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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the December 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Raising a Big Musical Tent

Princeton is unique among the Ivy League colleges in

offering a certificate program in musical performance. Michael Pratt,

the glowing director of the program for nearly a decade, and one of

its chief architects, gauges its success by looking at applications.

Now in the process of interviewing and auditioning students applying

for early admission to the program, he says proudly that "not

only do they want to come to Princeton, but they want to apply early."

The program includes instrumentalists and singers whose outlooks range

from traditional to jazz to rock. "It’s a fairly big tent,"

Pratt says. "The program enables participants to construct an

individual curriculum. It’s a major factor in recruiting top students."

In a way the certificate program is the icing on the cake. Pratt,

whose official title is "Senior Lecturer and Conductor of the

Orchestra," celebrates 25 years in command of the orchestra this

season. During that time the Princeton University Orchestra (PUO)

has established an international reputation.

The orchestra’s second concert of the season takes place in Richardson

Hall on Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7, and consists of Brahms’

Double Concerto for Violin and Cello and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.

10. Soloists in the Brahms piece are violinist Serena Canin and cellist

Nina Lee of the Brentano Quartet. The quartet is in residence at the


This season the PUO plays a four-concert series in Richardson, and

gives its annual lawn concert with fireworks on Saturday, May 31.

Winners of the orchestra’s concerto competition solo at concerts in

March. The women of the Princeton University Glee Club and the Westminster

Children’s Choir join with the orchestra and mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger

for Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in April.

In a first rehearsal of the Brahms concerto in early

November, Pratt leads an intense working session. Bowing to politeness,

he opens the proceedings with, "Good evening everybody." Then,

pausing just long enough to take a breath for the next sentence, he

says, "All right. Let’s play," and launches the music. There

is no detectable down-time.

Comfortably dressed in a long-sleeved burgundy T-shirt and jeans,

his perch is a stool on the podium. Not tethered to his seat, he stands

up from time to time. He shapes phrases with his baton. At key points

he whistles the solo musical line.

It is hard to believe that some of the players are sight-reading.

The violins move their bows in unison. At no time is the group hopelessly

lost. Intonation and entrances have a ball-park accuracy, though they

have not achieved the precision and discipline that marked the first

concert of the season in October.

With striking metaphors, Pratt catches the imagination. "Use a

stroke that pulls the sound out of the instrument," he advises

the strings. Fine-tuning a silence, he says, "I want a hole that

I could drive a truck through there." "We think of Brahms

as lyrical," he instructs, "but the rhythm underneath is like

the foundation of a building. It’s the girders."

The members of the voluntary, extracurricular orchestra come, says

Pratt, "from every conceivable corner of the university."

Ninety five percent of them are undergraduates. Some are enrolled

in the certificate program in musical performance. "A lot of the

members of the orchestra would already have heard the music we play,

and would have favorite recordings," Pratt says. "I like to

pick some repertoire that they won’t be familiar with. We’re supposed

to be in the education business."

For the benefit of orchestra personnel Pratt arranges for commercial

recordings of a programmed piece to be put on reserve at the University

library. "They can’t download it, but they can hear it," he


Undergraduate instrumentalists have grown in number and excellence

since Pratt’s arrival at Princeton.. "Their forces are much bigger

and deeper than when I got here 25 years ago," he says. "Now,

a violinist who would have been concertmaster 15 years ago would be

further back. The level keeps getting higher and higher."

"We’ve done a lot of hard work here," he says, "to build

an environment where students who are accomplished performers will

feel welcome. In the Ivy-league schools there’s a great emphasis on

the academic sides of music-musicology and history. Traditionally

we’ve told students that they should go someplace else if they’re

a performer. Now our goal is to be welcoming to performers without

compromising what we ask of students academically."

In addition to directing Princeton’s certificate in musical performance

program, and conducting the university orchestra, Pratt wears two

other hats. He is co-director of the Richardson Chamber Players and

co-director of the Composers’ Ensemble.

The Richardson Chamber Players is a performing group consisting of

individuals who teach privately at Princeton. In existence for just

under a decade, the group has three purposes. It provides adjunct

teachers an opportunity to meet and perform with their colleagues.

It gives students a chance to hear their teachers play. And it creates

a forum for the performance of repertoire that’s off the beaten path.

Participants in the Composers’ Ensemble are often the same people

who play in the Richardson Chamber Players. Created about 15 years

ago, the Composers’ Ensemble guarantees to students in the PhD program

in composition that anything they write for a reasonable sized ensemble

will be performed by top performers in a carefully prepared performance,

Pratt says.

