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Q&A: Michael Pratt, Princeton University Orchestra conductor

The Princeton University Orchestra presents its final concert of the year on April 25 and April 26. The Daily Princetonian recently had an opportunity to interview conductor Michael Pratt about his work with the orchestra and his views on the upcoming concert.

Daily Princetonian: Can you talk about your musical background and how you got started working with the PUO?

Michael Pratt: Well, I have been on the music faculty for 37 years, and my musical background was the Eastman School of Music. I got a fellowship to the very celebrated summer conducting program at Tanglewood, run by the Boston Symphony. I met a man there named Gunther Schuller who was a major mentor for me, and I moved to Boston to work for him with the New England Conservatory. At the end of that year, I received a call from the music department of Princeton University, who said they needed an orchestra conductor and if I could come and audition.

DP: How has the orchestra changed in these 37 years?

MP: It has gotten bigger, it has gotten deeper, it has gotten better, and it has many more students who are technically advanced. The orchestra has gotten to the point where there is pretty much nothing in the standard symphonic repertory that it couldn’t play, given enough rehearsal time. When I first came here, we did a production of a Mozart opera, “The Magic Flute.” You don’t need that many people for a Mozart concert — 40, 45 will do it — but we still had to bring some ringers in to help fill out the orchestra. Now, the University Orchestra’s membership is around 110, and there is a second orchestra, the Sinfonia, which has been in existence for 20 years. In total there are between 160 and 170 students on the Princeton campus now who are playing in an orchestra of one kind or another.

DP: The PUO will be performing Mahler’s Third Symphony in its upcoming concert. Can you talk a little about this piece?

MP: First, let me say that an orchestra’s first priority is to get more students to come to concerts, and especially students who have not been to a concert like this. Duke Ellington once said that there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad. I think that people who like good music, even if they have never been to an orchestra concert, will love this. Mahler’s Third is about the length of a moderate-size movie. People should think about coming to a movie, where the visual images are what they see on the stage, but the soundtrack is so compelling. The movie is about Mahler’s exploration of the totality of creation and the totality of the universe.

*for web* {{{The first movement starts with a depiction of the raw elemental forces of nature. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes violent, sometimes tender, sometimes quite frightening. It’s an extraordinary explosion of energy. Every time I’ve done it, people applaud at the end of the first movement; they think that’s it, and there could be no more after that. At one point, the movements had titles. Mahler’s title for the first was “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In.” The second movement was “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” and you can almost smell the perfumed breeze in an alpine meadow. The third movement is “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” which has raw folk song as birdcalls, and it is very descriptive. The fourth movement is “What the Night Tells Me,” where we start moving into the realm of humanity. It’s about the loneliness of night and looking for meaning and some kind of deep joy. The fifth movement is “What the Morning Bells Tell Me,” and it’s a sparkling description of the wonders of heavenly life.

The final movement, which is one of the greatest that Mahler wrote, is an Adagio (a slow movement) titled “What Love Tells Me.” Mahler commented in a letter to a friend, “I could easily have called it, ‘What God Tells Me,’ in the sense that God can only be comprehended as love.” So it goes all the way from the raw forces of nature to what he hoped was an underlying, divine, supremely gentle love at the basis of all existence. I’d go to a movie like that. It’s incredibly entertaining.}}} There’s so much color, so much light, so much happening. I think that if anyone has any relationship at all to concert music, or even if there’s other music that they like, such as folk music, they should come to check this out. I think a lot of them would come back.

DP: How do you choose which pieces to play in a program?

MP: It’s an interesting process. I poll the orchestra to see what they’d like to play. Everyone always loves Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. I try to find a mix of pieces that the orchestra will love from the outset, and pieces that they will grow to love. We’re supposed to be about education here! We also have a concerto competition, and we do pieces by Princeton composers, either faculty or graduate students. {{{We’re doing one of each next semester.}}} That’s an important part of what we do: pieces from Princeton composers. {{{There are only four programs a year, so I tend to think of programs on a long-term basis.}}}

DP: What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of conducting the PUO?

MP: I’d say it goes hand in hand with conducting any orchestra. Conducting is multitasking. You have to be able to hear what is going on, and you have to have at the same time a very clear idea of what you want it to sound like. You have to know what to say to get the musicians to make it sound the way you envision it. With this orchestra, an orchestra of very smart and ambitious students who are doing a lot, it’s always a challenge. Everybody is spread too thin. {{{A conductor at a place like this has to get used to that fact, that there are going to be times that not everybody is there. We don’t like it, but we have to accept it. We also do want to make it worth their while for people who do show up, to get something done. So we have five weeks of rehearsal for each program, and some times of the year are harder than others. The toughest part of the year is right now, when the seniors are all working on their theses. That’s life here.}}} But it also goes hand in hand with the fact that the orchestra is a collection of students from all over the University. You look at the stage: they are all good musicians. But they are also economists, politics majors, chemists and students of French literature. They bring an enormous collection of many different disciplines. They have in common music and the fact that they are good enough to have gotten into an orchestra of this level.

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