Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

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VIOLINIST & VIRTUOSO: "My mom took me to a concert at a church in Stamford, Conn. when I was five. I saw this woman play the violin, and she had on a beautiful dress. I decided I wanted to play the violin so I could have a dress like that!" Melanie Clarke, shown at her Princeton home, indeed went on to study violin and has performed with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra for 16 years.

Melanie Clarke is a Master Musician and Committed Volunteer to the Community

The universal communication of ideas and emotions through music is very important to Melanie Clarke. Music has shaped her life from her early childhood to her 16 years as a violinist with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra to her desire to share it with the youngest members of the community through Bravo!, the orchestra's outreach program to area schools, which Ms. Clark founded and developed.

Her lifelong love of music is due in great part to her mother's efforts to ensure that the family was exposed to and developed an appreciation of classical music, explains Ms. Clarke.

"My mom had fallen in love with music, and she wanted us to share in her love of it, and have this cultural experience. Our house was filled with music all the time, including the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of opera and all of us practicing our various instruments."

One of six children (five girls and one boy) born to Armand and Mary Duffy Cognetta, Ms. Clarke grew up in Stamford, and later North Haven, Conn. Her father, a physician, was on the faculty of Yale Medical School, and her mother was a nurse.

"My father was from an Italian family, and my mother was Irish," says Ms. Clarke. "Her father had immigrated to Amenia, N.Y., which was then an enclave for intellectuals, such as Lewis Mumford, and she grew up among them."

Because of Dr. Cognetta's struggles with depression, Melanie's mother took on extra responsibilities to guarantee the family's well-being. "My mom worked on and off as a nurse, and she made us feel secure," remembers Ms. Clarke. "My father's difficulties were hard on the family. It upset me, and I worried that we might not be safe. But my mother was very strong, and had a strong religious faith. She stressed how much she loved my father and how much we should love him."

Music Lessons

She adds that all the children in the family were given music lessons and taken to special concerts and performances of such famous musicians as soprano Birgit Nielson, pianist Artur Rubenstein, and violinist Mischa Elman.

"My mom wanted us to be the best we could be" reports Ms. Clarke. "She had to rob Peter to pay Paul to come up with the money for our music lessons, but somehow she managed. I started private violin lessons at six, and my mother got me a violin from Ladislav Kaplan, a string- and violin-maker. We bought two: a 1/2 size, and a 3/4 size. I still have them.

"I loved the violin right away," she continues, "and I'd get up and practice an hour every day before school. My teacher was very important in making me feel special, which gave me confidence. Eventually, he gave me a scholarship for the lessons."

The opportunity for a one-on-one relationship with a teacher is crucial, she points out. "I believe the one or two hours a week you spend with a teacher is an unmatched educational experience. You are spending time with a master. When they give their child music lessons, parents give them that special opportunity with a teacher.

"One of the themes that I have carried through in my own life is that my kids have all studied music and play an instrument. It is important for the exposure, to instill a love of music, and it is an emotional outlet for them."

Melanie played violin in the Youth Symphony Orchestra in Stamford when she eight and nine, and also branched out with timpani in the school band.

Music was her great love, but she was also active in sports, including the girls track and basketball teams in high school, and swimming.

"I enjoyed school," she reports. "I was a good student. I liked to do what was asked of me, and I especially enjoyed English. After school and on weekends, I had baby sitting jobs, liked to sew, and made a lot of my own clothes. I especially loved to see the musicals on Broadway, including West Side Story and Camelot, my favorite."

Happy Childhood

Despite her father's problems, Ms. Clarke remembers a happy childhood. "We were all very close to each other. One of my happiest memories is that somehow my mother figured out a way to put in an above-ground pool in the yard, and we had many hours of fun in that pool.

"I also really looked up to my sister, Meg. She was two years older, and she was beautiful, gifted, smart, athletic, had lots of boy friends, and yet she always had her eye on the ball academically. She charged ahead and led the way for the rest of us. Today, she a professional concert pianist."

Ms. Clarke adds that summer jobs as an au pair during high school were especially significant. "This was a very formative experience. I went to Massachusetts, Vermont, and northern Connecticut, and each of those jobs clued me in to different styles of family living. In Massachusetts, it was the first time, I was in a family that had a huge amount of money. They were new to it, and really didn't know how to handle it or guide their kids.

