If as Longfellow wrote, "Music is the universal language of mankind," then Mark Laycock is one of its most expert and enthusiastic spokesmen.
In his 20th season as Music Director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO), he continues to present performances of the highest caliber, engaging audiences on many levels of enjoyment, education, and experience.
Clearly, Mark Laycock loves music. That he has been able to devote his professional life to it is at once a gift and a responsibility, and he works hard to ensure that he is true to his calling. "For me, music of great value is an articulate expression of something deep in us that confirms the human experience and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. Therefore, there is a deep spiritual element that lies beneath its exciting and beautiful exterior the technical execution of that exterior is only a way to get at the music below.
"The music that results is then perceived differently by everyone who hears it, based on their own life experience, yet still serves to edify the meaning of that life experience. I suppose that is similar to what a minister does with his congregation."
The reference to a minister is meaningful in that it corresponds to an early childhood ambition to become a minister, quickly followed by the goal of a career in music. "Now, I have a profession that seems to combine the two," he notes.
Indeed, his work as music director, on certain levels, is comparable to what a religious leader undertakes. "Dealing with the many complicated aspects of being a music director, which involves constant research and learning as well as an ever-increasing understanding of human nature and human behavior and the psychology of working with the musicians of any symphony orchestra, is always a challenge."
Working hard, the desire to learn, and seriousness of purpose came early to Mark. "I loved learning and learning about things that require analysis math, philosophy, theology," he reports.
The third son of Eugene and Mary Margaret Laycock, and older brother to one sister, Mark grew up in Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, Missouri. He liked school and remembers the special influence of two teachers.
"In Washington, Mrs. Donna Southall was my third grade teacher. She gave me straight A's every single marking period, and she never let me be idle. She always had me learning something."
She made such an impression on him that years later, he paid her a special visit. "After I graduated from Conservatory, I contacted her and said I had finished my schooling and that she stood out as my finest teacher. And I asked if could come see her and take her to dinner."
Another important teacher was his orchestra instructor in St. Louis. "In middle school, Daniel Holt encouraged my conducting, even when I was 13. He took me to the symphony, and was helpful in getting me to audition for the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra."
What is especially interesting is that Mark did not come from a musical family. The talent and interest were uniquely his. "I remember when I was in the third grade going to a Woolworth's store with my mother, and I saw some LPs. I said 'I want that and that,' pointing to Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata and Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. I don't even know why. I'd never heard them. I was just drawn to the albums."
His interest was reinforced in school when at the age of nine, he was introduced to a series of musical instruments. "A teacher came around and played different instruments. I knew I wanted to play a string instrument. I thought the violin was too high, and the cello was too low. But when I heard the viola, something resonated."
What is even more remarkable is that aside from playing with the orchestra and music classes in school, Mark had no other instruction. "I never studied privately. I just worked it out myself," he observes.
When he was 15, Mark auditioned, and was chosen to play with the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, which met every Saturday morning.
"For the audition, I chose a piece, 'Homage' by Paul Creston, which was not well-known," recalls Mr. Laycock. "I liked it, and I think Leonard Slatkin, who was the conductor of the Youth Orchestra, was surprised and impressed. He was also the young assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, and he was so inspirational to me. He remains a friend and inspiration to this day."
Mark was impressed with the level of excellence of the orchestra and was also developing an interest in conducting. "The manager of the Youth Orchestra knew of my interest, and she helped me get conducting jobs. I made my conducting debut at 16, and I loved it. I conducted a lot of summer musicals."
Although music was the focus of his activities, Mark did have other interests, including sports, photography, and bird-watching. He loved going to the movies, and also acted in some school plays. "My father was an amateur actor, and I sort of grew up back stage, behind the scenes, in lighting booths, etc.
"My fondest childhood memory is winning a fencing match and scoring an inside-the-park home run in a Little League All Star game, and also scoring goals in hockey," he continues.
