Michael Pratt Reflects on 40 years at Princeton University

An article written by Emily Spalding for the Daily Princetonian on December 7, 2017 (link):

As the euphonious sounds of piano and violin echoed down the hallway, Michael Pratt sat in his office in the Effron Music Building and opened the score of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 2. While he explained a composing technique, he ran his fingers over a few notes, paused, and then began to sway, moving his arms and humming along, until it was apparent he had entered a world of music.

“This is sort of why I was put on Earth,” Pratt, the Princeton University Orchestra (PUO) conductor and director of the program in musical performance, explained of his career as a teacher and conductor of music. 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Pratt’s start at the University. When he first arrived in 1977, Pratt initially planned to stay on as conductor of PUO for only a few years, before moving on to a setting of all professional musicians. Later, when he discovered the rigid structure of certain orchestras, he grew to think that these musicians’ attitudes were not conducive to exploring musical depths the way he wanted.

“When I came, I was not quite 30 years old, and so I still had visions of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, as all conductors do,” Pratt explained of his decision to remain at the University. Even when Pratt conducted professional orchestras while still working with PUO, he said these professional experiences were not as rewarding as he had hoped.

“It was a downer. They didn’t want to be there, and they didn’t care what I said. Nobody looked up, nobody responded … I mean they weren’t hostile, they weren’t anything,” Pratt explained. “This complete non-engagement … was the polar opposite of what happens here, when the orchestra is tremendously engaged. They want to know. They want it to be good.”

Pratt keeps well in line with the University’s emphasis on being a teacher before anything else.

“I love the aspect of conducting which is teaching,” Pratt noted. “That’s my deepest love: teaching music, teaching great music to gifted students who want to know as much as they can about it and get it to sound as good as they can.”

Wendy Heller, music history professor and chair of the Department of Music, explained that Pratt — a longtime colleague and friend — has “had to work from the sidelines” because academic achievement and tenure are the University’s main focus.

“That he’s succeeded so brilliantly is a testament to him as a teacher,” Heller said.

Heller described how Pratt’s contributions both in the classroom and to the curriculum at the University have impacted his students’ lives.

Although Pratt teaches music, not all of his students have become professional musicians. Some students have gone on to be lawyers or doctors, Heller said. But their lives, she added, “have been changed by playing music at a very, very high level, and that makes the world a better place.”

The coexistence of musical study and performance

The music department of 40 years ago was nothing like the one where Pratt works now. The department’s evolution is chiefly due to the fact that Pratt has dedicated much of his time to introducing and emphasizing musical performance in the department. This is a departure from the department’s more pedantic history, and forges a new path and direction for music at the University.

“This is a place where we study music and play music, and we do both really well,” explained Ruth Ochs, conductor of the Princeton University Sinfonia and associate conductor of PUO. “And it’s because of the hard battles that [Pratt] has fought over … these four decades.”

The decision to incorporate performance into the department completely rebranded music at the University and attracted new students. One such example is Ochs herself, who noted that in choosing a graduate school, she was advised not to select Princeton because of its reputation for then being a place for music study rather than performance. Pratt’s dedication to making the University a destination for both study and performance won her over, and she chose Princeton.

Heller mirrored these sentiments as well, commenting on how the work Pratt has done with performance in particular has allowed for a fusion of scholarship and music that has helped “to shape these students’ intellectual and artistic lives.” She attributed this success to Pratt, describing how his direction made the program what it is today.

“Without the strength of Michael’s musicianship and vision and generous personality and dedication, [performance] wouldn’t happen. It needed that to grow,” she explained.

Pratt acknowledged the department’s former focus was more restrictive.

“All performance activities were wedged in at Woolworth, both psychologically and physically,” he said. Pratt is reluctant, however, to take sole responsibility for this transformation, and rather gives it to his mentor, Peter Westergaard, a former chair of the department of music and Professor Emeritus.

“Credit has to go to Peter Westergaard. I didn’t start this. He was already pushing back,” Pratt said. “He was thrilled when he found that a maniac like me was going to be on campus, and I just really wanted to conduct, and I wanted to do Mozart operas, and … we unleashed each other’s demons,” Pratt added.

The relationship between Westergaard and Pratt resulted in several artistic accomplishments at the University that pushed the limits of the time. “In the early years, there was something about the more repressive atmosphere that made us do kind of crazier things,” Pratt said. One example includes a production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in Alexander Hall. The production was equipped with a student-made flying dragon that released a stream of theatre blood onto one of the actresses during a scene on the final night. “It was like a ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ gush of blood…. There was no singing for a while,” Pratt described, stifling his laughter.

Without Westergaard, Pratt very well might not have ended up at Princeton, as it was Westergaard who ultimately offered him the position as PUO conductor.

The orchestra of student life

Affectionately referred to as “Maestro” by his students, Pratt sets high expectations for his musicians while also maintaining an awareness of the rigorous nature of University life. As PUO co-president and cellist DG Kim ’18 stated, “at the end of the day, we are not a conservatory…. [Pratt’s] different in that he helps us achieve a conservatory sound without the conservatory commitment.”

Because the University is not a conservatory, Pratt is granted a special kind of artistic freedom, one that makes for a more relaxed day-to-day atmosphere while not compromising the final product.

According to Ochs, Pratt maintains balance in his orchestra by prioritizing passion for music above all else.

“Certainly if these students were at a conservatory, there would be this expectation of constant perfection. I believe [Pratt] is absolutely sensitive to the fact that our students are playing because they love music,” she explained. “He is very willing to forgive some small flaws because these students are putting their full hearts into their music making,.”

