work together live. All know that time is short. Updates will be shared as they happen.

Sō Percussion

I am excited to share a late-breaking ensemble opportunity from Sō Percussion, our resident chamber (percussion) ensemble. Here’s the description from Sō:

Princeton Remote Ensemble

Guided by members of Sō Percussion, Princeton Remote Ensemble is dedicated to exploring the possibilities of remote musical collaboration by exploring music that allows for flexibility in instrumentation and realization.

The group will meet once a week to develop new audio/video pieces designed to be realized through remote collaboration. Students will collaborate using Soundtrap or other software that they are comfortable using. Composer/creators and performers are both welcomed in the ensemble, and students will be matched based on their interests or skills with particular instruments and/or software. Ability to read music notation is not required.  

Creators who typically work solo are also welcome to join the ensemble, but will be asked to open their work to some form of collaboration with fellow musicians through participation in the ensemble.

Students will produce their own recordings and videos for use in a closing marathon stream at the end of the semester. Guest artists will help with production techniques and familiarity with the realization of flexible instrumentation repertoire.

Some examples of possible repertoire include:

  • Julius Eastman: Stay On It
  • Finola Merivale: Falling Flames
  • Jason Treuting: Go Placidly With Haste
  • Terry Riley: In C


  • Full group meets Tuesdays 6:30-8:30pm
  • Individual sub-groups will be expected to meet outside of full group time

And here’s a video of some of the marathon that came out of their work this summer, with only percussionists. All live-streamed.

This is the kind of thing that Sō is very good at. Not just executing, but creating.

Finally, you will hear from our very fine Co-Presidents, David Basili and Jeremy Cha, who are planning some informal events, like chamber music jams, games, etc. I hope we’ll know our faces by the end of then term, if not our feet!

That’s more than enough for one post. PLEASE WATCH for upcoming developments, and logistical matters. Send questions! I have far from every answer but will give it a shot.

Finally, I am so sorry that this has fallen on yougeneration. You will be shaped by this, and some of what comes out of this will be positive, as hard as that is to see now. I won’t tell you to be strong, because you already are. And what you do now will be admired by your successors.

More soon. Please be mindful, and take care of yourselves and your families.

Michael Pratt

Welcome, Class of 2024!

Dear Musicians of the Great Class of 2024:

First, let me send my heartfelt wishes for yours and your families’ continuing health in this difficult time. At Princeton we’re striving to meet the stiff challenge of the moment, with new means of communicating and teaching, and finding a sense of community, even at a distance. We’re proceeding, with great hope, that we will be fully back in business in the Fall, but if the challenge continues, we will continue to step forward to meet it.

Warm congratulations on your acceptance to Princeton! It’s a great achievement, and I’m sure your family and friends are proud of you. Some of you I’ve met, some not, but this letter gives me the chance to address all the orchestral instrumentalists who got this far, and invite you to the final step — saying “Yes!” to Old Nassau.

There is much to tell of the extraordinarily rich musical culture at Princeton with so many opportunities. For all musicians, whatever their stripe, I can in good faith say plainly that, in my opinion, we offer an unmatched quality of undergraduate musical experience.

We are in year three in our magnificent teaching and rehearsal facility in the Lewis Arts Complex. The Effron Music Building has brought us 20 new practice rooms, 6 teaching studios, rooms for percussion, jazz and electronic media, and a state-of-the-art large ensemble rehearsal room and recording studio which can easily accommodate a large orchestra and chorus. Here’s a little about each facet.

