November 22, 2000

President's Page

Heroic Moments, Forever Young

It was a great pleasure for Vivian and me to see so many alumni, parents and friends of the University at the End of Campaign celebration the weekend of October 19-22. As we dedicated extraordinary new facilities for academic programs in the social sciences (Wallace Hall), for residential life (Buyers Hall), and for community life (Frist Campus Center), we paid tribute to some of the tangible legacies of the Campaign. At the round-table discussions about the future of science, technology, politics, the economy, and higher education, we were reminded of the many challenges that lie before us.

For me, one of the many highlights of the weekend was a program in Richardson Auditorium entitled, "The Heroic Moment." The springboards for the program were Homer's great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Beethoven's monumental Fifth Symphony--heroic works by two of the most towering figures of Western civilization. The program was introduced by Toni Morrison, Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities. Scott Burnham, professor and chair of the music department, set the stage by drawing parallels between the lives and works of Homer and Beethoven. Arthur W. Marks '19 Professor of Comparative Literature Robert Fagles, widely acknowledged to be this generation's leading translator of Homer, then read from his translation of "The Shield of Achilles" and "The Death of Hector" from the Iliad, and "The Reunion of Odysseus and Penelope" from the Odyssey. The readings were followed by a performance of Beethoven's Fifth by the University Orchestra conducted by Michael Pratt.

The pairing of Beethoven and Homer was an inspired juxtaposition. As Professor Fagles noted after the performance, the chords of the symphony struck tones that matched the emotional intensity and range of the epics, and Homer's poetry echoed the theme of the hero expressed by Beethoven's composition.

The words and music, as Professor Fagles said, "spoke to each other." There is, across centuries and across the disciplines, a kinship that was given voice in the performance.

The orchestra was a resounding success, with many alumni commenting on the extraordinary virtuosity of the students. Michael Pratt, who leads the 90 to 100 undergraduate and graduate students in the orchestra, describes them as a serious and ambitious ensemble, who clearly were honored to appear with Professor Fagles and who responded to the passion of the text as he read. They performed, as always when in Richardson Auditorium, under the steady gaze of Homer himself-the Tiffany glass mosaics behind the stage depict Homer flanked by his heroes and heroines of the Iliad and the Odyssey-and the students seemed to catch the spirit of the heroic moment.

This was apparent from the remarks of orchestra members after the concert, including the reactions of the concertmaster, Lillian Pierce '02. Lillian, a mathematics major, has performed as a soloist with professional ensembles on both coasts and, in her spare time, has organized a new student group, the Nassau String Quartet. With so many opportunities to play her instrument, and to play as a soloist, she nevertheless makes time to participate in the orchestra for the opportunity this affords to be part of a musical community and for the chance to play pieces from the orchestral repertoire. But she explains her real reason for playing in an orchestra in this way: "Everyone wants to be bigger than life. As a member of the orchestra, the sound that I play comes out bigger than life-the sound of my one violin comes out as the sound of 30 violins." The entire orchestra made the most of this particular opportunity to be bigger than life.

In his opening remarks about the two "mythmakers," Beethoven and Homer, Professor Burnham referred also to the orchestra: "Lookto the orchestra behind me. Funny thing-they sit on this stage year after year and yet they never age. Nor does the music they bring to new life at each and every performance. These students remind us that the heart of a great university is forever young." Michael Pratt, reflecting on the concert, picked up on this theme. He noted that for many of the students this was their first performance of the symphony, and they gave this war-horse of the repertoire a vitality he likened to the passion of a first love. Moreover, their vitality was contagious. It influenced his own conception and interpretation of the piece, and, judging by applause and comments afterwards, was felt by the audience as well.

It is occasions such as this performance that remind me most vividly of the reasons Princeton exists and continues to strive for excellence. I think all of us, faculty and staff, who live and work in this community are influenced by the vitality our students bring to so much of what they do each day. Whether conducting research experiments in the laboratory, or competing on the playing field, or writing a senior thesis, or performing Shakespeare in East Pyne Courtyard, or serving disadvantaged citizens in the community, students invigorate us by their achievements, their idealism, and their determination to make a difference. While the heart of our enterprise is to educate our students, we also learn from them. A central responsibility of universities is to refresh our cultural heritage. Students help to assure that this heritage, like the University itself, remains forever young.