"The Vermont location in Greensboro in the Northern Kingdom was very important," she continues. "We ended up renting the house in Vermont from the family later, and then we eventually built our own house there on Lake Caspian. In the Connecticut family, the mother was a professor at Columbia, and the dad was a lawyer. It showed me a good example of how to balance a significant professional career with a family."

It was in high school that Melanie met John Clarke, her husband-to-be. You never know who will turn up at the next locker!

"Our lockers were right next to each other," she says, with a smile. "He was captain of the football and basketball teams, and was very smart. He came from a family of nine kids, so we both knew about big families. His mother, Ellen Clarke, became very important in my life. In sophomore year, he asked me out, and I was thrilled. I was crazy about him. I adored him!"

Full Scholarship

Melanie's musical talent singled her out as a performer during high school, and after graduation, she attended the Oberlin Conservatory. "I chose Oberlin," she explains, "because I wanted to study with a specific teacher, and also my sister Meg was there. But then, the teacher left, and I transferred to Wellesley, where I had a full scholarship."

In college, she was also able to study with Broadus Earle, a violinist who taught at the Yale School of Music. In addition, she played with the M.I.T. Symphony Orchestra, serving as concert master. "We went on nationwide tours with the M.I.T. Symphony, and we did several works with composer John Harbison (a Princeton native).

Wellesley's proximity to Harvard, where John Clarke was a student, was certainly not lost on Melanie either, and the two continued to see each other regularly.

At Wellesley, in a startling departure from her lifelong interest in music, she chose to major in healthcare planning. "At Wellesley," she explains, "they inculcated you with their mission, which was 'to minister to, not to be ministered to.' I began to think about 'what will I do with my life?' I didn't want to be a professional musician. I was afraid that the competiveness and stress of that life could take away the joy of the music. Growing up in a family of medical professionals, I was always interested in the healthcare delivery system. I also took courses at M.I.T., and worked in the Cambridge City Hospital."

After graduation in 1976, she received a fellowship to the School of Public Health at Harvard, where she also studied at the Kennedy School of Government, the Law School, and the Business School. In 1978, she earned a master's degree in health policy and management.

She and John Clarke were married in June after her graduation, and over the next few years, lived in Mobile, Ala., Boston, and New York City, where she worked in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's Health Systems Agency (Mobile) and later in various healthcare consulting jobs.

Maternity Leave

"Then, in 1980, John went to Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia to get an MBA, and we lived in Philadelphia until 1989," recalls Ms. Clarke. "I worked for Oberfest, a hospital management consulting firm. We did strategic planning and facility planning for hospitals, and I loved it. The job also provided important income for our family, and got my husband through graduate school. While I was there, I had the first maternity leave they ever gave, the second maternity leave they ever gave, and the third maternity leave they ever gave!"

Indeed, by this time, the Clarke family had come to include daughters Julia, Noelle, and Ellen. A fourth daughter, Isabelle, was born in Princeton in 1992.

Also during those years, she was able to resume her love affair with music, playing the violin with the Haddonfield Symphony Orchestra, a semi-professional orchestra.

"After John received his degree, he joined DSV, a venture capital firm in Princeton, and when I had my third child, I stopped working," says Ms. Clarke. "We loved Philadelphia and had a great old house in Center City, but we decided to give Princeton a try. At first, I was a bit confused after the move. I wasn't sure what to do. The girls were now five, three, and six months, and they really grew up here. Now, I love Princeton. It's a great place to raise children, and John has his own venture capital firm, Cardinal Partners, on Nassau Street."

Music soon reasserted itself as a central part of her life. As she says, "We moved here two days before Christmas, and the first thing I did in early January was to audition for Mark Laycock, and I was accepted into the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO)."

Mr. Laycock, now celebrating his 20th year as musical director, is a big fan of Ms. Clarke and her contribution to the orchestra and the community. "Melanie Clarke is the rarest of individuals, whose time, talents, brilliance, resources, boundless energy, and love are all given completely, gracefully to others that their lives will be made better and more joyful. She is an amazing individual who truly makes the world a better place, and we are so very fortunate to have her in the Princeton community."

