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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 17,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Mark Laycock’s `Little Orchestra’ Grows Up

Mark Laycock, music director of the Princeton Symphony

Orchestra, was running a little late when we caught up with him last

Monday. His 13-year-old son’s school interview had run long, his


son had fallen asleep in his car seat; and wife and mother Emily


(also a musician and teacher) was due home at any time. After the

interview Laycock was planning to set off for Philadelphia to join

three friends for an informal evening of chamber music.

In his 15th season with the orchestra that is currently enjoying its

first season under its new name, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra,

Laycock will present "Winter’s Warm Glow," a program of


European and Scandinavian works featuring Sibelius’s Symphony No.

1, on Sunday, January 21, at 4 p.m. Also featured on the program are

Smetana’s "Overture to the Bartered Bride," Mahler’s


from Symphony No. 5," and Klusak’s "Variations on a Theme

by Mahler." A pre-concert lecture by musicologist Laurence Taylor

is free to ticket holders.

That the Laycock’s Princeton household revolves around music is


that sons Christopher, 13, and James, 4, take for granted. "Both

our children are surrounded by music, and neither is quite old enough

to have found out that it’s not completely normal to do what his


do," says Laycock good-naturedly.

Both children not only have music surrounding them, but they’re


too. Christopher, who has always enjoyed singing, is completing his

fourth and last year at the American Boychoir School. He started to

study violin (which his mother teaches), but the Boychoir School


proved too demanding. "I’m hoping that he’ll pick it up


says his musical father.

At the Boychoir School, Christopher has performed Mahler and the


Requiem with the New York Philharmonic. "It has given him insight

into a depth of life that most young people aren’t exposed to. And

I know it will lead him to things that are truly meaningful."

"Christopher was afraid for a time that we wanted him to be a

musician," says Laycock, when in fact this was the last thing

his parents desired. Rather, Laycock wants for his sons what he wants

for all children: Enough familiarity and facility with music that

they, like him, can sit down with friends and play. "It is such

a joy for any musician to be able to sit down with your friends and

play a string quartet."

Young James is also "incredibly musical," says his father.

How does musicality manifest itself in a four-year-old? "I think

in the constant singing and repetition and things people say, speech

nuances, and an uncanny sense of rhythm. It’s fun and it’s


he replies.

Laycock’s sons are not the only beneficiaries of his

musical enthusiasm. Professionally speaking, he is devoted to the

musical enrichment of young people’s lives. The Princeton Symphony’s

Sunday afternoon concert series in Richardson Auditorium is rife with

parents accompanied by children. And as the recently appointed


conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Laycock will now lead

most of its children’s programs, as well as NJSO’s summer parks tour

that reaches an audience of more than 50,000 each year.

Of Native American heritage, Laycock says he received early


while playing with St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra under the baton

of Leonard Slatkin. He began conducting at the age of 16, advancing

his studies at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music. From 1975 to 1979,

he studied as a violist with the Curtis String Quartet in


He made a successful debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1979

as the second-youngest conductor ever to lead it, with three return

engagements to date. From 1995 to ’98, he was also music director

of the Orchestra London Canada.

"I’m a complete aberration in my family," says Laycock. One

of four children who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the only

musical member of his family of six. He began his music studies in

the public schools at age 9. "I knew by the third grade that I

wanted to play a string instrument. I think I had a very strong


urging. I’ve always been oriented to sounds just as some people are

oriented visually."

Asked if it was pure luck that he grew up in a city that has remained

extraordinary in its schools’ access to music, he invokes author James

Hillman, of whom he thinks highly. "It may have been pure


he says, "but James Hillman would argue it was pure destiny."

His father, a member of the Cherokee tribe, was a salesman, and his

mother, whose maiden name was Carruthers, was a housewife. In fourth

grade, students were allowed to choose an instrument. "My


for sound was very clear: the violin was way too high; the cello was

horribly low. Then I heard the viola and it was exactly right."

By seventh grade the young musician had a great urge to switch to

drums. His attractive young teacher, recognizing his talent, did her

best to convince him otherwise. "My teacher said that if I stayed

with the viola, she’d name her first-born child after me," he

recalls. It was an offer he didn’t refuse.

