What to give someone who’s having a special birthday: it’s a common dilemma. The problem becomes more complex when the birthday boy is William Scheide, the philanthropist and Bach scholar, who turned 94 on Sunday, January 6. After considerable reflection Scheide’s ingenious wife, Judy, came up with the answer some time last spring: A concert, conducted by Scheide’s favorite conductor, whose proceeds would go to one of his favorite causes. Far from being surprised, Scheide himself would choose the composers to be performed on the program.

Scheide’s birthday concert takes place Friday, January 18, in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium. Mark Laycock is the conductor. Laycock, who is best known in the Princeton area for transforming a modest local ensemble, over a period of 21 years, into the impressive Princeton Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the Augsburg, Germany-based Bavarian Chamber Orchestra (Bayerischekammerphilharmonie). Proceeds from the concert will benefit Isles, the multi-pronged Trenton organization designed to help the economically disadvantaged learn to take care of themselves, and keep their families together.

Interestingly, on the same weekend, on Sunday, January 20, also at Richardson, the PSO’s second annual concert honoring original board member and benefactor Edward Cone takes place (see sidebar on following page). It will be a splendid weekend for classical music lovers, but one approached by a bumpy road.

Laycock picks up the baton for the Scheide concert after a precipitous parting from the Princeton Symphony Orchestra last August. What lies below the surface eludes explanation. No one is ready to account for what happened. Neither the president of the PSO board, Caren Sturges, nor its manager, Melanie Clarke, is talking. Orchestra personnel do not seem to know what occurred. Laycock prefers not to comment on the separation; when he was interviewed, it was with his lawyer, Peter O’Neill, on the line. It is difficult even to surmise exactly what caused the pot to boil over, but animosity peeks through. “We’re going head to head with the Scheide concert,” says PSO manager Melanie Clarke.

Clarke adds: “Those concerts are linked. It will be an exciting weekend of classical symphonic music making in Princeton, all of which is inspired by those closely connected to the entire history of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. What a gift to the whole community to have this terrific orchestra from Germany come over and connect to the music making that’s been going on in Princeton for the last 20 years. If you go to one concert, you should go to the other. I will be at both.”

The January 18 Scheide concert is entitled, “The Man, The Music, The Mission.” Owning up to the splashiness of the commemoration, Judy Scheide says, “All birthdays are big birthdays after you’re 90. We’ll have another festive celebration again next year.”

With 30 members, the Bavarian Chamber Orchestra is an independent entity, less than half the size of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. Founded in 1990, the ensemble has developed a reputation for excellence in Europe, both for its concerts and for its recordings (www.kammerphilharmonie.de). The Scheides knew that the ensemble wanted to invite Laycock to conduct them, and Judy decided that, in honor of Bill’s birthday, they should instead be invited to Princeton. “To have the means to bring this orchestra to the United States is a rare event,” Laycock says.

For his birthday concert Bill Scheide chose Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Schubert as the composers and turned over the selection of pieces to conductor Laycock, who tailored the program to Scheide’s wishes, adding touches of his own. “The centerpiece is Bach’s E-major violin concerto,” Laycock says in a telephone interview. The soloist is prize-winning 17-year-old Augsburg-born violinist Sarah Christian, who will also play the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D-minor for solo violin.

The concert concludes with Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony.” Laycock says: “It has a triumphant ending, appropriate for anybody who’s over 93.”

“As might be expected on a Laycock program,” he adds, “there will be a couple of pieces that people won’t know,” in this case, the infrequently-played Schubert Overture in E-flat, D. 470, and Peter Heidrich’s unfamiliar “Fourteen Variations on ‘Happy Birthday,’” where variations mimic the style of 14 different composers. “The Schubert is the only overture Schubert wrote that fits the instrumentation of the Bayerischekammerphilharmonie. I never heard it. So I read the score, and found it appealing,” says Laycock, adding, “Reading the score is like reading a book and having your mind say the words for you.”

“The Heidrich,” he continues, “was originally written for string quartet. I played it as a violist in a string quartet when I was in conservatory. For this concert I created a new bass part and expanded it into a larger string orchestra version.”

Laycock says that what makes this birthday concert important “is the three components: the man, the music, and the mission. Every ticket purchased is a direct contribution to Isles. It’s the most beautiful way to create a win-win-win situation.”

Isles was founded in 1981 by Marty Johnson and two Princeton University classmates (U.S. 1, April 18, 2007). A capital campaign is currently underway. The name Isles is metaphorical, emphasizing the organization’s focus on decentralized projects. From its inception Bill Scheide has been enthusiastic about Isles’ mission of fostering self-reliant families in healthy, sustainable communities. Isles believes in what it calls “three simple truths: the ability of people to reshape their lives and communities; fairness; and the need to make a difference in a rapidly changing world.” The first Isles project was urban gardening. Its scope now includes renovating homes and planning neighborhoods, job training, health care, reducing crime, and brownfield redevelopment. In its quarter century of existence Isles has grown from a $10,000 startup to a presence with an annual budget of more than $4 million.

