In about a week the powerful engine that is the Princeton University academic year will start purring, as it always has. But for all who work in the performing arts at Princeton, this one is different. September 2017 will be forever a watershed moment, with the opening of the dazzling and intricate network of spaces for creating that is the Peter Lewis complex, housing the Programs in Theater and Dance of the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Music Department’s Program in Musical Performance.

“Excited” is a pale word to describe the mind state of the new tenants. We saw the sail on the horizon years ago, and have watched day after day as the ship drew nearer, revealing each new sail with excruciating slowness. Occasional trips to the top floor of the adjacent garage to view the site were arranged. To my amateur eye for a long time honestly it looked like random digging. Until one day it didn’t.

I think it was Fall 2005 when many of the arts faculty were summoned to a meeting in Nassau Hall with President Shirley Tilghman, at which she shared her vision that Princeton should achieve the same status in the arts as it had in just about every other field imaginable. We were all both stunned and elated. Shirley’s will and determination were powerful that day.

A task force was formed, a report was made, discussions of potential locations were followed by needs lists, Peter Lewis’ amazing gift came, we saw the first ground plans, the traffic circle was installed, the Wawa moved, new Dinky station….. it was all like a gigantic and slow upbeat (to switch metaphors). The downbeat comes in a few days, as of this writing. That’s actually a flawed metaphor: any good conductor knows that the downbeat and the tempo that follows must be exactly the same speed as the upbeat. In this case, the upbeat was adagissimo, taking years, whereas the tempo after the sforzandissimo downbeat will be molto presto. We will barely be able to catch our breaths, students and faculty alike.

When one walks through the buildings right now, before occupancy, there’s a sense of great spaciousness—the space is so beautiful and grand that it feels almost royal, as if the Hapsburgs had built it. Soon the people for whom it was built— not aristocracy but students—will fill it, and it won’t seem quite as spacious. I know that the music building is already scheduled near capacity, and I suspect my colleagues in Theater and Dance might make similar observations. The growth in student numbers and depth of talent has not abated, and it seems like the curve is still headed up. Maybe it’s time to think about adding floors?

2017-2018 coincidentally is a watershed for me too. I arrived on these shores from New England Conservatory in the Fall of 1977, and, although it doesn’t feel like it, the math doesn’t lie—I’m now starting year 40 at Princeton. I hope to write more in future entries that will speak to the changes that have happened to/for music performance at Princeton in forty years. Some have happened glacially, and sometimes there have been sudden bursts forward. In the overall perspective, the last 10-12 years, since the meeting with Shirley, have to be placed in the burst category. In future entries I’ll pull up some tales from the 70s and 80s that might raise an amused (even disbelieving) eyebrow or two. It has been a far greater ride than I, when I was young, ever imagined I would have. I am so lucky.

For now, I’m happy to subsume my little party into the big one. See you in the palace!



4 November 2015, Fall break. And the first entry on this blog since August (bad Michael!). PUO members have gone through auditions and have put in a full concert cycle. Those few words cover a lot of ground, so I’d like to look back over the last seven weeks to offer some thoughts to our audience members on the various stepping stones to this point.

Audition week

As always, the week of auditions is the most intense one of the year for me, even more so than concert weeks. One student at a time, one every ten minutes, spread over six days. It’s like waiting for the tub to fill up with a single drop every ten minutes. Door opens, student comes in, plays, leaves as the next comes in. And again. It could be seen as a numbing experience, looked at from outside.

Far from it though. For the auditionees, these ten minute segments can be an agony of nerves and self-doubt. It’s anything but numbing for them, or for me. The single goal they all have is to make music with each other, and, hopefully, with me. I am grateful for that, and I owe it to them to be fully mindful every moment, listening closely for what they want to do but are possibly prevented from doing because of nerves, and trying to filter out the nervousness from the possible. It becomes a kind of meditation. Just. Listen. And although I know that only some can be taken (150+ auditioned, 114 were accepted), it is still my job to root for each one.

