We arrived today before sunrise at the intimate and friendly Shannon Airport after a splendidly smooth trip from Newark. That phrase (“smooth trip”), when applied to an entire orchestra + instruments, is actually a description of a  minor miracle. Moving a large (100 members) symphony orchestra- musicians, smaller instruments carried on, large instruments in flight cases checked as baggage- over an international border is a massively complex (and expensive) task. Glitches can and often do sprout up like weeds. We all have gripes and bones to pick with U.S. airlines, but the people on whom we were dependent stepped up big time this past day. Kudos to the United team at Newark.

Anyone who has traveled to Europe on an early evening flight, arriving early the next morning, knows about the several hour gap between arrival and hotel check-in.  The people responsible for the ground ops (coaches, hotels) of the tour, Cara Travel Group of Boston, filled the gap by driving us north to see one of Ireland’s most celebrated natural wonders, the Cliffs of Moher. We got there, and instead of the cliffs, saw another prominent feature of Ireland– a fog so thick you could almost grab it, and mist driven by gale-force winds spraying in upward torrents from the sea. No cliff viewing today for PUO, but nevertheless, there is something awesome about the wildness of this farthest-west point of Europe, with all the power of the Atlantic revealed, in sound if not sight.

The last stop before the blessed repose of the hotel room bed was King John’s castle in Limerick.  Built in the time of the bad-guy king from the Robin Hood tales (the who was also forced to sign Magna Carta), it was the cornerstone of the growth of medieval Limerick, and later was the object of numerous terrible sieges in the 17th century rebellions against English rule. A magnificent interactive exhibition was added a couple of years ago which does much to bring alive the rich history of the castle. It was fun watching PUO members scrambling atop the battlements. Before we kept, Emma Powell, Demi Fang, Nathan Wong and Spencer Shen delivered a spirited pop-up performance of a movement of Grieg’s String Quartet for the patrons at the castle shop.

Tomorrow is the first music day, at the University Concert Hall at Limerick University. Here’s hoping for a restful night for all!

Emerging on the other side

Whoops, seem to have let the old blog slide in the intensity of the last couple of rehearsals, and the concerts themselves. I don’t think a play-by-play is called for here, just a summary, to bring things to a close.

The Monday rehearsal, before which I paused writing, got us through a run of about 65% of the symphony (first four movements), which was good. Many little spots remained in need of fixing, which we did.

Wednesday we attended to the rest of the work, which consisted mostly of the great finale. We also added the vocal element for the first time– Barbara Rearick, the sopranos and altos of the Princeton Glee Club, and the American Boychoir, all for the fourth and fifth movements. I had allotted 30 minutes for this 14 minutes of music, and it turned out we did not need it all. The pegs slipped into the proper holes like clockwork, even with the choirs in the balcony. The vocalists brought a high level of preparation, but that was no surprise.

Dress rehearsal, Thursday night. First time through the whole thing, all 100 minutes of it, without stopping. I always try to get a no-stop run  before the dress rehearsal, as that in and of itself is an adjustment– especially when it’s this long. Then the dress rehearsal can be devoted to polishing. But because we could not rehearse the previous Sunday (Easter) we were deprived of that. So it was a tough dress, many simultaneous adjustments needing to be made. The next day I sent a fairly lengthy email to the orchestra with little fixes that we did not have time to do, and with what I hoped was good advice on transitioning between rehearsal and performance.

Again unsurprisingly, Princeton students more than rose to the occasion when the audience showed up– they dominated it with intensity and concentration. It was a dream of a performance, to a good house Friday and a great one Saturday. The recognition of the seniors was, as always, joyous and sad, then off we went. It’s amazing how often this happens– the fact that one is playing for people other than oneself  brings one miles closer to the spirit of the music itself. Mahler came alive. Hey, he was there. His love wrapped its arms around us all.

At the point I’ll just share the email I wrote to the orchestra Sunday morning, as anything else I say on the matter of the Princeton University Orchestra’s Mahler 3 performances would be just a rehash of that.

