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.