  • For you as orchestral instrumentalists, the Princeton University Orchestra, 100+ strong, plays at a high level, takes international tours biennially, and has an enthusiastic local audience following. There are two other orchestras at Princeton besides PUO: Sinfonia, and the Princeton Camerata. Feel free to explore our this site (and our YouTube page, which will have several more recent performances posted over the next couple months) for audio, video, and repertory lists for PUO going back to the late 1980’s. As I mentioned above, PUO tours every other year — next year’s plans are Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria.
  • Running parallel to the Orchestra is a large chamber music program. You can enroll in it as a course (offered every term) and be coached by members of our superb instrumental performance faculty. There is also an unconducted chamber orchestra offered as course. There are two very active student-run chamber music societies. Everything from string quartets, piano ensembles, percussion quartets, brass quintets, clarinet quartets, etc.
  • We have a large variety of performance-oriented courses in addition to chamber music. Among these is a course exclusively for orchestra members that has both an academic component — learning more about PUO’s current repertory — and also takes into account the time spent in rehearsal. The two experiences are mutually reinforcing in ways that students report finding very meaningful. Music majors and students in the Performance Program may take their studio lessons as a course for both their junior and senior years.
  • Our instrumental faculty all have the highest credentials: many play in top international ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the New Jersey Symphony, numerous other top chamber and new music groups, and in Broadway pits. They have been hand-picked for their ability to relate to talented students in a rigorous academic environment.
  • The Certificate Program in Music Performance, started in 1991, was the first such program offered in a liberal arts setting, and makes it possible for talented students, no matter what their eventual career aspirations, to continue to grow as performers. Our graduates occupy seats in major international organizations (the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Symphony among them). They also are doctors, teachers, architects, attorneys, and economists. You do not have to be a music major to be in the Performance Program. 
  • A unique program we offer is the possibility of a junior year semester as a full-time student at the Royal College of Music in London, with the possibility of completing a Masters in one calendar year after graduating from Princeton. The program is four months in a great conservatory, in the world’s greatest music town, immersed in music.
  • The Donna Wang Friedman ’80 Master Class series features visits from major artists, including Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center clarinetist David Shifrin and oboist Stephen Taylor; trumpeter Chris Gekker, Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra David Kim, Principal Horn of the Met Joe Anderer, Principal Viola of the New York Philharmonic Cynthia Phelps, Principal Cello of the New York Philharmonic Carter Brey, pianist Jeremy Denk and Principal Clarinet of the New York Philharmonic Anthony McGill.
  • We also offer Early Music Princeton, which explores Renaissance and Early Baroque performance opportunities on period instruments. Less traditional ensembles include a Chamber Percussion Ensemble, a Steel Drum Band, and an African Music Ensemble, among others, all of which offer expert instruction.
  • Finally, let me just say a word about the Music Department as a whole. Our working philosophy is that academics and performance are not separate, walled-off compartments. Rather, they work together closely to provide experiences combining intellectual discipline and musical intuition that open new avenues of growth in musical understanding. I believe we are the leader in this holistic approach.

I will be more than happy to put you in touch with any of our instrumental faculty, and also can arrange for you to talk with current Princeton students.

Fumika Mizuno ’21, violinist and concerto competition winner:

Leland Ko ’20, cellist and concerto competition winner:

Claire Schmeller ’23, violinist and Orchestra Treasurer:

Yang Song ’20, clarinetist and Orchestra Co-President (emeritus):

I will have Zoom Open House hours at which you can come and ask me anything you want. My hours are Tuesday April 14th, 1–3pm, and Thursday April 16th, 1–3pm. The addresses for the meetings will be posted Monday on both this website and the Music Department website. Looking forward to seeing you!

With all best wishes,
Michael Pratt
Music Director

Peter Westergaard and Music Performance at Princeton

Recently, we witnessed the sad passing of Peter Talbot Westergaard — Princeton’s William Shubael Conant Professor of Music, Emeritus — at age 88. He was the most influential musical artist of my life, and my close friend.

My purpose here is to share some tales of the “old days”, when the Music Department was a very different place than it is today. The narrative is about how we came from an academic department that regarded music as better seen than heard, to where we are now, with a vibrant performance program, working within a liberal arts setting. It is a story that has Peter — and his passion for opera — at its center, for the department’s transformation was given a kickstart by the Princeton University Opera Theater (PUOT), which was Peter’s creation. Had it not been for Peter and the PUOT, we probably would not have our dazzling new Effron Music building, part of the gazillion dollar facility that is the Lewis Arts Complex. Here we now welcome some of the country’s most gifted young musicians, many of whom could qualify for study at top conservatories.

In relating to my friends some of the tales from the late 1970s and the stages of the evolution of music performance at Princeton, I have heard more than once the suggestion that I write the story down. It’s a very personal tale, because it involves not just a push for policy changes, but also the friendship and bond that Peter and I shared. We also shared a vision for what performance could be in a top university, a vision that developed from a passion we both held — making music and opera with students.

It also is a tale of the PUOT days in old Alexander Hall, with its impossible conditions and crazy ambitions. The story also contains some great opera disaster tales that cannot be left out. Finally, in the deepest sense, it is an account of the accomplishment of Princeton students doing things far beyond any reasonable expectations.

Peter was a highly respected composer and theorist who was before his time in that he was committed to student performance at the highest possible level, rather than remaining on the margins of the curriculum. He carried the load of a full professor, and not only conducted the Princeton University Orchestra, but also mounted operas, which, as anyone who has done so will tell you, is not just an extra mile. More like ten. These productions, first in Theater Intime, later in Alexander Hall, were the petri dish out of which grew the Program in Music Performance. In all the operas I did with him, he (1) directed, (2) designed the set, (3) built the props, and (4) translated the libretti into English singing translations. These translations are some of the best I’ve ever seen — witty, literate, and capturing the meaning of the moment perfectly. An example in a bit.

