Michael Pratt, director of Princeton University’s program in musical performance, is conducting Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 3 — again. “This is my third time conducting (Mahler’s Third),” Pratt says from his home in Skillman. “I seem to do it in 11-year cycles. I did it in 1992 and 2003. This time around it’s 2014.”
Written between 1893 and 1896, Mahler’s Third is the longest piece in the standard symphonic repertoire, running measurably longer than 90 minutes.
Pratt leads the Princeton University Orchestra (PUO) in performances of the colossal work at the Stuart B. Mindlin Memorial concerts on Friday and Saturday, April 25 and 26, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Princeton University’s mezzo soprano Barbara Rearick solos.
Pratt knew Mindlin, who is memorialized in the annual concerts bearing his name. “When I arrived in 1977 he was a member of PUO’s percussion section,” Pratt says. “In the spring of 1988 Stu did not show up to a rehearsal. We learned that he had lost his life in a traffic accident, and the shock and grief was universal in the PUO. The next year we established the first memorial concerts in his name.”
The Mahler work requires musical forces greater than the hefty PUO, with its almost 100 musicians. Pratt has recruited the women of the Princeton University Glee Club, and for the first time the American Boychoir will participate in the performances as well.
“The Third is in some ways my favorite,” Pratt says. “It’s a fantastic canvas of all of creation, from the primal forces of raw nature to the ecstasy of the divine love, which Mahler saw as the ultimate underpinning of existence.”
“My Mahler ‘three’ score is falling apart at the seams,” he says. “That’s the result of the enormous amount of time I’ve spent handling it since around 1990, when I covered a performance of it in my days as the number two conductor at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.”
Pratt believes that his third programming of Mahler gives him a chance to learn new things about the work. “I’m making different decisions,” he says. “I’m constantly questioning all the old decisions — tempos and other things. Sometimes I reconsider a past decision and think ‘This worked well.’”
“Every time you go back to a piece like this you start over, but you don’t have to start at the beginning. When a piece is familiar you go to a deeper level. You don’t have to figure out notes or structure again.”
Pratt says, “For students, (Mahler’s Third) could be life changing. It hits you at a very deep level.” He urges student instrumentalists to join him in the search for meaning in the Mahler symphony. “As you listen,” he tells them, “try to probe the music and imagine what Mahler had in mind in each moment, for it all means something.”
“PUO’s history and my personal one with Mahler’s music are one and the same,” Pratt says. A member of the Princeton faculty since 1977, Pratt conducted his first Mahler work with the PUO, Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, in 1978. Since then the orchestra has performed almost all of the nine Mahler symphonies, as well as his major song cycles.
“I am a hard-core Mahler person. I utterly adore and worship his music. It’s so humanly important, and so spiritually important. His gifts as a composer are simply staggering. Put it all together and you come up with something really potent,” he says.
To Pratt, conducting Mahler, like conducting Beethoven, is an experience that goes beyond music. “When you perform Mahler or Beethoven you get a feeling that it’s not just music going through you, but that there is a fully formed personality standing beside you saying ‘Listen to me. I want to communicate something. This is important! You’ve got to understand this!’ When you experience a Mahler symphony you are in the presence of a powerful stream of communication about love. Other things too, but the deepest strand is love.”
Pratt likes the way New Yorker writer Alex Ross characterizes Mahler’s work: “Mahler’s symphonies are a love letter to the human race.”
Mahler is only one component in the spectrum of music that Pratt conducts. His range goes from baroque opera to contemporary compositions. The size of ensembles he leads runs from tiny to titanic. Handling the diversity requires diverse approaches.
“All require different kinds of touch, and have different priorities,” Pratt says. “Conducting Mahler is very different from conducting baroque opera. I consider myself fortunate that I get to do both and to be in a place, Princeton, where both are encouraged.”
“The variety of musical genres and ensembles I deal with share fundamental things that have to be right. Some of those things are my personal priorities: good rhythm, rehearsing with character, and performing with character,” he says.
But there are no recipes, Pratt says. “There is a human element in music that can’t be notated,” he says. “I have to know that element and be convinced and committed to it myself. Then I have to convey it.”