Some awfully tough calls always have to be made. Happily, we can almost always find some way for all to make music, as we are lucky to have Ruth Ochs. leading the second orchestra, Sinfonia. It’s her passion and mission. The Sinfonia is a very good orchestra, and plays repertory that I would not have tried with PUO when I arrived here 37 years ago. So the most important outcome of audition week is that some 160-170 Princeton students will play in an orchestra at least a couple of times a week on campus. (And that number is just the faculty-led ensembles.)

Getting on the feet

Coming the day after an initial no-instruments meeting to welcome the new members, the first rehearsal is always a mad whirl. No one knows quite where to sit, or where the music is, or even exactly who should be there. After all this is sorted through, finally an A is sounded and the music starts. The orchestra having just been organized, everyone is seeing the music for the first time, so things are rather rough. Yet a sense of the chemistry of the particular group begins to emerge even at the first rehearsal, and I always look on the sounds of early rehearsals as the metaphorical piece of raw marble which hides the finished sculpture.

And, week by week, definition takes place. Rhythms are understood and solidified, phrases shaped, colors developed, and the character of the music– to me the most important aspect– is grasped and finally projected. The improvement curve is not even– sometimes leaps are made, sometimes the progress is incremental. Concentration ebbs and flows–the Sunday night rehearsals are particularly challenging for this, as weekend/chill-out mind state is still in effect. (When we move into our new building in the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, with its large rehearsal room, the Sunday night rehearsals will cease, and the weekend can last as long as it’s supposed to!)

Home stretch

I sometimes fall for a false sense of security a couple of weeks before the concert, a feeling that we’re so close that we can coast. A little too much self-satisfaction creeps in (“look at the progress we’ve made, it’s just about ready”). That always falls away, though, and reality asserts itself– it’s not ready yet.  But the last strides towards a performance are the biggest. Some rehearsal time is added the last week, and suddenly the rehearsal-to-rehearsal improvements in both details and continuity are giant ones. In fact, the concert week, with its four rehearsals leading to the performances, PUO often feels like a professional orchestra. The technical knowledge of the music is finally complete, and the deeper currents– what I think of as the music behind the music– can emerge. The music is ready to come alive.


The concerts were very strong (as they almost always are). The David Lang work man made threw some interesting challenges at the students. It’s all about rhythm and texture, and, ultimately, the astounding phenomenon of So Percussion Quartet in performance. In some ways for the orchestra, man made is simple; in others, particularly the first part in which the orchestra plays in short and highly irregular bursts with many opportunities for unwanted solos, it’s really tough. Not much to add about So– they are as amazing a chamber ensemble as has ever existed. Sometimes they seem like eight hands governed by one mind, even when they’re 25 feet apart and on different instruments.

Paul Chang ’16 is as committed a performer as I’ve ever worked with. The Copland Clarinet Concerto moves from the poignant sweetness of simple Americana that he came to define, to some exceedingly complex and virtuosic music that embraces swing, Brazilian, downtown bar room, and good old mid-century modernism. These two worlds are bisected by a blazing cadenza. Paul and the orchestra pretty much got it all. Unknown to the audience, Paul was performing with a sinus inflammation. Those amazing high notes must have cost him some excruciating pain, but he backed down not a fraction.

Finally, glorious Schumann, the great C major second symphony. It’s not always so easy to convey the deepest essence of later Romantic music to a young orchestra, even though the music of Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, et. al., is beloved by all ages. Take Brahms- to me his music often carries a tinge of regret and sadness at the sorrow of life. In my opinion, one won’t hear Brahms’ music fully until, well, one’s heart has been broken. It’s usually in college that that and other formative experiences begin to accumulate. But when those experiences take root, and one learns from them, I believe one will hear with different ears and heart, seasoned with heartache. That’s one reason why we love this music so. It’s about the Big Stuff in our lives– love, spirituality. (And yes, I am an utter Romantic, in case you couldn’t tell.)

Schumann came out of the early, blazing spirit of the Romantic movement– humanity ennobled! yearning can find love and fulfillment! all things are possible through heroic effort! Even though he personally was a troubled man, his music glows with the optimism of youth. So it’s only natural that an orchestra of brilliant young musicians would find the style from the outset. Schumann’s music makes us all feel young, no matter who is performing it, but it was a special joy for this veteran to drink from that fountain with these glowing young spirits.

