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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the November
3, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Little Orchestra That Could
What began 25 years ago with a group of amateur instrumentalists
calling themselves "The Little Orchestra of Princeton" and presenting
two or three informal concerts a year has grown in size, repertoire,
and reputation to receive wide acclaim as one of the region’s finest
Sometimes affectionately referred to as "The Little Orchestra That
Could," the Princeton Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 25th
anniversary this year. Hailed by critics as New Jersey’s "virtuoso
orchestra," the Princeton Symphony has "not only survived but thrived
musically and artistically to where we now play virtually every
concert to sold-out houses," says Mark Laycock, the group’s music
director. "When I began the orchestra played a total of three concerts
a year with a budget of under $50,000. Nineteen years later, we
perform an average of 8 to 12 concerts a year with a budget of more
than 10 times that of my original season. The most remarkable fact of
all is probably that we have accomplished this with a musically
sophisticated Princeton area audience situated between the cultural
centers of New York and Philadelphia."
Among the most exciting events related to the orchestra’s 25th
anniversary season are the release of the orchestra’s first two CDs
(with the second CD scheduled for release in January), the
introduction of a Broadway Pops concert (also a sellout), and the
performance of the complete La Traviata by Verdi.
Along with its 25th anniversary, the PSO is also celebrating the 10th
anniversary of its children’s educational music outreach program,
BRAVO!, which stands for "Bringing Renowned Artists for Valuable
Outreach." The milestone will be marked with a children’s concert
featuring one of the greatest virtuoso works of the 20th century,
Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, at the Richardson Auditorium on
Sunday, November 7.
It was 10 years ago that orchestra member Melanie Clarke, a violinist,
mother of four, and now also the orchestra’s director of education,
went into her daughter’s classroom at the Community Park Elementary
School in Princeton to talk to the children about music and
performing. From its simple beginnings with a working mother providing
in-class enrichment, BRAVO! has become a program that introduces
thousands of schoolchildren every year to the joy of classical music.
Funded entirely through grants and donations, members of the PSO
volunteer their time to go into area schools to introduce the
instruments of the orchestra and the process of composing and
performing music. This year BRAVO! also initiated a special program
for third and fourth graders at an inner city charter school in
Clarke says that children especially are open to hearing all kinds of
music. "Their ears are much less jaded. We should never underestimate
their taste," she says. "They are just as eager to hear classical
music and are just as engaged by its beauty as older listeners. I’ve
had kids come up to me and tell me ‘I had no idea that I’d like it but
I really did.’"
This year BRAVO! will perform 80 small ensemble concerts in area
elementary schools. In addition, seven full orchestra concerts at
Richardson Auditorium, the State Theater in New Brunswick, and other
venues in May are expected to draw some 8,000 children.
The Princeton Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1980 by the late
Portia Sonnenfeld, its first and only other conductor, supported by a
board of directors including William H. Scheide, Frank E. Taplin, and
Edward T. Cone, all musical authorities and pillars of the Princeton
community. Upon Sonnenfeld’s death in 1986 the board selected Mark
Laycock as music director. He provides artistic and musical direction
for the private non-profit professional group, which has a core
membership of 55 musicians. They are primarily from New Jersey, though
a few come from New York and Philadelphia.
Laycock says the orchestra’s highlights would certainly include its
tour to Egypt and Jordan, filmed by New Jersey Network, and the
resulting documentary that earned an Emmy Award for its soundtrack. He
also cites the tradition of New Year’s Eve concerts in Princeton and
most recently the all-Opera extravaganza performed last New Year’s Eve
at the State Theater in New Brunswick, which drew guest solo artists
from around the globe. Laycock also counts as highlights two virtuoso
performances of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the most recent of which was
with the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. The first performance with
the Westminster Symphonic Choir was turned into the Princeton Symphony
Orchestra’s first CD.
Laycock recalls that one of the PSO’s most memorable events,
performances by two magnificent Russian singers from Moscow for the
solo roles in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera "Mozart and Salieri," almost
didn’t happen in an era when relations between the United States and
Russia were quite a bit colder than they are today. It was 1991 when
the singers were repeatedly denied entry onto the plane in Moscow even
though all of their documents were in order.
"This led to my speaking to the American ambassador in Moscow at three
in the morning our time," he recounts, "explaining that they were
expected here for a concert that had a specific and rapidly
approaching date. They told me that’s the way things are done in
Moscow. Although they were forced to miss the opening rehearsals, they
did make it here for the final rehearsals and performance, which
remain wonderful memories."