In addition to his work at the University, Pratt is music director

and conductor of the Delaware Valley Philharmonic and music advisor

for the American Repertory Ballet Orchestra, a position that keeps

"The Nutcracker" at the front of his consciousness. He is

also a co-founder of Opera Festival of New Jersey, where he has served

as music director. The wide horizons of his professional reach give

Pratt considerable perspective about various musical genres.

"I’ve done a lot of `Nutcrackers,’" he says. "It’s definitely

its own animal. The closest thing to it is opera. In ballet, the conductor

is often plugged in at the last moment. He doesn’t work as closely

with performers on stage as an opera conductor does. Some decisions

in ballet, like tempo, are prefigured. But when you get deeper into

it, for instance when you’re doing `The Nutcracker’ with different

casts, you get to know which Sugar Plum Fairy likes the music a little

slower or a little faster. You want the dancers to look their best.

It’s like opera. In both cases, there’s another element besides the


Pratt was born in 1949 in Covington, Georgia, about

25 miles from Atlanta. "I’m a typical small town boy," he

says. "I became a serious music jock as a trumpet player. I always

wanted to make music a career."

Although Pratt describes his family as not particularly musical, he

says, "My mother was a pianist and had an extraordinary ear. She

could hear something once and sit down at the piano and harmonize

it." Now 85, she lives in Covington. Her sister, Emily, was an

accomplished pianist. Pratt’s 15-year old daughter Emily, a cellist,

is named after Pratt’s aunt.

Pratt’s father, a child of the Depression who died in 1979, struggled

to make ends meet. "He enjoyed music," Pratt says. "He

was a poor kid in the south in the Depression. He was a builder, he

had a retail store, and he was a farmer. By the time he was 20 he

could do eight different trades. Growing up poor in the south in the

Depression was rough."

A resident of Skillman, Pratt is married to soprano Martha Elliott.

"One of my greatest pleasures is when we can be musical colleagues,"

he says. "We met while she was a Princeton student in the Princeton

University Opera Theater production of `Don Giovanni.’ I’ve done three

productions of `Don Giovanni’ and she has been my only Zerlina."

Pratt earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Rochester’s Eastman

School of Music in 1971 and studied the following year at the Aspen

Music School’s conducting program.

Leonard Bernstein awakened Pratt’s interest in conducting. "I

got my first records in 4th grade," he says, "and I watched

Leonard Bernstein’s `Young Peoples Concerts.’ I wouldn’t allow anybody

to whisper a word in the room."

Almost 20 years after his first encounter with Bernstein, Pratt was

a conducting fellow at Tanglewood working with his childhood idol.

"Bernstein was an absolute delight, he says. "I probably learned

as much in those two weeks as I did in two years elsewhere. He loved

to teach. He was a teacher to his core. Whoever was there, he would

teach them."

About to conduct Liszt’s `Faust’ Symphony, Bernstein asked Pratt to

be his assistant. "The recording engineers needed sound checks

at various places in the score and Lenny didn’t want to appear except

in performances," Pratt says. "In Symphony Hall in Boston

I spent 10 minutes in front of the Boston Symphony. I was terrified;

I thought I was going to have a heart attack." This, despite Pratt’s

having become a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.

Pratt encountered Zen during his Rochester years in the 1970s. "There

was that terrible war," he says, "and there was a lot of trauma

in the air. A lot of us were looking for answers. Philip Kapleau,

one of the first bona fide American Zen teachers who had trained in

Japan, founded a Zen center in Rochester." There Pratt found his


Today the heart of his practice is daily meditation. Through meditation

he finds what he calls "a tranquil acceptance of the conditions

of one’s life, whether they’re pleasurable or not. There’s a certain

openness to the moment, whether it’s being interviewed for a newspaper

story, a fight with my daughter, or the dog peeing on the rug."

When Pratt goes on sabbatical in the fall of 2003, he will enhance

his tranquility with leisure. During his leave, he says, "I’ll

listen to music that I don’t know that well without thinking of preparing

it. I’ll go to concerts in New York and Philadelphia. And I hope to

spend time in London as a fly on the wall." Most remarkably, he’ll

study new repertoire according to his interests, not according to

what he will have to conduct. "Adding new repertoire is one of

the reasons I’m taking a sabbatical," he says. "I won’t have

to feel, `Gosh, I should be studying something else.’"

— Elaine Strauss

Winter Concert, Princeton University Orchestra,

Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Michael Pratt leads the student

orchestra. $15 adults; $5 students. Friday and Saturday, December

6 and 7, 8 p.m.

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