So– break. For the next program we stay in Central Europe with one of Schubert’s most lyrical achievements, the “Unfinished” (it always sounds complete to me) and Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth),  Mahler’s astounding and searing exploration of life, death, impermanence, and eternity. Talk about the Big Stuff! Until then…..






This entry is by way of answering some not-infrequent questions from audience members about how the orchestra is assembled.

You’ll see on the website some links to information about upcoming auditions. I make all returning members re-audition, along with, of course, the new students. Thus PUO starts from a zero base every year. As it says on the website, the audition consists of two parts– a page of excerpts (hard ones) from upcoming repertory, and another prepared piece. The auditions are ten minutes, and happen the first week of classes, extending through the weekend. Anywhere from 150-170 students will sign up, and around 100 will be accepted into PUO.

Taking an audition is, to be blunt, lousy. Unfortunately the performing arts have yet to come up with a better and more efficient way of the evaluation process necessary to get the right performers in the right roles in the play, chairs in the orchestra, etc. But the system is so imperfect. It’s a ten minute snapshot that can be affected by many factors– nervousness being the most obvious– and may not be predictive of how a person will actually perform under normal circumstances. Perhaps there is a correlation between the pressure of an audition and the pressure of performing a big solo. But playing a solo is something that one is able to rehearse at least a few times, and to play an audition is to walk into a room, set up, take ten minutes to show your stuff, and leave, while passing the next person on the list on their way in. It can be tough, but auditions provide the only context in which everyone can be seen/heard under the same conditions. At the least, a level playing field.

Over the years I’ve realized how important it is to humanize the process as much as possible . The freshmen (who are already overwhelmed) are welcomed by returning members outside the room who act as greeters. Their purpose is to have a calming “you’re going to do fine” presence. For everyone, new and returning alike, I always try to take a little time out of the ten minutes for chat. They are, each one, important far beyond what they do with the instrument, even though the instrument is what brings us together at that moment.

When the results are posted, there is always a cover memo in which the first sentence is to thank everyone who cares enough about music to endure an audition. And I mean it every time I say it.


Our season has been announced, and I invite readers to look under the “Concerts” link on this website. I always write a lengthy email to returning members about the season and why I picked what I picked, which I’ll excerpt for this blog below. The previous spring I do an informal poll of members, asking what they’d most like to play. The list is lengthy and varied, but there are always a small handful of works that pop up repeatedly. In shaping the season, I pick a couple of these that best fit with works I have in mind, plus the concerti that round out commitments made to faculty and student competition winners. This all gets shaped into the four major programs we present. The fact that it’s only four actually makes things harder, because one has to pack a lot in to a small container– sort of like it being much harder to write a good two-page essay than a ten page one. Every word has to really count, and every piece.

Here is the excerpt from my memo to returning members about the season:

October- Lang, Copland, Schumann

The first two pieces are there by circumstance. I made a commitment to our resident artists So Percussion more than a year ago to open our season with them, and it seemed appropriate to open with the work with which they opened the LA Phil’s season a year back, David Lang’s man made. They’ll be playing twigs, water bottles, pipes, steel drums….. SP has played the work with various international orchestras (like the BBC).

Following that after intermission, Paul Chang ’16 finally gets his turn as a 2015 Concerto Competition winner! Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is a masterpiece, my favorite of all his works. The best of musical Americana.

How to finish this program was a puzzle. The challenge was to find a ‘Goldilocks’ symphony– not too long, not super complex (as Lang and Copland both have challenges) but great fun. This is especially important on the first program. After a lot of thought, I decided that Schumann was the guy. The string players and a some winds will know a few of the big Schumann chamber works. His symphonies are not as well known as Brahms or Tchaikovsky, but they are glorious, glowing with the optimism of early Romanticism, untouched by the tinge of regret that creeped into the later Romantics. The Second is, for me, the most perfect of them, with a heart-breaking and melting slow movement. Schumann has been called the greatest pure romantic, and I would buy into that assessment.

December- Schubert, Mahler

“Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”) is one of those works that, if you really penetrate it, can be life-changing. The texts are German translations of poems by four Chinese (Tang Dynasty) poets that gripped Mahler, and inspired his greatest music. The little volume of poems called The Chinese Flute that Mahler was given was part of the first wave of Asian artistic influences that had begun to filter to Europe.

