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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,
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
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
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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