“If I’m committed enough to the character of a piece, the right quality of sound will come out. My commitment affects the response that I get on a non-verbal level. That non-verbal level is the most important thing about conducting. That’s what teaching is about.”
“Conducting is teaching,” Pratt says. A nimble teacher, he adds, “I use language and metaphors. Sometimes students laugh because my metaphors seem goofy.” He gives an example. “If I want a section to sound aggressive, I might say, ‘Come on bikers, Hell’s Angels. Get on your Harley and make it roar.’ The student musicians laugh and say ‘That’s goofy,’ but they remember it. In the middle of a rehearsal, if things are not right, something comes into your head, and you just put it out there.”
Among the formal courses that Pratt teaches are conducting, chamber music, and new music. He has also taught courses designed to give the university orchestra members a rounded understanding of their repertoire. “They look at the pieces being played — their history and theory — and do not limit themselves to performing,” he says. “They go at it from both ends.”
Born in Covington, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, in 1949, Pratt comes from a family with significant musical gifts. His maternal aunt Emily was an accomplished pianist. His mother played piano and had what Pratt calls “an extraordinary ear. She could hear something once, sit down at the piano and harmonize it.” His father — a builder, retail store operator, and farmer — enjoyed music.
Pratt lives in Skillman with his wife, Martha Elliot, a member of Princeton’s voice faculty. Their daughter, Emily, is a cellist.
He always wanted to make music a career, Pratt says. His first instrument was trumpet. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and studied conducting in the Aspen, Colorado, conducting program, as well as at the Boston Symphony Orchestra program in Tanglewood. He has worked with legendary conductor/educator Leonard Bernstein.
Since his arrival at Princeton Pratt has driven a major expansion of performance activities and has observed big changes in the importance of all the arts at the university. “It’s been percolating the whole time I’ve been here. My colleagues in theater and dance have been just as busy and ambitious as I have been. President [Shirley] Tilghman [president of Princeton from 2001 to 2013] took on the arts as a real priority. Now, there are both the program in musical performance and the Lewis Center for the Arts.” The Lewis Center aims to put the creative and performing arts at the heart of the Princeton experience.
Not only that. The Arts Neighborhood is being constructed behind McCarter Theater. “We’ve had many, many, many, many, many meetings about this. Many members of the music department were consulted. We’re incredibly excited in the music and arts departments that they’re digging holes and laying foundations now.”
“Since I’ve been at Princeton, there has been a movement away from the old traditional Ivy League approach, which considered music an academic activity. There’s been a big expansion of the performance aspect of music. In 1977-’78 there were not enough students to form a complete Mozart opera orchestra. The university orchestra only had 45 to 50 members. We had to get outsiders to play bass.
“Now the University Orchestra has more than doubled, and since the late 1980s we also have another orchestra, the Sinfonia. The Sinfonia is made up of students with less depth of experience on their instruments. They have less technical polish than the University Orchestra, but they are capable and passionate. The members of the Sinfonia are serious. I think that the seriousness of a student is not measured by their technical facility, but by their love. Seriousness is ineffable and non-verbal,” he says.
Pratt’s blend of passion and evenness may be rooted in his Buddhist practice. “I meditate every day,” he says. “I think of myself as a student of Zen Buddhism. I got into it 40 years ago when I was a burned out hippie and had a hole to get out of. Zen was the ladder that I climbed up on. Zen is the core part of my life.”
Pratt happily adapts to the yearly personnel changes in the Princeton University Orchestra, where instrumentalists come and go as they matriculate and graduate. The all-volunteer orchestra has a turnover of approximately 20 percent each year. “For me, that’s life. It’s not a completely new group each year. We don’t start from scratch every year. The members of the orchestra are smart. They figure out what I mean.”
Pratt notes that the great orchestras of the world have played the standard repertoire repeatedly. On the contrary, the majority of members of the PUO play the piece for the first time. Conducting those forces feels “like vicarious first love,” he says. “You get to remember what it was like the first time you ever heard the piece. That sense of amazement communicates very strongly from these musicians.”
Princeton University Orchestra, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall. Friday and Saturday, April 25 and 26. 7:30 p.m. $15 general admission, $5 students. 609-258-9220 or www.princeton.edu/utickets.