We’ve spent a lot of time with this guy the past two seasons, but this is more than about doing a favorite composer of mine. It makes sense to do Mahler in clusters, as his complicated style takes a while to learn, longer than other composers. We’ve done together now two symphonies from Mahler’s earlier years, and that sets us up beautifully to experience this extraordinary late work. I honestly would not do late Mahler unless everyone had some of his earlier music under their belts. “The Song of the Earth” is a work of extraordinary humanity and spiritual power that addresses the most profound issues of life, all encased in Mahler’s searing and beautiful sound world. Sorrow and rapture, side by side- even simultaneously. (A special treat is that Prof. Scott Burnham will pay us a visit during a rehearsal and add his insight to our work.)

Schubert’s well-loved “Unfinished” is the perfect companion and opening to Das Lied- two great Austrians at opposite ends of the century who were both dedicated to the beauty of song, whether delivered by the human voice or by instruments. Schubert too, wrote works that encompassed opposites– the “Unfinished” is by turns, serene and sublime, but also full of angst and tragedy. The two composers on this concert are kindred spirits.

March- Concerto winners, Beethoven

The Concerto Competition is restricted this year to concerti written before 1800 or after 1945. I do this every few years to encourage students to explore periods that they might not normally– this time the Classical era and post-World War 2. Of course it’s the great Romantic and early 20th century works that we all fall in love with first, but to live exclusively there means neglecting many wonderful works, and also limiting one’s personal musical perspective. Learning to play Mozart beautifully adds a dimension to playing Romantic repertoire.

The most requested single work, almost every year, is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I’ve resisted just because I went through a period of performing it often– but that was a while ago, and I feel excited about revisiting it. Not much introduction is needed for this one! Two added bonuses here. First, Prof. Burnham will join us again for a Beethoven rehearsal. And a subset of the Beethoven orchestra (as many as can fit into the pit at McCarter) will perform it once more on April 8 with the American Repertory Ballet, the top professsional ballet company in the state, in a new choreography by Mary Barton, Ballet Mistress at ARB.

April- Strauss, Shostakovich

“Tod und Verklärung” (“Death and Transfiguration”) is the fourth of Richard Strauss’s landmark tone poems that PUO has performed. It’s one of his most popular works, and certainly the most lyrical of his orchestral works. A 25′ depiction of a person’s last moments, and what follows, it is a radiant and ecstatic vision, and is profoundly moving. (It is also one of the most stolen-from works by film composers.)

There were numerous requests for several Shostakovich symphonies, including the Fifth. I took a good look at all of them, and it turns out the most popular one fits our needs the best, particularly in containing the right number of wind, brass, percussion and harp parts for the year-ending piece.

And both works have a strong resonance and connection with Mahler. Strauss of course was Mahler’s contemporary– they knew each other personally, knew each other’s music quite well, had great mutual respect– and also not a small rivalry. Shostakovich was a passionate devoté of Mahler, knew Mahler’s symphonies backwards, and incorporated much of Mahler into his own music. The other connection with all these works is of course Beethoven– no Beethoven….. I think you’ll find all this meaningful as you go through it.

Saturday Night

The cover title of this blog come from a metaphor about summer that I first heard from my colleague Scott Burnham. Summer is just a long weekend, with June being Friday, July Saturday and August Sunday. Today being the 29th of July, I think it safe to say that it’s Saturday night, and when we wake up on August 1, we’ll still have a whole delicious day in front of us– but Monday morning now waits!

In preparing for the new season every year, Sunday always seems to get an early start, and I thought I’d write a little about those preparations. If you’re a PUO audience member (thank you if you are!) you might enjoy having the curtain parted a bit to see the weeks-long upbeat to the downbeat on the first concert on October 23rd. Putting together a new orchestra every year is quite a task– a lot of details, but nevertheless rewarding.

But first, in the following posts, a sad task of noting the passing of two wonderful musicians who made such a difference to PUO in their time: Lynne Haggard Rumney ’90 and the celebrated Czech pianist Ivan Moravec.