For my part, I was the Music Department’s first resident professional conductor. (Bruce Ferden, an exceptional professional conductor, preceded me, but commuted from New York. Bruce went on to a wonderful opera career, including the Met, before dying from AIDS in 1993). Thus, Peter had an ally who was just as hungry for opera as he was, one who lived in Princeton. A conspiracy to overwhelm the place with opera was hatched. That conspiracy’s mission was to find a way to teach performance at a high level amidst the academic rigors of a school like Princeton.

Getting to Princeton

A few paragraphs about how I came to be here.

Peter hired me to conduct the University Orchestra in the Spring of 1977. At first, he was a voice on the phone telling me about Princeton and asking me if I were interested in auditioning, as two of my teachers, Gustav Meier and Gunther Schuller, had mentioned me as a candidate. At that time, I had just finished the best year of my life, serving as Gunther’s conducting assistant at the New England Conservatory while he celebrated his retirement from the job with a blaze of glory, producing both Berg’s Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with the student orchestra.

My goal was, of course, the Berlin Philharmonic — not a small school, even an Ivy League one. But a job is a job, and my future in Boston would be squeaking out a hand-to-mouth living trying to conduct new music. I met Peter just before the audition, and spent about 30 minutes with a small but obviously eager orchestra, rehearsing Weber’s Oberon Overture (which they knew) and the Mozart G minor Symphony (which they did not). A couple of days later Peter was on the phone again, offering me the position. I did not accept right away, but Gunther said forthrightly that I should take it. He knew some of the composers on the faculty, and said new music opportunities would develop in New York. He also said that the orchestra would turn out to be strong enough to play some advanced repertory respectably.

He was right on both counts, but the attitude I took with me to New Jersey was “two years, then I’m outta here”. That was the amount of time my predecessor, Bruce, was at Princeton.

I did not visit Princeton again until I moved from Boston. I had dinner at Peter’s home and met the first of many generations of memorable pets — Fafnir, the long-haired dachshund, and Siegfried, the black cat (who took no crap from Fafnir). Enjoying multiple glasses of wine with his wife Barbara in their lovely Pine Street backyard, we got around to the subject of opera, and quickly realized it was a subject of considerable mutual interest. Peter had already composed one opera, and was to complete five more in his life. He also had already established the Princeton University Opera Theater, and had performed in or directed The Impresario, Beatrice and Benedict, The Turk in Italy, The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Rape of Lucretia, all produced in the super intimacy of 200-seat Theater Intime. (He proudly listed one of his credits as having played bass drum in Abduction). The casts featured students with a few (unpaid) pros sprinkled in for the tougher roles, plus student chorus and orchestra.

I think I had seen the vaulting interior of Alexander Hall by then, but Peter commented, offhandedly “You know the interior of Alexander is already like a set for The Magic Flute. You wouldn’t have to add any scenery.” All kinds of bells started going off for me, loudly, as Flute was my first operatic love.

Alexander Hall

One of the most distinctive buildings on campus, Alexander Hall is a major player in this tale, and it needs a little background. I think it safe to say that most of the Princeton community does not remember the building before it was renovated to house Richardson Auditorium in 1985. This renovation involved a major reshaping of the interior.

In the old hall, seats wrapped all the way around the stage, which was much narrower. Stone stairways went down each side of the stage to the floor. In order to yield a little more stage space, wooden platforms — bare plywood on 2x4s — had been built over these side stairways. There was no acoustic reflector over the stage, as there is now, so there was endless and challenging reverberation. There was no pit, and the seats had no middle aisle. Downstairs was just a rough stone corridor that ran beneath the stage. There was no lounge, and there were no bathrooms. There was, however, a working toilet in the narrow corridor, with lockable doors on each side. So, if someone was using the toilet, and you wanted to get through, you waited. There is a tale from the 30s or 40s that the Philadelphia Orchestra played in Alexander, after which the great conductor Leopold Stokowski wrote to the President of the University, expressing regret that they could not return, because “I can’t have my men peeing in the bushes.”

Before the renovation, we solved the problem of where to put the opera orchestra by taking out several of the long rows of seats. Each individual seat was attached to the floor with six long screws, and every screw had to be taken out by hand by student volunteers. It took many days. Fortunately, we could simply take over the hall for several weeks, as demand on Alexander as a concert venue was near zero. After the closing of each production we put the seats back, although with fewer and fewer screws. After a couple of years, they started to sway a tad when anyone sat there.

As Peter did with the Theatre Intime productions, the casts in the Alexander shows were unpaid pros and advanced student singers.

Here are a few tales from each of those early productions, and how one thing led to another.