To celebrate Scheide’s 94th birthday the non-profit is creating the Scheide Center for Youth Development, a 17,000 square foot facility. Housed in a former textile mill, the center will enable 140 urban youths to earn a high school diploma, find jobs, and create micro-businesses. “It is our tribute to Bill and a life committed to fairness,” Isles states.

Scheide and his wife are the co-directors of the Scheide Fund, a family charitable fund that operates like a foundation, making major gifts in seven categories. A list of the categories gives an idea of the range of Scheide’s far-reaching philanthropic interests: the arts, civil rights, education, the environment, health and disabilities, poverty and relief, and religion. Isles, Judy points out, could be classified with poverty and relief, with education, or with civil rights.

In addition to financial gifts to organizations, Scheide has provided for buildings in the Princeton area at Princeton University, Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and the Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton University’s Firestone Library is home to the collection of rare books started by Scheide’s grandfather, which includes copies of the first four Bibles ever printed; original manuscripts of music by Bach, Beethoven and others; and the 1735 pamphlet by John Peter Zenger that established freedom of the press in the United States.

William Scheide was born in 1914 into a family to which music, culture, rare books, and the well-being of others mattered. His mother was a singer; his father (Princeton, Class of 1896) played piano. Young Bill started piano at age six. A graduate of Princeton, Class of 1936, he majored in history since Princeton had no music department at the time, and earned a master’s degree in music from Columbia University in 1940. He taught music at Cornell University for two years. Believing that the Bach cantatas were neglected, he founded the Bach Aria Group in 1946 and remained with it until 1980. He is the first American to be published in the Bach Jahrbuch, the German journal of Bach scholarship.

He practices on the Boesendorfer piano and the Holtkamp organ in the living room of his Princeton home, which holds a contemporary portrait of Bach, and regularly turns over the space to meetings of the Princeton Music Club. Scheide is a performing member of the group. He tends to play Bach at its meetings. In August, 2003, he played Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 at his wedding. His wife, the former Judy McCartin, worked in the campaign relations department of Princeton University’s development office, as well as the annual giving office, where she was in charge of working with her husband’s Class of 1936.

Scheide is a founding board member of the chamber group formed by Portia Sonnenfeld in 1980, which evolved into the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in 2000. He is now an advisor to the orchestra. Judy Scheide is a current member of the PSO board. Judy saysher husband “compares Laycock to Toscanini and credits him for bringing life to the orchestra and excitement to its programs. He rejoices in Laycock’s earthiness and in the infectious energy of his conducting, which translates into orchestra members putting forth their very best.”

Laycock and Scheide form a mutual admiration society. Referring to Scheide, Laycock says “He’s an extraordinary individual, and an extraordinary example.” In a story in Town Topics, on February 22, 2006, Laycock told Jean Stratton, “I treasure my friendship with Bill Scheide. I am particularly close to him. He has an understanding of Bach that is at once childlike and at the same time Godly. An amazing person.”

I ask him if the Stratton article is still accurate. Laycock replies, “Now I have a different wife. That’s the only difference.” On August 26, 2007, Laycock married Nancy Laufer, a classical accordionist living in Berlin. The couple was married at the Traukirche, Dornheim, Germany, where Johann Sebastian Bach was married in 1707. Laycock’s son was the ringbearer.

“Nancy plays only original pieces written for accordion,” Laycock says. “The piano didn’t exist in the baroque period. The accordion evolved from a folk instrument still later. Today accordions are still evolving. Nancy plays keyboard pieces and modern repertoire. Bill loves to hear Nancy play, especially Bach.”

After graduating from high school in 1975, Laycock studied viola with Max Aronoff, violist of the Curtis Quartet and married fellow viola student, Emily Muller, in 1982. Muller has been a member of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s viola section for some time. Now divorced, the couple has two sons: Christopher, 20, a student at Gettysburg College, and James, 11. Emily Muller continues to be a core member of the PSO, according to the orchestra’s principal violist, Stephanie Griffin.

Laycock became involved in music at an early age. Inexplicably attracted to music, he is the third of four children in a non-musical family. His father worked for Dow Chemical. He grew up in Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, Missouri. He chose viola at age nine after a school demonstration of musical instruments. He thought that the violin was too high, and the cello too low. In St. Louis, as a student in middle school, his orchestra teacher encouraged him to conduct and to audition for the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, where the esteemed conductor Leonard Slatkin, (also assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at the time) became a model for Laycock. At the youth orchestra the manager helped Laycock get conducting jobs. He began conducting locally at age 16.