"I loved the orchestra from the beginning," says Ms. Clarke. "In addition to allowing me to play, it soon evolved into a volunteer outlet for me."

Most significantly, it led her to establish Bravo! ("Bringing Renowned Artists for Valuable Outreach"), an outreach program in area schools to introduce children to classical music and the symphony orchestra through live performances.

Children's Concert

As Ms. Clarke explains, "It came about 10 years ago, when Joan Zisler, the music teacher at Community Park School, asked me to demonstrate string instruments to her third grade class. I took in a cello, double bass, viola, and violin. When I went again, I asked Mark Laycock to come too, and he wrote a script that explored the question: 'How does a composer compose a piece of music?' He recruited players, and we demonstrated the string instruments while answering this question.

"The same year, the orchestra received a one-time grant to do a children's concert at Richardson Auditorium. With these two activities, the in-school performances and the children's orchestra concert, the idea for Bravo! was born," she continues. "I began to think about expanding, too. Why not hit all the Princeton elementary schools and also bring in other instruments?"

For the first several years, Ms. Clarke worked as a volunteer, focused on completing the in-school series, so that all the families of instruments could be brought into classes, on increasing the number of schools and districts visited, and on expanding the number of concerts, so that all children visited in their classrooms would hear the orchestra in concert.

In time, the program grew to include four different innovative ensembles — strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, going to schools in Princeton, Hopewell, Montgomery, South Brunswick, North Brunswick, and Trenton.

"We go to second, third, fourth, and fifth grades with the different ensembles," says Ms. Clarke. "Last year, we did 90 ensemble programs and seven concerts, reaching 16,000 kids in the classes and performances. We bring them to Richardson Auditorium or the State Theater for our concert in May. There is nothing like a live performance. Hearing a live performance of classical music by professional musicians in a very exciting manner is a wonderful experience. These kids are the audiences of the future."

And it is making a difference, she adds. "More and more families are interested in getting their kids music lessons because of the program."

Without Charge

All the visits to classrooms and the performances are without charge, she points out. Funding is provided by organizations and individuals. "I am so proud of the Bravo! program and all who have made it possible," says Ms. Clarke, who has recently been appointed Director of Development and Outreach for PSO, after previously serving as Director of Education.

"I am grateful to the orchestra and the board for giving me the opportunity to develop Bravo! It is a gift to the community and the surrounding community. Our outreach progam is as good as what any program is doing now.

"I love working with Mark Laycock," she continues. "This program wouldn't be anywhere without Mark. He is totally behind it. And none of this would be done without the behind-the-scenes presence in a very powerful but quiet way of Betty Wold Johnson. She has really backed and shared the vision of bringing classical music to the children of Princeton, Trenton, and the area. Without her and her generosity, this program would not exist. She is our biggest angel."

Bravo! would certainly not exist without Melanie Clarke, adds John Hamel, former President of the Board of PSO. "Melanie has done a magnificent job with the Bravo! program. Bravo! is now a major part of the orchestra's reputation. As far as I know, the strength and breadth of it is unique among symphony orchestras. I don't know of many other orchestras, even major, that have as fine a program for young people as Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and that is due to the energy, wisdom, organizational skill, and enthusiasm of one Melanie Clarke. And there's no question about that!"

Ms. Clarke's efforts in establishing Bravo! were a factor in her selection earlier this year as one of 14 women honored by the Princeton YWCA's annual "Tribute to Women." She was singled out for her work in other fields as well, including civic, charitable, and school-related organizations in Princeton and beyond.

Among the many contributions cited were her work over 14 years for Community Park School, including fund-raising, enrichment, social and appreciation events, and a term as co-president of the PTO. In addition, she was noted for serving on the board and as president of the Familyborn Birthing Center and for currently working on the capital campaign for its sister organization, HiTops.

The citation went on to say, "Ms. Clarke is a volunteer for Hands Together, a relief agency in Haiti. With members of her family, she has visited Hands Together projects, and she does fund-raising appeals for it at Catholic parishes in the U.S. She is a trustee of The Lawrenceville School and is co-chair of The Lawrenceville Parents' Fund. She serves on the YWCA's Friends committee and the education committee for Young Audiences of N.J.