Although a St. Louis Cardinals fan, Mark looked up to players, such as Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax ("I'd still like to meet him today!") and Mickey Mantle.
Mark also recalls memorable moments in Washington, including tours of the FBI Building and witnessing the funeral cortege of John F. Kennedy to Arlington Cemetery (where Mr. Laycock's father is now buried).
Mark was also very interested in astronomy when he was a boy. "I had a wonderful moment when I was about seven or eight. I had written to NASA, asking if they would send me any information on the planets. Well, one day, this whole batch of material arrived on my doorstep, with all you could want to know about the planets."
Music was what mattered most, however, and after he graduated from high school in 1975, Mark set out for Philadelphia to study with the Curtis String Quartet, the resident quartet at the Curtis Institute of Music.
"For any serious classical musician wanting to perform, it is necessary to study with one main mentor," explains Mr. Laycock. "If you wanted to play the viola, the mentor was Max Aronoff, violist of the Curtis String Quartet.
While enjoying his viola studies, Mark found that he missed conducting, and before long, he was putting together ensembles of students to conduct. By his fourth year in school, and without any private study, he won the Leopold Stokowski Memorial Competition. Its prize was the opportunity to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he did at the age of 21, the second youngest person ever to conduct that orchestra. It was a supreme moment, he recalls.
"I had one rehearsal, and during it, I noticed that one of the clarinets was playing off, just not right. It was a subtle thing, but I pointed it out to the clarinetist. He said 'I was waiting to see if you'd notice.' Then everyone laughed. They were testing me. Winning that competition was life-changing and confirming. It set me on the path to my career."
And the experience also began a 15-year relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra. After his graduation from Conservatory in 1979, he began to establish himself as a free-lance musician, including a position in the music library of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
"I was responsible for preparing the music for the orchestra, and this was a tremendous opportunity for me, a chance to learn the world of classical music, and assist guest conductors. I watched the greatest conductors in the world, including Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Muti. I also conducted the Orchestra's Concerts for Children."
In addition, Mr. Laycock played viola in orchestras within a 50-mile radius of Philadelphia, and conducted the Trenton Symphony Orchestra in 1982 and '83. During this time, he also worked as a contractor, hiring musicians for orchestras, produced recordings in London, did arrangements, and conducted when he could.
His personal life headed in a new direction when he married fellow Max Aronoff viola student, Emily Muller in 1982. Mrs. Laycock now plays in the PSO and teaches music at the Waldorf School. Later, two sons were born: Christopher now 18 and a freshman at Gettysburg College and James, 9, who attends the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart.
Mr. Laycock's life would soon change again. He had been acquainted with Portia Sonnenfeld, then director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which she had founded in 1980 as The Little Orchestra of New Jersey. After several name changes, it was finally dubbed the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and is greater Princeton's only resident professional orchestra.
Mr. Laycock was contacted by Ms. Sonnenfeld and asked to be her standby in the event that illness would prevent her from finishing her concert season in 1985. They, in fact, shared the conducting duties of her last concert, and then Mr. Laycock succeeded her as music director.
In the succeeding 20 years, the Princeton Symphony Orchestra blossomed under his tutelage, and is regarded as one of the finest regional musical organizations. Hailed by critics as New Jersey's "virtuoso orchestra", the PSO was the 2004-2006 recipient of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts' Citation of Excellence, given to the PSO "for exhibiting the highest standards of excellence in its artistry, operations, governance, and public benefit."
Much of the PSO's outstanding reputation is due to Mr. Laycock, agree those who have watched the orchestra's increasing success over the years. "Mark Laycock has created what is certainly the finest orchestra in central New Jersey and one of the finest regional orchestras in America," says Princeton resident, poet and playwright Marvin Harold Cheiten,
A member of the PSO Board of Trustees, Mr. Cheiten has known Mr. Laycock for a dozen years, and they have collaborated on two productions for which Mr. Laycock composed the music for Mr. Cheiten's writing.