Princeton University Opera Theater

The Magic Flute, April 1978

Peter was determined that the dragon in the opening scene should fly in. How do you do that in a “theater” with no wings and no fly space? His vision was that Tamino should come onstage, eyes to the heavens, while a dragon slowly descended from the balcony to the stage. Now if the dragon was flying, it had to have working wings. Red glaring eyes that would go out when it was killed by the Three Ladies’ spears would also be a nice touch.

Peter found some student engineers (including an aerospace major) to tackle the challenge, and they leapt to it. We got all three items on his wish list — flight on cables from the balcony to stage, wings, and red glowing eyes. The wings flapped (rotated really) by virtue of a small battery-driven motor in the dragon’s heart. When the Second Lady’s spear penetrated the skin at the right point, it would hit a switch that stopped the motor, thus stopping the wings and extinguishing the eyes.

Alas, we never got to rehearse the apparatus, as the dragon cables were not in place in time for the dress rehearsal. The first night, the dragon’s skin was too tough, and the Second Lady only knocked the whole thing, swinging it back and forth on its cables. They sang of having killed the monster while the monster kept flapping and glowing all the way through the scene.

Second night. The spot where the spear was supposed to go was covered with tissue paper, but our poor Lady slightly missed the target. Same result.

Third night, and last chance. A bullseye was painted on the desired spot. Then someone had an inspiration: “Let’s make the dragon bleed!” Peter decided that the theater blood needed a container inside the dragon. He went to a pharmacy across the street (as related by his daughter Maggie, who accompanied him), took a box of condoms from the shelves, plopped it on the counter, and asked the lady behind the counter for a receipt. Maggie relates that the lady was astonished, and took a moment to recover. The condom was filled with the red goo, and put inside the dragon, behind the bullseye. And the thing was full to bursting. The original plot was not to tell Lady No. 2 (sung by a wonderful friend, the late Cynthia Lake), but cooler heads prevailed. Cynthia was taken aside and told of the blood to come. Start of show: Tamino ran on to the stage, imploring “Help me, help me!”, the dragon made its ponderous flight from the balcony, the Three Ladies appeared, “Die, monster, die!” Cynthia struck as true as any Nantucket harpooner, and the blood from the pressurized condom exploded out of the dragon in a manner worthy of any slasher movie. And all over Cynthia. The next sounds were a scream in the fermata, the orchestra continuing its triumphant music, but with no singing. Cynthia had bravelyturned to the audience, however her throat was locked. Lady No. 1, (Anne Ackley Gray) had her head on her chest, quaking with laughter, and I could not see Pam Bristah, Lady No. 3. A couple of lines went unsung, the Ladies recovered, and the show went on.

Aftermath. The student financial manager of the show was finishing up the books and asked Peter how the expenditure for a condom should be explained. Peter smiled and said dryly, “Just say it was for the dragon.” And the blood stains on the stage remained for five years until the renovation and new floor.

The Marriage of Figaro April 1979

Peter was on leave in 1978–79, and did not direct. It was musically and theatrically a fine show, well directed by a chap named Arthur Karp, but lacking Peter’s distinctive touch. The set, designed and executed by students, would have been impressive, but we never saw much of it, as the ambition of the set outstripped the time we had to do it in. One memorable small disaster involved a gate in one of the doorways in the set. The gate did not make it onstage for opening night, but was up for the second show. Nobody told our Susanna that the gate opened inward to the stage. She grabbed its bars to push through it, and ripped the screws from the wood, coming off the stage holding a piece of the set in her hands.

And the seats went back in with fewer screws…

Don Giovanni April 1980

One of Peter’s finest efforts. The audience came in to see a set comprised of a number of low stucco wall units arranged on the stage. The top of each piece had a couple of layers of terracotta roofing. One expected black-clad stage hands to come out to do scene shifts. Nobody appeared at the end of the duet with Anna and Ottavio which ends Scene One. But each wall unit suddenly grew four feet and walked to its next position. That in and of itself became a crowd favorite, more than once receiving applause. The singing was even better, and it was a sell-out hit over several shows.

The graveyard scene was, despite the lack of proper lighting, a wonder of spookiness. The marble Commendatore stood on a pedestal with two weeping statues at the base. The stage was dark, except for a blue light directly from above. The voice emerging from that ghostly pool of light was wondrous. Later, when Giovanni was dragged off to hell, it was the weeping statues from the grave who pounced on him.

I mentioned earlier that Peter did singing translations (an exceedingly tough job) for all the operas we did together. One of his lines from Don Giovanni, has always stuck with me, the beginning of Leporello’s great “Catalogue Aria” wherein he lists his master’s conquests by number in each country. Here’s Lorenzo daPonte’s opening:

Madamina, il catalogo è questo
Delle belle che amò il padron mio;
Un catalogo egli è che ho fatt’io;
Osservate, leggete con me
Osservate, leggete con me.