Laycock’s official conducting debut took place at age 21 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and opened a notable career. Jokingly, he says, “To everyone’s thankfulness, I’m not playing viola now.”

He was the first non-Russian invited to appear at the Moscow Autumn Festival. He conducted the inaugural concert of the new Cairo Opera House in 1988, and the sold-out first public classical music concert in Amman, Jordan. His 2001 debut in Mexico City brought an invitation to return the following summer to teach a week-long master class for Mexico’s regional conductors. He has conducted almost 1,800 pieces.

Just over two decades ago, in 1985, Laycock took over the final concert of the season for the ensemble that has become the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. Its founder and director, Portia Sonnenfeld, was ailing. Laycock succeeded her as music director. Introspecting about his approach to conducting, he told journalist Stratton, “I tend to feel the music inside. A conductor in the purest sense is one through whom the composer’s ideas flow and are manifest. . . It requires passion, great sensitivity, and sometimes great drama and great sensuality. These have to be communicated to the musicians. . . In conducting, you must know every part and make it your own.”

Laycock is a particularly satisfying person to interview. Having talked with him several times, I welcome his articulateness and sensitivity. He responds with intelligence, insight, and imagination. Repeatedly, after asking him a question, I have learned more than I had thought to ask.

Interviewed when the PSO celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2005, he revealed the thinking that infuses his programming. “Musically,” he said, “every work that we do is a high point. I think not in terms of concerts, but in terms of special events.” The New Jersey State Council recognized the quality of the orchestra by awarding it citations of excellence in two successive years beginning in 2004..

In the early summer of 2007 the Princeton Symphony unveiled its 2007-’08 season, making public the stimulating programming that audiences had come to expect with Laycock in charge. Then on August 1 a startling press statement issued by the PSO board of trustees declared: “Mark Laycock has concluded his long tenure as music director.” The programs planned by Laycock would be led by various guest conductors, the statement said, citing Laycock’s role in developing the orchestra into an important community asset and wishing him well for the future. No reason was given for his departure and Laycock declined an interview with U.S. 1. (“Prelude: Laycock Is Leaving PSO,” U.S. 1, August 8, 2007).

Outraged reactions appeared in the press. Separate letters to the editor from PSO violists Jacqueline Watson and Clifford Young, which appeared in U.S. 1, on August 22, 2007, decried his unforeseen departure, the vagueness of the official explanation, and the statement by PSO board chair, Caren Sturges, that playing under guest conductors would be exciting. “What was ‘exciting,’” Watson wrote, “was playing under someone who understood how to make music with all of us who had been together for so many years.”

Invited earlier this month to comment on Laycock’s sudden departure PSO Board Chair Sturges replies, “I have nothing to say. We parted amicably. Everybody agreed that it seemed like a good time to separate.” Asked why his departure was so abrupt, Sturges says, “I would rather not say anything else.” Neither is she willing to talk about whether the board decision was unanimous. According to PSO manager Melanie Clarke, one PSO board member resigned after Laycock left.

The Scheides expect to continue their relationship with the orchestra. “I don’t see us leaving,” Judy Scheide says. “I want to have something to say about the new conductor. We’ve put a lot of energy into our work with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.”

In Laycock’s absence the PSO continues to carry on, presenting essentially the programs he planned before his departure. “The search [for a new conductor] is revitalizing our organization,” Melanie Clarke says. “We’re reaching out beyond Princeton more than ever before.” Robert L. Annis, dean and director of Westminster Choir College, heads the search.

Meanwhile, the memory of Laycock’s leadership with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra remains. A sampling of orchestra members interviewed for this story generally agrees on the excellence of his leadership. However, their attitudes about performing with guest conductors differ. Letter-writer Jacqueline Watson says, “Personally, going to rehearsals now feels more like going to work. So far, working with guest conductors, I’m not inspired. It feels like I’m doing an ordinary job. Mark had a vision for the orchestra.”

Letter-writer Clifford Young describes the orchestra without Laycock as “pretty chaotic.” “Playing with Mark,” he says, “things were always ready. He knows what he wants to tackle at each rehearsal. Guest conductors don’t know our strengths and weaknesses.

Young continues: “Under Mark musicians practiced a lot over the summer. The esprit de corps was especially good; now it’s deteriorating. We couldn’t have had that kind of esprit de corps without Mark. It grew gradually because of good experiences over a period of time. We grew to trust each other. Many sections of the orchestra thought of themselves as a team. You don’t want to disappoint your team members. We used to have unofficial viola sectional rehearsals because of our esprit de corps. We wanted to be top notch.”