"Mark is one of those unusual show business people who, even as they become celebrated and successful, still remain very human and accessible," points out Mr. Cheiten. "He loves his audiences, and he knows that he must present music that will be meaningful and speak to the audiences. He wants people to be truly taken with the music, and therefore, he conducts with an incredible amount of expressiveness and passion."
John Clarke, another member of the PSO Board of Trustees, and who has known Mr. Laycock for many years, agrees with this assessment, and also comments on the maestro's special ability to create a unique experience for audience and musicians alike. "Mark asks and gets more from our musicians than even they sometimes believe is possible, and in so doing, gives them and the audience a uniquely energized performance regardless of the composer or specific programming.
"Mark's special dynamism means that our audience doesn't just hear our concerts in Richardson Hall, the audience 'experiences' these concerts. His breadth of knowledge of musical programming, coupled with his creative flair and curiosity for innovative or rarely performed pieces, have added another special dimension to the PSO concert experience. These new or different concert elements challenge the musicians and audience alike to expand their classical concert experience and perspective.
"Mark has been a wonderful leader for our orchestra. He is passionate in his commitment. He is dedicated to the highest performance standards and talented in their pursuit. He asks a great deal from his musicians and audiences and provides great value in return. Great leaders demand great things of others and in no less measure of themselves. Princeton and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra are fortunate to have Mark Laycock as such a special leader in our community."
In the midst of such accolades, Mr. Laycock remains dedicated and steadfast in his profession, while keeping the praise in perspective. He likes to refer to one of his favorite quotes from Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Always take your job seriously; never take yourself seriously."
As has been pointed out, he is often cited for his innovative programming and his ability to provide the audience with an understanding and accessibility to the music. He emphasizes the importance of bringing forth the composer's message.
"I am not conscious of a special style. For me, I tend to feel the music inside. A conductor in the purest sense is one through whom the composer's ideas flow and are manifest. When I'm conducting, I'm thinking about the intellectual and emotional message of the music and how the sound can be tailored and shaped to achieve what I believe is the closest we can come to the composer's intent. It requires passion, great sensitivity, and sometimes great drama and great sensuality.
"These have to be communicated to the musicians. There are so many ways to play a note. The musicians play the note, and the conductor helps guide them on how to play that note. In conducting, you must know every part and make it your own."
Violinist Melanie Clarke, who has played in the PSO for 17 years and who is also Director of Research and Development, comments on the experience of working with Maestro Laycock.
"It is a privilege to play under Mark. He draws in each of the 60 musicians on stage as an essential partner to his conception of the performance of a work. In doing so, we are each asked to bring to bear the full extent of our technique, our intelligence, and our emotions to convey completely the message of the music at hand. It is very satisfying."
In addition to his work with the PSO, Mr. Laycock has had numerous engagements conducting other orchestras. His multiple re-engagements include those with L'Orchestre Symphonique d'Montreal, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London at Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican Centre, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in St. Paul and on tour.
Maestro Laycock holds the distinction of being the first non-Russian ever invited to appear at the Moscow Autumn Festival, conducting a program at the famed Tchaikovsky Hall. He also conducted the inaugural concert at the new Cairo Opera House in 1988, as well as the sold-out first concert of classical music ever made open to the public in Amman, Jordan. His debut in Mexico City's Palacio de Bellas Artes in 2001 resulted in an invitation to return the following summer to teach a week-long master class to Mexico's regional conductors. In 2004, he conducted a subscription series with the George Enescu Phiharmonic in Bucharest, also resulting in immediate re-engagement.
In 1995, Mr. Laycock was named conductor of the Orchestra of London, Ontario, and he and his family lived in Canada for three years, while he commuted to Princeton for the PSO performances.
"Actually, a conductor can live anywhere because most of the work is in your head," he explains. "I happen to love Princeton, however. I love the warmth of such an intelligent and caring community that thinks on deep things and strives to make the world a better place, and because of the sheer beauty and history of the town and its surrounding area. Plus, being one hour from New York and yet still living 'in the country' is absolutely wonderful."