Dear PUO,

 There’s always a little nervous laughter and discomfort when the topic of Love is mentioned before a large group. I guess that’s because we all know that it is truly the most important thread in our lives, beyond pure survival, even though it may be hard to say that out loud.
But there was no such discomfort last night, when it was Mahler doing the talking, with us as his transmitters. My daughter (who also played Mahler 3 in college) said simply “waterworks” drawing her fingers down her cheeks. And, she reported, many around her were watery as well. Of course, Mahler’s love would have fallen flat, had it not been launched by yours. Several times I got the comment that, as long as it was, it did not seem long. The only way that happens is for those onstage to be fully committed, which always draws the audience into their commitment.
That was in the audience. On the stage…. we all spent time face to face, in utter intimacy, with one of the greatest souls of music. (Make that art.) There is no greater feeling for a musician, in my opinion. No composer can induce such a feeling of radiant ecstasy as Mahler. And I think maybe no other work of his does that quite like this one. We have now lived that. How did we get so lucky?
It was great, committed playing, to the core of every last moment. So many thank-yous– woodwinds, such a wonderful wildness, switching instantly to delicacy when it was time; brass, authority and brilliance, and at the ultimate moment, angelic singing; strings, feathery, delicious textures of petals, then deep, comforting richness; percussion, both crisp snap in the marches and the last tolling strokes, signaling eternity; and harps (whom I absentmindedly and unpardonably did not have stand, but whose pardon I humbly ask), delicate starlit drops, roars of sound, and those deep, deep (Tief!) A octaves, real Mahler tone.
We were also so lucky to be able to assemble, at a very busy time of year, three magnificent assisting artists- the angelic treble voices of the PU Glee Club, who took this on after their own huge concert the previous weekend, the magnificent American Boychoir, who squeezed us in just prior to a tour, and finally to my colleague and dear friend Barbara Rearick, mentor now to many generations of Princeton students, and whose voice is, to me, synonymous with Mahler’s music.
And what an effort by all on getting the word out, the team being energetically headed by Dana and Alina! I’m also quite positive that Lydia’s great video, that she got placed on the Princeton website, had a lot to do with it, as did our new website which is primarily Ben’s work. These things mark us as a more serious and professional organization. Thanks must also be tendered to Catherine Ugolini, our Director of Marketing and Outreach, who has developed great relations with the local press and placed two headliner stories about us. I think that all those efforts came together brilliantly, and that the huge success of this weekend gives PUO a stronger platform on which to keep building. We are no longer quite such a well-kept secret! At this point in my years here it’s silly for me to say that any one weekend was The Top One. But there was never a greater PUO weekend than the one we just had. 
Planets, Teatro di Strada, New World, Poppea, Concerti, Phaedra, Prague, and now Mahler. I am proud of, and grateful to you all, beyond words.


This will close this stretch of blog, and it may be until next Fall before I start another, when the topic will be Building an Orchestra from Scratch. (not really scratch, as 75% of the students are returning). Thanks for reading and sharing this journey with me. I’ve greatly enjoyed putting this experience into words, and I hope if you read it and came to hear us play, that the connection between the two was clear.


Michael Pratt

In between rehearsals

It’s been now five days now since the last rehearsal, as we didn’t rehearse on Easter. That’s a day longer than usual. We come back this afternoon for the last three rehearsals before opening the doors to the public. Crunch time. I thought I’d reflect a little on what goes through the mind in the last lengthy gap between rehearsals, with the concert now so near, and something of the trajectory that got us here.

In the pro orchestra world, which I inhabited for a number of years, the rehearsal schedule is highly compressed. The order of the day is to get the maximum results in the minimal amount of time. In my days with the New Jersey Symphony, rehearsals for a Thursday night subscription concert would begin on Tuesday, with morning and afternoon rehearsals on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a dress Thursday morning. There is no time for reflection or significant experimentation in a schedule like that. Conductor and players come Tuesday morning with things already honed to a fine edge, and the working of details and building the broader sweep happen pretty much simultaneously. The conductor’s reflections on how the piece is shaped all come before the downbeat. Things move fast. Time is money, and there’s never enough of either! But it’s doable, if the conductor knows what s/he wants, and the orchestra musicians are sharp pros (like the NJSO). All work from a platform of many years of experience.

It’s a wholly different rhythm in a university setting, particularly one where most in the orchestra are not concentrating on performance, or even music generally. In an early post I spoke of the first steps as seeing the architecture of the work from a distance. Then over the next weeks (PUO works on a five-week cycle) you attend to the bricks, mortar, wiring, insulation, carpentry. That platform of experience is not there, the young musicians are doing so many things for the first time. We go note-by-note, honing the details, tightening the screws, and getting help from those who do have that experience.

But a shift must happen now as we approach the performance, and the negotiation of that shift is the conductor’s responsibility. We must go back to a higher altitude and see the thing as a whole again. The details must be there still, but now they have to fit into a coherent unity. Detail work is now maybe 10% of the rehearsal. The rest is getting the feel of what it will be like to perform, getting comfortable with the length, and how a piece this long must be paced. As for the actual conductor’s conception, inevitably what happens in the many rehearsals, as strong and less strong tendencies emerge, result in decisions that will affect the conductor’s idea of how the piece goes, or can go successfully. I try to use the weekend before, and the time between rehearsals leading up to the performance, to put all of that knowledge into play, in real time. A bit of the monk in me emerges, Bodhidharma in his cave, sitting before the wall (or score), probing for the Truth! Keep the eyes open! What is it?

So we arrive at today, Monday, a 4:30 call at which we’ll run better than half the symphony. Daunting. And exciting.

OK, back to my cave!

Room swap, learning the truth

On Wednesday 4/16 we moved off the Richardson stage to make room for my colleague Gabriel Crouch and the PU Glee Club in order for them to have a little extra stage time to rehearse for the Walter Nollner Concert on Friday the 18th.  We wedged ourselves into the McAlpin Rehearsal Room in Woolworth where things are very, very tight. This happens periodically, and I have to plan carefully for what is possible to rehearse. Nothing like the full, roaring fff Mahler orchestra is possible, as we would all suffer hearing loss ( I have sometimes handed our earplugs in McAlpin). So we focussed on some sticky spots for the cello and bass sections, the very soft 4th and the light and sparkly 5th movements.

It’s always an ordeal rehearsing in McAlpin, but in many ways a useful one. The acoustic environment is about as dead as it can get, zero reverberation. It is basically impossible to make a beautiful sound in there, so it can be demoralizing. But…. unlike the luxurious acoustic spaciousness of Richardson, one can hear everything with unforgiving clarity. The place doesn’t lie about intonation and ensemble. That can be highly frustrating when you’re not used to it– but also very instructive. I heard some mistakes in parts that I must admit, with some embarrassment, I have missed with my two other forays in this symphony. It was a tough rehearsal, as we had to respond to the newly revealed little imperfections and slips. But it was most useful, and I think will have benefits.

Looking way ahead– our new orchestral rehearsal room in Music’s part of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, to open in Fall 2017, will be more than twice the size of McAlpin. No more earplugs. And, very importantly, it will have a variable acoustic, meaning we can set it to the reverberation of Richardson OR, if we want the real truth of how together and in tune it is, we can totally deaden it, like McAlpin. All in the same rehearsal if we want.

So, I hope the truth we learned Wednesday will help set us free (to play more in tune and together)! Easter Sunday off, and on Monday begins the home stretch. I do believe we’re ready. If we concentrate from the outset, we can do this.

Two rehearsals, and OMG moments

Two long and taxing rehearsals on April 13 and 14 were big steps. Sunday was detail work, including placing the heavenly trumpet solo for the 3rd movement in the right spot. Nicolas Crowell will be….. nope, not giving it away, you have to come hear! But it will be beautiful. The whole fourth movement is progressing well, and the hard work done with the string sectionals is paying off. The treacherous 16th note pianissimo passages are gelling, with the right sound and good intonation. I’ve repeated a couple things I heard Eric Wyrick tell the first violins for everyone, about how the softer things get, the more intense the concentration must be. Inside you’re counting and screaming “ONE AND TWO AND” at the top of your inner voice, but the sound you make is of the utmost delicacy. The style is starting to sink in, so the feeling of being in a Brothers Grimm tale for Mahler’s forest is starting to emerge. Filled with strange creatures, grinning weirdly from the shadows! This is such astoundingly picturesque music.