Concertmaster Basia Danilow has a practical reaction to Laycock’s departure. She joined the PSO as co-concertmaster in 1996. “Laycock was a supportive colleague and friend,” she says. “Change always presents some difficulties. I enjoy guest conductors; each has strengths and brings something different.”

Jayn Rosenfeld, principal flutist, who has been with the orchestra since Portia Sonnenfeld assembled the group, has a long-term perspective. “At first,” she says, “it was a small group of local amateurs and professionals. Portia would have been happy to keep it local. It was Mark’s desire to upgrade and make it competitive.”

Playing for Mark, she says, was comfortable. “We had a lot of collective memories. He knows our weaknesses and our strengths. It was like an old pair of slippers. Now, it’s like a new pair of slippers. We’re waking up. We didn’t realize how comfortable it was with Mark. It was like a marriage. You don’t see things creeping up. Now we’re not taking anything for granted. A new person makes you more alert and makes you watch. The things you expect may not happen. The orchestra was ready for a change. It was getting in a rut.”

Principal violist Stephanie Griffin, who has been with the PSO for almost three years, takes a balanced view of the situation, missing Laycock’s leadership, yet sanguine about the future. “I really enjoyed Mark,” she says. “He is a high energy conductor. He’s very clear. I always felt I knew what he wanted. He’s very emotional, both in his interpretation and in his conducting style. He has a way of conveying that with his body language. Often he would program pieces that were hardly ever played. Still, even in the first rehearsal, he would be relaxed enough to guide musicians through the new music. I like his spontaneity and his confidence. I enjoyed doing lesser-known pieces. It was thought-provoking. You can’t play on automatic pilot when you’re playing things you’ve never seen before. I do miss him.

“I was upset when I heard that Mark was leaving. It was shocking to get that letter and realize that the season brochure had no conductor on it. The orchestra is strong enough, though, that if we find a good music director, we can go even further.”

Conductor Laycock has a unique way, not only with orchestral instrumentalists, but with soloists. Pianist Mariam Nazarian, who played a Mozart concerto with the PSO in the spring says, “Mark is very approachable and is attuned to the needs of the soloist. Soloing with him is a collaboration. There’s no sense of the conductor being the boss. There’s a common goal of producing music effectively.”

Exposed to historical musical research as a graduate student at Harvard, Nazarian was grateful for Laycock’s receptivity to scholarship. “Mark looked into the scholarly aspects of the concerto I played and worked with the original manuscripts that I brought. He does his homework.”

Laycock presents the conductor’s view when I ask him, point blank: Can you accomplish what you want musically as a guest conductor, or do you really need your own orchestra? About to engage in a round of guest-conducting engagements in Europe and Asia, he believes that one can achieve the results one desires as a guest conductor. “But,” he adds, “when you have your own orchestra the advantage is that over time an intimacy and ability to predict the conductor’s movements and communications develops. That enables you to work not only more quickly in rehearsal but also to work with an existing understanding of styles, bow strokes, textures, and musical creation that is always in progress and not starting from the beginning each time. A guest conductor can certainly accomplish great things musically, but it also depends on the repertoire selected, the style the orchestra has formed under their own music director, and the openness of the orchestra to a guest conductor’s ideas if they differ significantly from what they are used to playing.”

During the 2007-’08 season Laycock is scheduled for repeat guest appearances with symphony orchestras in Bochum, Germany; Kiev, Ukraine; and Bucharest, Romania. He appears for the first time as guest conductor at the Rudolfinium Dvorak Hall in the Czech Republic capital, Prague. In October he guest conducted in Taipei, Taiwan. “This is the time to be pursuing opportunities in Asia and Europe,” he says. “Asia is a big forefront for western music. The excitement and interest there is palpable. It’s a joy to be part of what’s going on.”

Laycock prefers not to comment on his departure from the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. His focus is on the future, and his mood is upbeat.

The PSO, for its part, is equally upbeat. “Mark has so many opportunities in front of him and we do, too,” says PSO manager Melanie Clark. “The PSO could not have done it without Mark. We are very confident. We scrambled to put a roster together in a two or three week period in August after Mark’s departure. We’re making the transition to a new conductor from a position of great strength.”

The optimism of both Laycock and the institution he used to direct is overwhelming. The gaps in the story, however, are frayed portions on what is, on the surface, being presented as an undamaged fabric.

Bavarian Chamber Orchestra, Friday, January 18, 8 p.m., Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. “The Man, The Music, The Mission,” a benefit concert featuring works of Mozart, Bach, and Schubert conducted by Mark Laycock. In celebration of the 94th birthday of Princeton resident, Bach scholar, and philanthropist Bill Scheide. To benefit Isles in Trenton. Register. $35. 609-258-9220.

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