Nevertheless, he is on the road a lot because of his many commitments. "Fortunately, I do love to travel, and I spend as much time in Europe as possible. This past fall, I was back and forth between home and in Europe abroad for two weeks then home for two weeks and so on, including trips to Paris, Germany, and Bucharest, as well as Kiev in Russia."
During that time, he made his Paris debut with the Orchestral Ensemble de Paris in October 2005. Next fall, he will travel to Korea to conduct, which will be his first trip to the Far East. This summer, he will also spend seven weeks in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he serves as Artistic Director of the Lake Placid Sinfonietta, an orchestra with an 89-year history.
Mr. Laycock is also very proud of his association with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. "This is really London's greatest orchestra, and I have loved going to England and conducting English music with this great orchestra."
Because he has conducted more than 1,200 works, Mr. Laycock has developed a reputation for being able to step in at the last minute, being called on very short notice to conduct programs, such as Brahms First and Fourth Symphonies, as well as Strauss' monumental Ein Heldenleben, without rehearsal, and to great acclaim.
In recent years, he has also turned his attention to composing, and his works have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Canton (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra, and PSO, among others.
"I was very moved by the events of 9/11," he explains, "and I wrote a piece inspired by the needs created as a result of that day."
It has to be a proud moment to hear one's own works performed, and he says, "The biggest thrill was actually hearing one of the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra practicing part of my piece."
Mr. Laycock's favorite composer on a personal level is Beethoven, he adds. "For conducting, I would always choose Mahler, but as a personal example, for me, it would be Beethoven. To me, he's a hero the struggles he faced, especially the deafness. Mozart wrote so effortlessly, and Beethoven struggled valiantly to find the key to unlock those sounds inside of him. His ability to find and create incredible beauty in a very hard life is inspiring. His famous line, 'I shall hear in heaven' is very moving."
As he looks forward to future performances of the PSO (the next is March 12), Mr. Laycock is very proud of the orchestra's reputation. "The greatest honor is that the orchestra has become such a pillar in the community. We couldn't imagine Princeton without it.
"Most satisfying for me has been seeing the artistic growth. In order for an orchestra to grow, it has to increase its own abilities. The personnel has changed almost totally, and the orchestra has achieved a higher level of excellence today."
Mr. Laycock selects the music for each performance (15 a year) with the board's approval. "We tend not to repeat works," he says. "We try to present a blend of some pieces that are not familiar with those that the audience knows."
When not working, Mr. Laycock enjoys listening to a variety of music, from country to popular standards, especially of the 1920s and '30s. He is also keen on cooking (having worked in a restaurant early in his career to help make ends meet). Eating escargot at a particular restaurant on Isle St. Louis is pure pleasure for him. At the same time, he is always up for a game of golf or billiards!
He enjoys spending time with friends, many of whom, he points out, are older than he. "I've always been drawn to people significantly older than I am. They have so much more to say," he explains. "All my life, I've been interested in matters of substance, and older people just have more experience and know more. I think I am an 'older spirit'!
"I treasure my friendship with Bill Scheide (Princeton resident and long-time Bach authority), who is 92. I am particularly close to him. He has an understanding of Bach that is at once childlike and at the same time Godly. An amazing person."
Another who has had great influence on Mr. Laycock is Ronn Huff, an accomplished arranger of Gospel and movie music, now living in Nashville. "He came to me as a student, but quickly became my example and teacher in helping me learn what it means to truly be a man. Understanding that what you do for a living does not define who you are, but that who you are will affect how you make your living, and that you will always be remembered for the kind of person you were, not for what you have done in life.
"As I look ahead now, I find I want to enjoy life even more. I become more amazed every day at how much beauty and love there is. My life is a constant process of growth spiritually, musically, and emotionally that helps me to become a person who is more open, accepting, understanding, compassionate, less proud, and more loving than I have been before. To me, that is the real measure of success."
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