Orchestra reaches high notes under Pratt's baton
By Ruth Stevens
Princeton NJ -- On a late afternoon earlier this spring, the cacophony of musicians warming up filled Richard-son Auditorium in Alexander Hall. The man on the podium clapped his hands three times, and the sound stopped almost immediately. "Good afternoon, everybody," he said, and a rehearsal of the Princeton University Orchestra began.
"All conductors are teachers of a sort -- you have a certain something to say about the repertoire," said Michael Pratt, who this year celebrates his 25th season as the orchestra's conductor. But the way Pratt guides the musicians goes much beyond sharing his views on Verdi, according to the students with whom he has worked over the last quarter-century.
"Michael has a special ability to teach student musicians. He loves introducing students to new pieces of music and helping them shape them into something beautiful," said David Reiley, who graduated in 1991 with a degree in astrophysics and now teaches economics at the University of Arizona. "I learned plenty of music history during my four years in the orchestra. I also learned plenty of technical skills that allowed me to become more musical: dynamics, articulation, phras- ing and so on. To this day, whenever I hear a piece that I performed with the orchestra, I feel the same opening of my heart and the same tingling in my body that I learned to feel back in my college years."
Pratt is credited with bringing the orchestra a long way during his tenure. The group has nearly doubled in size, the skill level of the musicians has improved significantly and the repertoire has become more ambitious, according to colleagues and students. The 96 undergraduate and graduate student musicians in the orchestra, all of whom are volunteers, represent a broad spectrum of academic departments. They perform eight to 10 concerts on campus each year and go on tours abroad every other year. Due to graduation, about 20 percent of the roster turns over annually.
"Michael has transformed it from a good university orchestra with some promise to something that is just extraordinary," said Peter Westergaard, the William Shubael Conant Professor of Music Emeritus, who has been on the faculty since 1968. "With the exception of the really top music schools, you won't hear an orchestra as good as this outside of professional ranks."
Drawing out the sound
On this spring day, the orchestra was rehearsing the second and third movements of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in preparation for the Stuart Mindlin Memorial Concerts on April 25 and 26 (see below). Pratt initially talked about the movements with the musicians, describing the second as "flowery, sensuous and delicate," and the third, in contrast, as "square, very solid" and "more like a folk song."
As the rehearsal proceeded, he worked with the group, gently coaxing from the musicians the sound that he wished to achieve.
"Once you have a detailed knowledge of the score, you have to go through it again and ask two questions: What do I want this to sound like, and how do I get it to sound like that?" said Pratt, describing the way he prepares to conduct a piece. "You have to come to rehearsal having already answered those questions."
Pratt used various techniques to elicit the desired sound from the students. He discussed the composer and his background, he asked the musicians to define various terms and he hummed difficult parts.
He even encouraged the students to visualize. "This has to be a whole new scenario," he exclaimed at one point in the second movement. "It has to be rich -- like a big cream puff!" In the third movement, he discussed Mahler's love of the grotesque: "What it means for the music is that this is more like a gargoyle mask. It has that edge, where you feel like it can turn into something at any moment."
"Michael's love and understanding for the music causes us to be exceedingly eager to start rehearsing a piece," said Beth Brittle, co-principal trumpeter and a graduate student in molecular biology, who is in her fifth year in the orchestra. "He gives us such an enticing introduction, putting the composition in context. It makes me want to go out and learn about every nook and cranny of a piece as well as get into the mind and heart of the composer. This excitement and energy adds such a spark to my life, and it carries me through my other pursuits."
Beyond mastering the music, the students are learning another valuable lesson, according to Lillian Pierce, who graduated last year as co-concertmaster of the orchestra.
From a barn to a white elephant
Pratt began his career as an instrumental music teacher in a Catholic elementary school in Webster, N.Y. "I worked in a building that was literally called 'the barn,'" he said.
After growing up in Georgia, he earned a bachelor's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in 1971. Although he had played the trumpet, his heart was set on conducting rather than playing. The year after he graduated, he attended a conducting program at the Aspen (Colo.) School of Music. Then he returned to the Rochester area and taught school. He also went to rehearsals of the Rochester Philharmonic, taking notes and asking the conductor questions when he worked up enough courage.
"Every conductor needs to have a period in his life like that where you sit there, you shut up, you listen, you learn, you absorb everything you can," he said.
The conductor in Rochester rewarded Pratt's perseverance by letting him lead a concert. On the basis of that concert, he was recommended to audition at the Tanglewood Music Center in Boston. He won a conducting fellowship there in 1976 and met Gunther Schuller, president of the New England Conservatory of Music. The next year, Schuller asked Pratt to serve as his conducting assistant.