Peter’s translation:

Have a seat, ma’am and peruse at your leisure
This account book I keep for my master,
This voluminous index of pleasure.
Take a look ma’am, and read it with me,
Take a look ma’am, and read it with me,

Peter’s solution to the insult from the servant Leporello to Donna Elvira by calling her ‘little madam” is not the obvious “Little lady” of so many translations, but rather describes an insulting action — the servant offers the aristocrat a seat, rather than the other way around. As a bonus, Peter’s vowels perfectly match those of the Italian. Madamina / Have a seat, ma’am. Wonderful.

Der Freischütz April 1981

The climax of the PU Opera Theater madness was Der Freischütz (literally meaning “The Free Shot”). The first German Romantic opera, it was a trailblazer with its supernatural effects and vivid music that sounds so it very German. It is rarely performed in the US, but I fell in love with it while exploring for new repertory. Peter was always game for anything, and off we went.

Der Freischütz was also a game changer in how the performing arts at Princeton relate to the curriculum. Peter took the major step, against considerable opposition in the faculty, deciding that this was the moment for these massive, time-eating projects to become a real course, with a grade. He declared that anyone involved in a significant way in the production could enroll in MUS 214, Projects in Vocal Performance. Some maintained that to be a course, there had to be a written component. Peter pushed back by insisting that doing and experiencing music was just as legitimate a channel for learning as the traditional ones, and he refused to install what he called “the trappings of a course.” Thus, an important breakthrough was achieved.

Since the backdrop of the story is the German forest (the scary one of the Grimm tales), Peter decided we needed to build a forest on the stage. I can’t remember how many trees we had — maybe five or six. But they were 2 feet in diameter, and maybe 20 feet tall. 1×2 slats, round plywood supports, chicken wire, paper maché, brown and green paint. They were built lying down, then hoisted.

At one point the hero Max must descend a cliff into the terrible Wolf’s Glen. An entire stairway was built on stage-left that went from the balcony down to the stage. The cliffs of the Wolf Glen scene were constructed of similar materials, built in top and bottom layers that fit together. They also had apertures through which the chorus could look, and indentures where the ravens sat with their flapping wings, operated from behind by a stagehand.

As far as the specific effects for the famed Wolf’s Glen scene, in which Nature revolts at the evil of casting the magic bullets, well… the ravens flapped well enough. A student in a bear suit substituted for the wild boar. The ghostly carriage was pulled on a curved track along the front of the stage (I think it jumped the track in every show). But the masterpiece was the Ghostly Hunt — skeletal men on skeletal horses riding overhead to the accompaniment of an invisible chorus and wildly braying horns. Peter had students construct three rider units, one drawing a spear, one with a bow and arrow, and one playing an upraised hunting horn. The skulls (both humans and horses), bony hands and arms were all carved from high-density Styrofoam, and were mounted on skeletons made of thin board, with white sheets hanging from the horses. This trio erupted, on cables, from the house right upper alcove from behind black rolls of crepe paper and flew directly at patrons in the balcony before sharply swerving up to their resting place at the top of a column. It always got massive applause. (Not to mention scaring a few patrons silly).

Peter’s search for authenticity was never-ending. A musket shot was required at the end of the show. A standard solution would have been to get a prop musket and use a starter pistol offstage. Inconceivable for Peter; he wanted a real muzzle-loading musket that would really fire. He found a local gent who had one and was delighted that we wanted to use it. He brought it and gave a demonstration. Our Max, George Gray, was an avid hunter and received this like a kid with a fire truck on Christmas. (These muskets misfired not infrequently, so we still had to have the starter pistol as a backup.) For the last performance, George decided to use all the leftover black powder. The result was a blast so loud that we were all momentarily stunned. Somehow, we kept going. Alas, the performance’s last minutes went unrecorded, for the blast had done the mics in for good.

At the onstage cast party after the last performance, Peter and I, both several sheets to the wind, decided that we would stay with German opera and mount Fidelio the next year. At some point that I don’t remember, we decided to go one better and perform the original three act version of 1805 which predated the standard 1814 version the world knows by nine years.

Fidelio (Leonora) April 1982 and December 1982

We soon discovered that ours would be only the second American performance, and the first fully staged one. It was a real multi-tasker, and we were up to our noses in it even in the first semester. A big question was where to get performance materials. We struck out with the Boston Symphony, who, with Eric Leinsdorf, had done the concert performance at Tanglewood, I believe in the 1960s. They did not have them, and did not know where Leinsdorf got them. I remember Peter on the phone with Breitkopf and Härtel in Wiesbaden, Germany. (He had not used his German in a while, and so he practiced his questions before making the call). Again, nothing. We would have to make our own parts, cutting and pasting from a copy of the full score. It took many hours.

