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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

musical organizations.

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

interests today."

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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