Thirty-five years ago, Portia Sonnenfeld, an inspiring Princeton music teacher, launched the modestly named “Little Orchestra of Princeton.” Leading the ensemble with enthusiasm and ingenuity for seven years, Sonnenfeld laid the groundwork for the present multi-faceted Princeton Symphony Orchestra and was recognized for adventuresome programming.
The “Little Orchestra” outgrew its name three years after its founding and, in 1983, restructured itself as the “Princeton Chamber Symphony.” Unrelenting expansion demanded a final name change to Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) in 2001.
Now for its 2015-’16 season, PSO attractions encompass a five-concert classical series, a four-concert chamber series, a five-event lecture series, a two-concert pops series, and Bravo, an outreach program for students that reaches 10,000 participants in about 30 schools. Bravo’s big umbrella covers 90 small ensemble performances in elementary schools, three school-day orchestral concerts, a music-inspired art program for middle schools, master classes for high school instrumentalists, composing workshops, and community events.
In July the Princeton Symphony underwent a change of leadership, but no change in its ever-expanding offerings. Melanie Clarke, PSO’s executive director since 2006, stepped down, and was replaced after a nationwide search by Marc Uys, PSO’s manager of artistic operations since 2014. Clarke joined PSO as a violinist in 1990. She founded the Bravo program in 1995 and was intensely involved in PSO’s other ancillary events.
Uys’ background parallels that of Clarke. He has performed as a violinist — as a solo recitalist, as a member of chamber ensembles, and as an orchestra member. Like Clarke, he has taken initiatives in organizational matters of musical ensembles.
Interviewed at PSO offices, on the campus of the Princeton Charter School, Uys, who is South African, accounts for his name and gives up pronouncing it authentically. “The name is Afrikans, but I was brought up speaking English,” he says. “So I pronounce it ‘Ace.’”
Uys finds the complexity of his new job endearing. “I love this work because I enjoy having many threads running together,” he says. “I think that juggling many things is stimulating.”
Moreover, Uys delights in working closely with PSO music director Rossen Milanov. “My artistic aesthetic is very similar to Rossen’s,” says Uys. “We share a focus on the core values of making music across all genres. What really matters to both of us is repertoire and performance. Virtuosity is impressive, but after a few minutes it’s no longer appealing. You don’t need to understand things that touch you. It’s emotional warmth that matters.”
Having been on board at PSO for more than a year as a manager, Uys — working with Milanov in selecting programs and soloist — has contributed to this year’s programming in three arenas: the classical series, the chamber series, and the ancillary programs. Running the PSO is a collaborative experience, he found.
The five-concert classical series opens on Sunday, September 27, at 4 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium of Alexander Hall on the Princeton University campus. Violinist Jennifer Koh solos in Anne Clyne’s “The Seamstress,” for violin and orchestra. The work is inspired by a W.B. Yeats poem, “The Coat.” Clyne composed the piece for Koh. Stretching the hard-core concert format, the September 27 program is preceded by music director Milanov’s 3 p.m. pre-concert talk.
Composer Clyne elaborates on her collaboration with Koh in a “Behind the Music” event at 3 p.m. Saturday, September 26, at the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center.
Titled “Celebrating the Creativity of Women,” the new PSO classical series includes works by five living composers, four of whom are women. Two of the works are PSO co-commissions.
As for Uys’ role in designing the chamber music series, he says, “I took the lead.” Uys’ presence is palpable in two of the four chamber concerts.
The first is the Signum Quartet’s concert at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 6, in Wolfensohn Hall on the Institute for Advanced Study campus, which initiates Signum’s #quartweet project. Influenced by Twitter, Signum defines a #quartweet as a composition of not more than 140 notes. Three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorales qualify as #quartweets, as do nine of Gyorgy Kurtag’s 12 Microludes and all of Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet. The #quartweets found their way onto the PSO chamber music series because of Uys’ personal contact with Signum violist Xandi van Dijk.
“Xandi, with whom I had been a member of the Sontonga Quartet in South Africa, reached out to me as a friend,” Uys says. “Signum had tried out #quartweets in Cardiff, Wales, and Munich, Germany. I thought they needed a public launch. The concert will have seven world premieres.”
The other is the March 20 chamber program featuring violinist Uys performing with his wife, harpist Jacqueline Kerrod. They play works by Edward T. Cone and IAS artist-in-residence Sebastian Currier.
In addition to orchestral and chamber concerts, PSO maintains three lecture series, devised through the collaboration of the PSO staff: Sound Tracks, presenting behind-the-scenes glimpses of the orchestra; Behind the Music, providing discussions by composers; and VIP Passes, where Uys hosts access to PSO dress rehearsals. Collaborators in devising these programs are Uys along with the entire PSO staff, including Carolyn Dwyer, manager of marketing and communications; and Shire Feingold, manager of patron and donor services.
Developing new audiences and raising funds are essential to any nonprofit as Uys sees it. “It’s basic to be relevant to everyone we reach, and to reach more people,” he says. “No nonprofit covers its costs with its revenue. Sure, we need to ask people to contribute. But it’s important that we [he underlines the word with his voice] contribute. We have to create something compelling. We’ve got to ask for money, but we want the public to know that they are getting something.”
Uys was born to two mathematicians in Pietermoritzburg, 50 miles inland from the east coast of South Africa, in 1977. “There were no musical professionals in the family,” he says. “But my parents were active concert attenders, and there was always classical music in the house.” Uys’ older brother is a Johannesburg engineer.
“At three I wanted to play violin,” he remembers. “I sat in front of the TV transfixed when it showed a violin soloist or a string section. If it was wind instruments, I walked away. I demanded violin lessons.”
Uys started violin lessons at four. “It was difficult to find a teacher who would accept a kid who couldn’t read yet,” he says. “I ended up reading music before I could read words.” He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees with honors from the University of Cape Town.
Being a violinist shaped Uys’ artistic aesthetic in two ways, he says. First, he was exposed to every musical genre, and, second, he became aware of the unlimited sonic capabilities of the instrument. “There is no ceiling to the nuances of the violin,” he says. “The only limit is your imagination.”
Shortly after completing his university studies, Uys served as first violinist in the South Africa-based Sontonga String Quartet, while simultaneously acting as its manager. After the quartet disbanded late in 2006 he performed as a soloist in South Africa and North America.
He remet his wife-to-be, South African native harpist Jacqueline Kerrod, in New York City in 2007 and started performing with her as the Clockwise Duo. “We played a few concerts together, and romance followed,” he says. The couple married in 2009 and live in Princeton.
Before joining the PSO in 2014 Uys followed a freelance career as a violinist and traveled extensively. For New York’s Arcos Orchestra he was simultaneously first violinist, soloist, and manager. In 2012 and 2014 he logged 10-day teaching stints in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Uys sketches the difference between his two PSO jobs. “The manager of artistic operations is someone responsible for the logistics behind an event, seeing that musicians are on stage at the right time, that the music is on stage, and that the soloists are picked up at the station. A lot of it is not musically significant. But without it, there would be no concert. As manager of artistic operations, it’s very difficult to work on something important for more than 10 minutes without being interrupted by something more important.”
“The executive director job could be described the same way. But the field is wider. On the one hand, the executive director is an office manager, but at the same time, he has to interact with the board and with people in the community. He has to make himself available to outsiders at their convenience. The big difference is that you can’t work on a thing for more than two minutes without being interrupted.” Luckily, Uys likes it that way.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Graceful Pairings, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, September 27, 4 p.m. Pre-concert talk, 3 p.m. $25 to $75. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.