The deeper we dug into the 1805 version, the more enthusiastic we were, and we all became convinced of its superiority to the 1814 version in some important respects. There is great music from 1814 that one misses, but there is also magnificent music from 1805 that is never heard. We came to feel that the principal characters were more human, and that Beethoven treated them with more personal intimacy, whereas they became more archetypal in the revision. My wife Marty was a senior, singing Marzelline, and she devoted her senior thesis to exploring both character and musical differences between the two versions. It turned out to be some ground-breaking work on the topic.

Of course, a Beethoven premiere was bound to draw some attention from the academic side of things, especially with such a celebrated work. So, the Music Department organized a Beethoven symposium centered around some real heavyweights: Andrew Porter of The New Yorker, Alan Tyson of Oxford, Lewis Lockwood of Harvard, and Maynard Solomon, author of a powerful biography/psychological profile of Beethoven.

The premiere and attending conference brought a lot of attention, and several critics were in attendance. The reception was moderate, and I thought many simply couldn’t stand to hear Fidelio any way other than what they knew. But one person was in attendance who had a real impact. The founder and President of the Beethoven Society in New York, Robert Becker, wrote to us offering sponsorship for a repeat performance in Alice Tully Hall the next December. Peter and I went to Provost Neil Rudenstine and laid a budget before him for a Princeton performance in Lincoln Center. He made one short call, hung up the phone, and gave us the go ahead.

We were so fortunate to have this chance for a do-over. I know I learned much from the first set of performances, and was happy to try to correct many miscalculations. Fidelio is a real challenge in the ways that Beethoven always is, but especially so with singers onstage, moving around.

After an out of town run-out at Rowan College, we went to New York. It all went surprisingly well. The Alice Tully pit had never been used before (!) so the production staff was energized, and exceedingly helpful. It was also a phenomenon that performers experience often—working like hell on a hard project, putting it away for a spell, and when you come back everything is almost magically easier.

Two days later Bernard Holland’s review appeared in the NY Times, and overall it was very positive (if slightly patronizing). Everyone at Princeton was thrilled, especially the Nassau Hall administration. Suddenly, it was getting much harder to speak of performance as a minor activity. We had made Princeton look good nationally. It’s my belief that all this energized the move to make Alexander Hall functional, and the Music Department itself identified David Richardson ’66 as the donor to make this happen.

The transformation of Alexander seems radical only if you remember what it was like before. There was suddenly a greatly expanded stage, major acoustic enhancement, offices, a real pit, instrument storage, and bathrooms. (No more peeing in the bushes)! The PU Opera Theater took a one-year hiatus for the renovation and came back the next year with the last of the Mozart/DaPonte operas, Così fan tutte.

The renovation happened, in my opinion, because of the PU Opera Theater. However, opera productions gradually grew rare because the hall was suddenly much more desirable as a venue, and we could no longer shut the place down to build our production. But, the job was done.

After that the productions became a little more spotty. Peter and I did Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges. There were other productions after that with all-student casts, including our last collaboration in 2001, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. Peter retired at the end of that year. I went on to conduct two more of Peter’s operas after his retirement, Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland, so our collaboration continued for some time.

Peter and I had one more major adventure, the founding of the June Opera Festival (later the Opera Festival of New Jersey). Except to say we produced Peter’s magnificent setting of The Tempest there, that is a tale for another time, as this account is about Princeton.

After the PUOT Run

The renovation of the hall and the beginning of the slow yearly upsurge in highly gifted high school students coincided. But this was no coincidence, for we now had a beautiful building that spoke volumes about the seriousness with which performance was regarded. Each year there were more student performers, and their frustration with the Department’s lingering attempts to marginalize performance mounted, just from the sheer number of these students. Finally, in 1990, the dam broke with a powerful student uprising that confronted the contradiction in the Department’s attitude. The planets shifted, and the old paradigm rapidly slipped away. I remember the emergency meeting of department faculty to respond to the rebellion. I said little, but Paul Lansky, one of the wisest and sanest people I ever met, spoke up and said “OK, here’s what we’re gonna do.” He then, on the spot, described the certificate Program in Music Performance, pretty much as it is currently constituted. Nassau Hall gave funding to the Department, I was asked to direct the program, and I have done so ever since.

Princeton’s program was unique, and the oncoming caravan of top musicians continued. Peter knew well what was going on, as he came to pretty much all the concerts, and we always talked after.