A year later, in 1977, Pratt got the offer to come to Princeton. "We had some very good prospects -- so good that I wanted to find out more about them," said Westergaard, who was chair of the music department at that time. "So I called two friends who never agreed on anything. I asked one of them about candidate A, and he said, 'He's terrific, but not quite in the class of Michael Pratt.' Then I called my other friend and asked about candidate B, and he said, 'He's terrific, but not quite in the class of Michael Pratt.' At that point, I invited Michael Pratt to come and try out. He was an absolutely first-class conductor."
Although he spends a majority of his time on the orchestra, Pratt also directs the Program in Musical Performance, co-directs both the Composer's Ensemble and Richardson Chamber Players, and teaches conducting and other performance courses. In addition, he serves as music director and conductor of the Delaware Valley Philharmonic in Bucks County, Pa., and conducts the American Repertory Ballet Orchestra's annual performances of "The Nutcracker."
Westergaard said that part of what persuaded Pratt to come to Princeton was Alexander Hall, even though in those days "it was a white elephant that nobody else wanted to use." The building, which eventually was renovated in 1984-85, featured a large stage with beautiful murals, but not much else for a performance space.
"I took him there and told him that we could do operas," Westergaard remembered. "That made him light up. 'For example,' I said, 'we could do "The Magic Flute" here and we wouldn't even have to build a set because we've got those murals back there.'"
Mozart, Beethoven and beyond
That first year, the music department did, in fact, stage the Mozart opera. Pratt conducted, and Westergaard directed and translated -- a pattern that was set for many years to come. In 1984, the two co-founded the Opera Festival of New Jersey.
Terry Desser, a member of the class of 1979, was a music major and a violinist in the orchestra for "The Magic Flute." "The score's complexity and length meant devoting all the orchestra's time in winter and spring exclusively to it," she said. "Over time, the music settled into us, music that was at once joyous and silly and at the next moment transcendent and sublime.
"By spring, Michael had managed to hold vocal auditions, cast the singers and figure out how to convert Alexander Hall into a theater with stage lights, sets and an orchestra pit. Meanwhile he had also transformed the Princeton orchestra from a collection of self-centered individual instrumentalists into a real ensemble sensitive to the singers and his own musical gestures."
That performance ignited a lifelong love of opera for Desser and other members of the orchestra. "That 'Magic Flute' was the beginning of a passion for opera that hasn't let up yet," said Desser, now a radiologist at Stanford University Medical Center.
Both Pratt and Westergaard said a highlight of their collaboration was the performance of "Fidelio." In 1982, the University Opera Theater presented the American stage premiere of the original version of the Beethoven opera (the version most familiar to opera-lovers was reworked from the original).
"Present at that performance was Dave Richardson, who got very interested in us and eventually funded the renovation of Alexander Hall," Westergaard said. "We ended up with a really world-class hall, and I don't think that could have happened without Michael's leadership of the orchestra. He really built that orchestra. You just cannot believe the difference between when he started 25 years ago and what they can do now."
Achieving new heights
Pratt is quick to point out that he can't take all the credit for the orchestra's transformation. "I was lucky enough to come and get in during the early stages," he said. "But the process was already started. There was already a commitment to make music performance an important part of what had been a traditional Ivy League music department devoted primarily to academic studies."
Scott Burnham, the current chair of the music department, said that as the orchestra's reputation has grown, the caliber of musicians it attracts has improved. "The quality of the orchestra's performances over the past 10 years has been our single most effective tool for recruiting high-caliber undergraduate musicians."
During a recent interview, Pratt sat in his office in the Woolworth Center of Musical Studies surrounded by two dozen audition tapes submitted by prospective students. He listens to several hundred tapes each year, and provides comment on them to the admission office. "It's something I do gladly, because it's very much in my interest to do it," he said.
Pratt maintains that the outstanding musicians who come to Princeton today are not necessarily better than their counterparts of 25 years ago -- there are just a lot more of them. "A few good players don't make an orchestra," Westergaard explained. "You have to have depth and good players in every position."
Having a bigger and stronger orchestra means being able to perform more difficult compositions. "When Michael gets the orchestra to take on hugely difficult masterworks of Western symphonic music," said Burnham, "his students are not only challenged to exceed their limits but they are rewarded with an unforgettable musical experience. Years later, when most other college memories have merged into the receding horizon of the past, these performances continue to stand out like mountain peaks."
Pratt said that even after 25 years, the performances stand out for him as well. "This is an extraordinary ensemble that gives deeply satisfying and thrilling concerts. Even though it's not a professional ensemble, this one has something special.
"When you hear some of the great orchestras of the world play some standard repertoire, chances are that the members of that orchestra have played that repertoire many, many times," he said. "When you hear this orchestra play a piece, it's the first time for the vast majority. It's like vicarious first love. You get to feel that, and also remember what it was like first time you ever heard the piece -- that sense of amazement communicates very strongly from these musicians."
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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Karin Dienst, Eric Quinones, Cynthia Yoder
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Margaret Westergaard
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett