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…..