Michael Pratt conducts the Princeton University Orchestra.
Michael Pratt conducts the Princeton University Orchestra.
Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications

When Michael Pratt became the conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra in 1977, performance wasn’t considered an integral part of music studies — an attitude that was not unique to the University. “Serious” academic work at that time, he said, involved historical musicology, theory, and composition. “The attitude was if you want to be a performer, you shouldn’t be here. You should be in a conservatory.”

Much has changed since then, as Princeton and other schools have made musical performance and the arts in general important parts of the curriculum, noted Princeton music professor Paul Lansky *73. And Pratt, who is in his 35th year at Princeton — and is the first and only director of the Program in Musical Performance — has had a front-row seat.

Since Pratt took over as conductor, the number of students playing in one of Princeton’s two orchestras has quadrupled. His first year, he said, he had about 40 performers and had to bring in “ringers to put together a small Mozart opera orchestra.” This year he auditioned 165 students for 103 spots for the Princeton University Orchestra, which has gone on tour every other year since 1990, to cities including London, Vienna, Madrid, and Lisbon. Another 70 students participate in a second orchestra, Sinfonia. And some 44 students perform in jazz ensembles, said Pratt, noting the “phenomenal growth” of the jazz program under Anthony Branker ’80.

In all, Pratt estimated that 600 to 700 students take part in some type of musical performance each year — whether participating in orchestras, jazz ensembles, Glee Club, Chapel Choir, or a cappella singing groups, or taking private instrumental or vocal lessons.

Pratt said that before he arrived, Peter Westergaard *56, a composer and professor emeritus, had started to “push the edges of that boundary” that separated performance from academic study. Westergaard was “strong in his denunciation of this attitude,” Pratt said.

Today there are five performance courses listed on the music department website, and another dozen or so courses that include musical performance, says Wendy Heller, the acting chairwoman of the music department. “An essential part of how you talk about music history is bring[ing] it to life in the class,” says Heller, whose course on baroque music history regularly incorporates a performance component: As part of a final project, students may perform a historical piece.

Heller, who studied opera and was a cantorial soloist before moving into academia, notes that there is a recognition today that “many great scholars not only come to scholarship by means of performance, but in fact their performing experience informs their relationship to the music and informs their work.”

While Princeton has long attracted accomplished musicians, the talent pool of student musicians and vocalists is “much, much broader and deeper” than it was even 10 years ago, Pratt said. Word has spread to high school musicians that Princeton takes music and musicians seriously.

While the number of undergraduate students who major in music has grown from about two a year in the 1960s to 10 to 20 in recent years, the number of students earning a certificate in musical performance has grown from about 12 juniors and seniors when it started in 1991 to 37 this year. Five students are in the new certificate program in jazz studies.

As a result, Pratt can work on a more demanding repertoire. For example, he said, the orchestra has performed over the years all but two of Mahler’s nine symphonies and twice has performed Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, and will do so again in April. “There’s almost nothing that the orchestra can’t play,” he said.

Lynne Rumney ’90, who was a violinist in the orchestra, said Pratt’s passion for music is “contagious.” He “takes overcommitted, too-busy students and takes them seriously and gives them a professional sense of what an amazing product they can produce,” said Rumney, who continues to perform and until recently was on the faculty at Minot (N.D.) State University.

Several years ago, Pratt was instrumental in establishing the University’s collaboration with the Royal College of Music, London, in what he described as an effort “to try to match our peer institutions in our offerings to top music students.” Each year two or three students spend a semester studying at the conservatory, which Heller said provides “a professional music experience in a highly competitive atmosphere.”

Most Princeton student musicians are not planning a career in music. “What we’re doing here is not so much about training future performers,” Pratt said, but developing “students’ passion and hunger for music so they will become the core of a generation of intensely involved listeners and ambassadors.”