Laycock got his first taste of conducting while still in middle


"The teacher was called away and he asked me to keep the students

playing while he grabbed a phone call," says Laycock. The


was immediate and enduring. The conductor’s podium remains "the

best seat in the whole auditorium," he says. By 16, the manager

of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, who knew he had taken a

keen interest in conducting, arranged for him to conduct musical


in the summertime.

Asked how the family felt about this oddly musical


in their midst, Laycock says they were very supportive. "My father

drove me to rehearsals into the center of St. Louis on Saturdays —

and as a father, I now know what that means. Yet even when I asked

him to, my father would not make me practice. He really believed in

helping each of his children to find their own way. It’s something

for which I now have enormous respect."

The 2000 season has brought Laycock professional rewards. Founded

in 1980 as the Little Orchestra of Princeton, the Princeton Chamber

Symphony changed its name to become Princeton’s first and only



"This is a case truly where the name caught up with the


and not the other way around," says Laycock. "What really

cemented it was when we did the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the

Westminster Symphonic Chorus and the American Boychoir. The same


were performing the work later the same season with Kurt Masur and

the New York Philharmonic." It was when someone asked how the

Chamber Symphony could do such big works "with small forces"

that Laycock recognized that the organization had grown to become

a symphonic orchestra.

"We built a small orchestra and turned it into a major


says Laycock. "It is a tremendously rewarding feeling for me.

Compared with going from city to city leading orchestras that were

fully formed, I feel we have built something here that has great value

and long-lasting value. This has been a tremendous life achievement

for me."

"When I first came here someone said that Princeton wasn’t


in having an orchestra because it has Philadelphia to the south and

New York to the north," he recalls.

"We found that as the quality of the Chamber Symphony grew it

became more and more important to the community. We played repertoire

that simply couldn’t be heard any other place. That has always been

a hallmark of our organization and it has helped us develop a very

loyal following. Now we are playing as many mainstream works as works

that are out of the way."

As the newly appointed assistant conductor of the New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra, his current activities include leading the New Jersey Youth

Orchestra Festival concert at NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts


in Newark, and presenting a state-wide series of 14 children’s


for NJSO. In addition, Laycock will lead the NJSO in most of its


and pops programs, beginning with the Sandy Duncan pops concert,


2, at the Trenton War Memorial.

"NJSO is a monumentally larger orchestra, and its season is much

more full, so the two positions fit very nicely together," he

continues. "For me, it’s a wonderful balance." Laycock had

continued working as a violist in orchestras until six or seven years

ago, but by the time he held director’s positions in Princeton and

in Canada, there was no way to keep playing. Now he belongs to a


music group for pure enjoyment. "It’s a way to keep a hand on

playing — I have the muscle memory, but no muscles!"

Laycock relishes his work with NJSO bringing music to school children.

"Music has a great and immediate impact on children when it’s

presented in a way that’s respectful to children. When they’re treated

as intelligent people, children can become very involved in the


"It’s important to give children some foundation that they can

come back to," he says. "I grew up listening to rock music

and I wouldn’t want to diminish that. I like to tell people about

a conversation I had on a plane with a successful executive, 60-ish,

well dressed. He told me he had discovered classical music three years

ago and now was a symphony subscriber."

Yes, Laycock admits, concert hall audiences are aging. But "as

long as people keep growing older, we won’t run out of listeners."

— Nicole Plett

Winter’s Warm Glow, Princeton Symphony Orchestra,

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, 609-497-0020. Features Sibelius’s

Symphony No. 1. Pre-concert lecture by Laurence Taylor at 3 p.m.,

free to ticket holders. $25 to $28; senior $22 & $24; student $6 &

$8. Sunday, January 21, 4 p.m.

Verdi `Requiem’, Princeton Symphony Orchestra,


Auditorium, 609-497-0020. Features Metropolitan Opera soprano Sharon

Sweet and Italian tenor Marcello Bedoni, with the Mendelssohn Club

of Philadelphia. Saturday, March 17, 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 18,

at 4 p.m.

Classical Passion, Princeton Symphony Orchestra,

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, 609-497-0020. Featured artist is

clarinet player Jon Manasse in a program featuring works by Mozart,

Thorne, and Schubert. Sunday, April 29, 4 p.m.

Spring Celebration, Princeton Symphony Orchestra,

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, 609-497-0020. Violinist Livia Sohn

performs works by Rossini, Copland, Barber, and Dvorak. Sunday,

May 20, 4 p.m.

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