Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
"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
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.
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.
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.
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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