It was Peter who, in the 1970s, first took some income from one of the Department’s endowed funds to subsidize lessons for committed students. That was the beginning. That fight to legitimize performance moved on after he retired, and today the performance faculty are just that — faculty, not sub-contracted non-employees. Moreover, students can take lessons for credit, and the Department has a generous program for financial assistance for lessons.

The climax of what Peter started in the early 1970s is the Lewis Arts Complex, a platform for the study of performance in dance, theater and music. None of our peer institutions has anything comparable. Yes, I had something to do with it, but had Peter not been here in 1977 with his opera passion that matched mine, I doubt whether I would have stayed. He was not just my colleague and friend, he was my co-conspirator. I will miss him to the end of my days.

I close with special thanks to my extraordinary bride and life partner, Marty. We joyously shared all these adventures together as co-performers, and this narrative includes both of our memories.

Michael Pratt

Taking the Fall off…

Dear PUO and Friends of PUO,

I want to post this brief note to tell you of a medical issue for me that will change things for the Fall season. I will be having surgery on my right shoulder to repair tears in two rotator cuff tendons. My right arm will be in a sling for six weeks, followed by another six to seven weeks of intensive physical therapy to regain mobility. Obviously, that will make conducting impossible, and I will be unable to conduct our October and December programs. Two bike crashes and forty-five years of wear and tear have finally caught up with me.

Happily, those concerts will be more than ably taken by my Princeton colleague and friend, Ruth Ochs, Conductor of the Princeton University Sinfonia for a number of years now. A superb musician and outstanding educator, Ruth will bring PUO to its usual brilliance.

One program change is that instead of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Ruth will bring to life for us Debussy’s seascape masterpiece La Mer.

I should be back for everything after January 1. But in the Fall I will be a proud and happy audience member!

Thanks, and best wishes,
Michael Pratt

MP Blog October 2017

Three reflections on 40

Fall break, my favorite breather in the Princeton academic calendar. We have a little time to revel in the brilliant colors and soaring blue skies. There is a lot to look forward to, and hopefully, we have the satisfaction of having gotten another year off the ground successfully. It is a nice time to reflect.

I have much to reflect on this time around, and would like to share three of those reflections.
Some brief personal history for the first one: 2017 marks forty years since I arrived on the campus, fresh from being assistant for a year to Gunther Schuller at New England Conservatory (and for five years before that teaching band instruments at a parochial elementary school in West Webster, NY). Gunther was the greatest musician I have known, and he rescued me. My plan after his last year at NEC was to stay on in Boston as his personal assistant and try to scratch out a living as a new music conductor. One day in May the phone rang, and on the other end was Peter Westergaard, Chair of the Princeton music department, inviting me to audition for the job of Conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra. “Should I take the audition?” I asked Gunther. “Absolutely.” A week later I had the job. “Should I take the job?” “Absolutely. You’ll get to make more music there than you will here. And the Ivy League orchestras are better than you think.”

My youthful plan was to stay two or three years. By then I would surely have been noticed and on my way up the ladder to, oh, Berlin. And the orchestra was indeed better than I thought it would be. They had some serious players, they wanted to be good and wanted to be pushed. The first program was Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Wagner Tristan: Prelude and Love-Death, and Dvorak 6th Symphony. At the end of the year Peter and I committed the first of several mad-hat opera projects in Alexander Hall, The Magic Flute (complete with flying dragon that gushed blood when the Second Lady skewered it.)

It’s my intention to write someday a more detailed history of the evolution of what we now call the Performance Wing of Princeton’s Department of Music. Just some big strokes now, though. I soon learned in 1977 that performance was wedged into the corners of an academic department, often over the resistance of the academic faculty, particularly the musicologists. Performance was held on the margins. Peter had already begun to push back against that by hiring a professional conductor (not an academic who conducted on the side). I was the second one of these, and the late Bruce Ferden was the first. Bruce commuted from New York, but I lived in Princeton—on hand to make trouble.

For a number of years I held to my plan: getting out of Princeton to my own pro orchestra. I held posts simultaneously in the 80s; I was the number two conductor at the New Jersey Symphony, and had founded a local summer opera festival with Peter. So, I had a decent platform to attract attention. I chased several jobs: assistant posts with A ensembles, and music director with B+ orchestras (some of which have since folded). Sometime in the 90’s it slowly began to dawn on me that just maybe I was better at working with college musicians than I would be on the pro circuit, and that the life in the academy was more to my liking anyway. (I did some guest gigs with a couple of highly respected pro orchestras, and it was scarring. They weren’t hostile or disrespectful—they weren’t anything. Playing in a coma. Everyone in the orchestra giving me the finger would have been an improvement. I would have returned it and then, having communicated, maybe we could have worked.)