We worked through the seemingly simply 4th movement, the beautiful mezzo solo. It’s very, very tricky, with consecutive measures beat very differently. We’ll need to work it once more before Barbara Rearick comes. This movement doesn’t float yet.

Monday was the first run-through of the massive opening movement, all 35 minutes of it. It’s something that the orchestra and the conductor both need to get under their belts well before the dress rehearsal. It just keeps coming at you and at you, through so many wild emotional states, so many lightning transitions, and nothing ever happens the same way twice. But if you do not almost lose your mind in excitement at the blazing end, well, you’re not going to get excited about anything.  And… we did it. Some details slipped, but it held together well, and is becoming more confident and convincing.

And then, the Finale. “Was mir die Liebe erzählt”, “What Love Tells Me” was Mahler’s original title of the movement. One passage in some liner notes I remember called this music “searingly beautiful”. I said a few words (hopefully appropriate) about the title and its implications, and then we played it without stopping. We had not done as much detail work on it, so I talked more than usual as we played, calling out, as I conducted, reminders: “subito piano”, “now swell”, little details that have to be remembered in the grand sweep. In an earlier post I wrote about the process of finding Mahler’s love, and meeting it with yours as you play. I’m now hearing that wonderful union blossom under my ear. Maybe what I said had a little to do with it, but it was far more likely just the natural process of repeated exposure to music of such power, and that communicates with such urgency. Resistance is futile.

Let me quote Alex Ross again. In his review of the Mahler-fest in New York a few seasons back, he said “(Mahler) is the supreme magician of orchestral spectacle, the master of the oh-my-God moment. Neuroscientists have analyzed the phenomenon of the “musical chill”—the ambiguous tremor of otherness that runs through the body when, for whatever reason, a particular sound overwhelms the reasoning mind.” He goes on to say that Mahler’s music contains dozens of these, and lists a handful. The reasoning mind is just is too puny to absorb this. For me, there are extended stretches in this finale that are long OMG moments, and they just build in intensity toward the end.

Donald Mitchell observes that instrumental families seemed to represent certain things  for Mahler: woodwinds are animals, the natural world, strings are humanity, and brass. lead by the trumpet, divinity. The finale begins with the human voice of the strings playing a deeply felt prayer, the beginning of a search for final understanding. What follows are slowly rising waves of anxious seeking, falls into despair, gathering again, seeking again. At the end, the music from the beginning is taken now by a solemn brass chorale that answers the original prayer in a tone of sublime sweetness. The last slow build arrives at a D major chord underlined by two pairs of timpani in a final slow march- D-A-D-A, pounding forward, stopping, starting again, seemingly stopped finally, then gathering for one more peal. These final notes, and the true last chord. OMG. Charles Rosen wrote that the end of the Sanctus in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, with its unending waves of ascending scales starting from the bottom of the orchestra, is Beethoven’s audible image of eternity. For me, this last 50 seconds of Mahler’s Third Symphony is his similar image of a joyous Eternal. “Not sharply cut off” he instructs regarding the last chord, as if the sound should somehow continue past the end of the music, and carry us out of the hall into the night.

We touched on the second movement before we stopped, and it too has started to gell, with the complicated violin tracery in the last section now dropping into place naturally.  You can almost smell the mountain air and floral fragrance in this music.

Well, I seem to have drifted away in this one from the topic of preparation, into speaking about the music. Afraid it couldn’t be helped, this is what happens to hardcore Mahlerites. When you’re working in his music, he becomes a living presence for you, someone you have come to love– and you can’t shut up about him. I can’t promise it won’t happen again!