While the PSO is not affiliated with Princeton University, it performs
its subscription series in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton
campus. Its extensive repertoire includes classical masterworks and
music by the most innovative contemporary composers. Joshua Worby, the
PSO’s executive director, says the orchestra has a subscription base
of 600 that is expanding every year. "We’ve attracted new subscribers
who are becoming our new loyal audience. They try us then stay with
us. Our audience used to be mostly the local Princeton crowd, but
we’ve reached across the borders and are drawing a younger and more
diverse fan base from the outlying areas."
In addition to its five-concert classical series, PSO is in its third
season of collaboration with the Montgomery Center for the Arts/1860
House in presenting its Sunday Afternoon Chamber Series, featuring
members of the orchestra in small ensemble performances. Worby says
"it’s an ideal setting where we can establish a grassroots presence in
a neighboring community and get people interested in what we’re doing.
We have a new audience that gets to hear musicians up close and
personal in an intimate environment."
PSO POPS! Plays Broadway debuted this season with Broadway and
television stars Rebecca Luker and Stephen Bogardus. PSO POPS! Annual
Family Holiday Concert will take front and center stage on Sunday,
December 12, featuring the New Jersey Tap Ensemble and the Princeton
High School Chorus.
PSO’s 2003-’04 season included the New Year’s Eve gala Operafest at
the State Theater, an encore performance of its third subscription
series concert in Monroe Township, and several performances for senior
communities and private corporate engagements. Prior seasons included
a three-year Sacred Music Series in collaboration with the Princeton
Theological Seminary, the American premiere of Daylight Divine by
Augusta Read Thomas, American Salute July 4th concerts, New Jersey Gay
Men’s Chorus, Waterloo Festival Concert, the Holocaust Remembrance
Concert in collaboration with American Repertory Ballet, and an
All-Bach New Year’s Day concert.
Guest artists who have appeared with the PSO include the Louisiana
Repertory Jazz Ensemble, the American Boychoir, Leon Bates, John
Chancellor, and Representative Rush Holt. Princeton Symphony Orchestra
members have gone on to positions with such major orchestras as the
New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
Worby says that there has been a long-held myth about the dying
audience for live classical music, that people who grew up listening
to it are getting older, and that there would be no one left attending
concerts. While the audience may be grayer, it is loyal, he says. The
continued challenge for everyone is to attract new, younger audiences,
and to keep the programming fresh and exciting.
"Live classical concerts are a very different kind of experience from
watching TV or playing video games," he says. "Going to concerts
requires time, attention, and income, and younger people often tend
not to have a lot of those things. There are many more competing
Worby says one way the orchestra is keeping a fresh audience coming is
with an ever-expanding and aggressive marketing program. "We’ve
experienced increases in our audience over the last four years that
have countered national trends for other symphony orchestras," he
says. "We’ve seen a 46 percent jump in attendance over four years ago,
in part because of the astounding growth of the orchestra and its
musicians and the caliber of the music. We’re awakening people to the
fact that they’ve got this astonishing orchestra right here in their
backyard. They don’t have to go to New York or Philadelphia. And it
turns out that once they’ve experienced it, most people really would
rather spend a couple of hours enjoying live classic music than
watching Regis on television."
Worby also says outreach programs like BRAVO! are critical to building
the orchestra’s fan base of the future. "By reaching grade school kids
now we know that by the time they’re in high school, in college, and
as adults, they’re going to be classical music fans. They’ll be
subscribers and they’ll be coming to our concerts."
The management of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra has just completed
negotiations for a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with
its musicians, members of the American Federation of Musicians local
62 based in Trenton. "We enjoy a friendly and mutually respectful
relationship among musicians and management," says Worby. "We’re
growing in every measurable parameter: The orchestra itself is bigger
and so are our audiences. Wages are up, our budget has increased, and
our charitable giving has gone up." He sees a bright future for the
PSO with plans for more performances and the expansion of such events
as the pop concerts into a series of its own.
Laycock agrees. "Our music has moved our audiences and they end up
cheering more when they hear our performances than when they attend
performances in major cities."
Bravo! Marking 10 Years of Reaching Out Sunday, November 7, at 4 p.m.,
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Tickets: $14 to $48. Call
609-497-0020 for information.
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