Fast forward to Reflection No. 2, the present, and the impact of the opening of the Lewis Center for the Arts complex, on which the Department of Music has a big footprint. The official opening was in early this October. The great energy surge that lead to this planetary moment was in 2005, when President Shirley Tilghman told a stunned gathering of arts faculty that she was determined to make Princeton as well regarded for the arts as it was for anything else. She told us that we would be asked for what we wanted. And we were told to dream big, not just ask for what we thought we could get.

Where did this dramatic Big Bang came from? Shirley was indeed a pioneer among university presidents, but the planets were lining up for this to happen, not just at Princeton, but in higher education generally. Attitudes were changing. And if I had to say when the first green shoots of performance started to come up in the music department, it would be in the 1970’s, with Peter Westergaard pushing back against the music-is-better-seen-than-heard crowd. Alexander Hall got a major make-over in 1984 to become a concert hall (Richardson Auditorium). The establishment of the Program in Musical Performance in 1990 lead to a strong upswing in the number of applicants to Princeton who had significant musical talent and ambitions. The orchestra got better and better, and we started playing complex works like Mahler 3 and The Rite of Spring. The orchestra started touring internationally, which attracted even more attention in the admissions pool.

And then came the thunderclap of Peter Lewis’s $101 million dollar gift that lead to the Lewis Center Complex. It will be some time before the impact of the Lewis Center can be fully appreciated. In the large scheme, I think it has permanently altered the psychology of the campus. One would think that any sexy new building would do that, but all the other gorgeous recent buildings are in the sciences. LCA is about not just the classroom contemplation of the arts, but the practice of the arts. It is at a major entrance to the campus, so it can’t be missed. It is a soaring work of art itself; architect Steven Holl has filled it with musical rhythms.

In the more immediate (read selfish) scheme, for me as a tenant and user, it is a dream come true. I take joy in the spacious practice rooms and studios. But my miracle is the Lee Music Performance and Rehearsal Room. A 3500 square feet room with a 30 foot ceiling and adjustable acoustics, it is now where the Princeton University Orchestra rehearses prior to moving to Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall for concerts.

Why a miracle? Richardson functions well as a concert hall—its sonorous acoustics are always flattering to an ensemble. But those same sonorous acoustics make it a challenge to build a performance from scratch, as it is nearly impossible to hear someone twenty feet away from you, let alone on the opposite side of the stage. I can explain musical relationships that must be in the students’ ears, but if they cannot actually hear it, then there is only so much I can do. My students are relied on faith that it was there– and hopefully a clear beat.

In the Lee room, everyone can hear everyone, and the sound of the room is still generous. Pointing out musical relationships is quick, easy. Ensemble corrects itself. We are able to build a performance much faster on this platform, and the product we take with us when it’s time for a concert in Richardson has a stronger foundation. Just recently, we did for the opening concert a long tough program that included Mahler’s challenging First Symphony. I’ve never had the nerve to do Mahler out of the starting gate, but I had a feeling about this orchestra, and what the Lee Room would do for us.

So, on this 40th anniversary, I reflect back to those days in the 80’s when I thought I wanted to leave Princeton for a B+ orchestra. And I thank the great guiding forces that some deeper wisdom prevented me from fully pursuing that path. For now—and actually for some time—the Princeton University Orchestra is a more accomplished ensemble than most of those pro orchestras I flirted with. I flatter myself that the growth of PUO may have had something to do with energizing the overall arts effort, but I must add quickly that Princeton has allowed and encouraged me—from day one in September 1977—to make the Orchestra as good as it could possibly be, given the circumstances. Colleagues at some other institutions do not get that kind of support. And I did not create the culture of a serious student orchestra. It was here when I arrived, thanks to Peter Westergaard.

Third reflection: as I type this I am one week removed from the end of six weeks of radiation for my second go-around with breast cancer in less than a year. It’s rare enough for a male to have breast cancer, but I’m told it’s unheard-of to have a recurrence within centimeters of the original tumor. Radiation increases chances of non-recurrence about 65%, my radiation oncologist told me. Skin burn and fatigue notwithstanding, I’ll take those odds.

There is nothing quite like a diagnosis of a potentially mortal condition to bring on a little reflection. That it has happened at this precise moment, converging with an anniversary and watershed moment for the arts at Princeton has grabbed my attention, to say the least. If something, somewhere is trying to send a message, well, I’m listening. I don’t think I’ll ever know precisely quite what it is, but maybe it isn’t about figuring anything out. I do know that I am left, post-cancer on this anniversary, with new gratitude for every moment of being alive—from taking out the compost to rehearsing Mozart to having a meal with my beloved wife to having spent forty years in a place like Princeton, making music with Princeton students.