"In Greensboro, Vt., she is a trustee and vice president of the Greensboro Association, involved with protecting the local environment. She helped found and is a chamber music coach at the Craftsbury Music Festival's summer youth program in Craftsbury, Vt."

Making Music

Ms. Clarke's long-time friend Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, now school chaplain at The Lawrenceville School, underscores Ms. Clarke's willingness to lend a hand when needed. "I have known Melanie since our daughters, now in college, were in first grade together and were both Brownies. Whether helping Brownies achieve their cooking badge, or chairing the John Witherspoon 8th grade prom, or initiating, creating, designing Bravo!, or chairing the Parents' Fund at The Lawrenceville School — everything she undertakes, Melanie accomplishes with diligence and hard work, grace and finesse, and she knows how to have fun and make fun along the way. She is one of the finest women I know, with a heart of gold. She would do anything for anyone in trouble amidst all of her commitments and accomplishments.

"And I love watching her as she plays in the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, her great gift of making music."

Another close friend of many years, Princeton resident Cynthia Hillas, agrees, and emphasizes Ms. Clarke's deep commitment to whatever she takes on. "I want to talk about her passion. It's not just the many services and good works she does for the community; it's the passionate inspiration she brings that encourages others to follow in her lead. She is willing to step out and bring other people with her.

"I speak from experience. When, together, we both had eight kids under the age of eight, she called me up and said 'I think we should co-chair the Community Park PTO. I want you to do this with me. Just because we have eight kids doesn't mean we can't do this.' And we did, and it worked out fine.

"I also want to say that it's always fun to do things with Melanie, and there is always lots of interest and humor."

Ms. Clarke is quick to praise the work of others as being essential to what she has accomplished. "In everything I have done here, I've been in the company of great women who devote themselves to bettering this town. There is a great volunteer ethic here."

That is one of the things, among others, that she especially likes about Princeton. "People are always trying to improve things here," she remarks. "The dialogue about issues is very lively, and sometimes polarized, which can be frustrating. But ultimately, things get accomplished. I am so proud of the community for building the library, for example."

After 16 years in Princeton, she has come to appreciate its virtues and opportunities. "I love Princeton's size and scale. It's manageable. I can get to where I want to go. The University adds a tremendous enriching component, and we try to go to things there. The Institute for Advanced Study is another important asset. And, don't forget, Princeton is physically beautiful."

Dinner Parties

Like many musicians, Ms. Clarke is also a good cook. "I enjoy it," she says. "For 10 years at Community Park School, I had the Teachers' Appreciation Lunch. And when I have time to do it, I love to have people over to eat and have dinner parties."

Another of her biggest pleasures is the two months the family spends every summer in their Vermont home. "It is beautiful there, and a chance for us to unwind and relax,' she notes.

There won't be too much time for that now, with a new Princeton Symphony Orchestra season about to begin on Sunday, October 2, and with her new responsibilities for outreach and development.

"The orchestra gives me so much," she says. "The opportunity to play, which is a creative outlet for me and an emotional release. It soothes my soul. At the same time, playing in the orchestra is the most demanding and challenging thing I do, and so stimulating. I have to go to the edge creatively and mentally every time.

"Now, I am looking forward to this new phase of my career with the orchestra. I am eager to do whatever I can to preserve, enrich, and sustain the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and bring it alive to as many people as possible, and make it a part of their lives. I am happy to have the opportunity to move into the management aspect of it, which is really critical to its future. And it is perfect timing for me. It has come when the kids are leaving the nest, and I want something meaningful to do.

"Women have a tough row to hoe, to have a meaningful career and raise children," she adds. "It can be difficult, but there are ways to create a life for yourself encompassing both. But you have to be open to it and flexible. Don't close down. And certainly, it's a big help to have a very supportive husband."

Ms. Clarke speaks from personal experience, she points out. "I look up to my husband so much. In the last 10 years, as I have extended myself more in organizations, and there have been more things to juggle, I always ask his advice. He is a very generous-hearted and good-humored man. I am so lucky I met him when I was 14!

"I also want to say that my childhood and my mother's example have made me treasure my own family life. I am so fortunate to have such a caring husband and four wonderful daughters to share my life with."

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