“He really wants to bring people together to make the best possible music,” Heller added. “He has very high standards, but he also understands the Princeton culture so well that he knows how to work with students who have so many other commitments … he really knows how to work with them and really bring them to a high level of playing.”

Evan Wood ’18, PUO co-president, cellist, and trombonist, has been a student of Pratt’s since his freshman year. Having worked under several conductors throughout his career as a musician, Wood recognizes Pratt has a rather unique approach to leading PUO.

“Especially as an orchestra that is not a conservatory orchestra, [PUO] reaches this really high level not because [Pratt’s] very strict or anything, but because everyone wants to be there because we are all really interested in music,” Wood said. “He just kind of makes sure that we’re all enjoying our time in the orchestra.”

Wood said that Pratt’s conducting style tends to be “very creative, but also much more reflective,” and that his approach “is much more about enjoying the music, about making music together with all of your friends.” Wood believes this style “brings out the best part of music, which is … music making together.”

If there is one aphorism every student of music hears on a loop throughout their career, it is that practice makes perfect. While the notes on a sheet of music will remain consistent, the way in which a conductor chooses to interpret them is critical in producing the highest quality product unique to that group of musicians. 

“It’s like building a house,” Pratt said about the rehearsal process. “You lay a foundation, you get things organized, you get the notes and the rhythms and the dynamics and the articulation down … and then, you just dig deeper and deeper into the music, taking it apart.”

“We’re very busy as students, we have so many other deadlines…. He trusts that and he understands the students’ demands and schedules and knows what is feasible and not,” Wood explained. “In his 40 years, he’s learned what to expect and when to expect it, and is always very patient and understanding.”

Pratt explained that “a lot of rehearsal time is about explaining relationships.” He said that he is constantly looking for metaphors to communicate a style idea.

“By that, I mean what do you do to get across the idea of what this moment is doing musically, other than just the notes,” he explained. “There are things that the composer doesn’t notate. The composer expects you to find them. That’s the style, a kind of sound, a kind of pacing, a kind of articulation.”

Pratt reconciles this artistic challenge primarily through movement in his music, like when he physicalized the Dvořák symphony while sitting in his office, moving his body in response to the different notations.

“I come up with metaphors, I try to physicalize things whenever something is in a dance mode…. I usually at one point or another make an idiot of myself and just do some dance steps,” he said.

An unexpected battle and legacy

Speaking with Pratt, a man with contagious excitement and charisma, it is hard to imagine he is a two-time breast cancer survivor.

Yet what is entirely unsurprising is that he would use music as a vehicle to promote awareness for this relatively unknown form of cancer in males. Several years ago on one of PUO’s annual tours — a staple of the orchestra experience that grants students the opportunity to travel around the world and perform on famous stages — PUO performed in Slovakia on what happened to be World Cancer Day. Years later, the group returned and performed on World Cancer Day again. Pratt explained how the concert was a fundraiser and that it was especially meaningful for him to get to speak with the audience before the show started, having been diagnosed between the two shows.

“That was pretty powerful stuff. It was pretty special to be able to do that,” he said.

He noted that breast cancer in men is not a commonly discussed topic, leading to a high mortality rate in male patients who simply do not consider breast cancer a possibility. Therefore, Pratt has felt an obligation to his students.

“I wanted to be transparent with my students,” he said, going on to draw parallels between life and art. “There’s no reason to try to hide that. It’s real life. The music is about real life.”

In addition to his students, Pratt’s colleagues also referenced his energy in both professional and personal settings.

Ochs laughed when describing the audition process she and Pratt go through each year when new musicians try out for various performing groups. She commented on how he brings a specific energy that makes a normally long and arduous process enjoyable.

“In any situation, he really is able to infuse life into any particular moment, whether it’s musical or an interaction with a student who needs inspiration or whether it’s coaching or whether it’s just talking about music. He’s very good at finding excellent words to inspire people,” Ochs explained.

Heller described how Pratt’s generosity and willingness to listen is a quality that is rather uncommon among artists who have reached the same professional level as Pratt. “He’s exceedingly fair in providing opportunities for others,” she noted.

She also spoke to her collaborations with him over the years, with Heller focusing on voice and Pratt on music.

“For me, it’s been the fun of sharing this music with him that I really love and then watching him teach it to the kids and getting them to sing it very, very well,” Heller claimed. “That to me has been just a real joy.”

Neither Ochs nor Heller hesitated in discussing Pratt’s legacy, pointing to his development of the performance program and his impact on students as just some parts of his immense legacy at the University.

“His greatest contribution has been building up the performance program and the emphasis that he’s put on finding ways for Princeton students to continue as performers while they study at Princeton,” Ochs said.

Pratt “is a major architect of the performance wing of the department and the integration of performance into the curriculum at Princeton in a very important way,” according to Heller. “That’s a huge, huge legacy.”

“To develop an orchestral program that is probably, I think the best one of any non-music school … that’s been extraordinary,” she added.

Pratt considers the creation of the Lewis Center for the Arts complex as a proud moment in his time here.

“It’s sort of hard to look around, where we are right now, and not think that … a little piece of this is part of my legacy,” Pratt said in reference to the new arts center.

Pratt believes this new arts infusion has profoundly changed the psychology of the campus. “A performing arts platform where music, theatre, and dance are made, not just contemplated — it’s extraordinarily beautiful, it’s as visible as anything on the campus…. The whole culture of the campus has changed now,” he noted.

He also recognized the “top-notch orchestra that will keep replenishing itself” as among his proudest contributions to campus.

However, Pratt ultimately expressed pride in what he has already accomplished.

“I’m not worried about legacy. I really like what’s here,” he said. “I just want to keep this going and keep getting stronger.”

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