November 22, 2017

Acoustics of New Music Space Enhance the Orchestra’s Rehearsals

SPECTACULAR SOUND: The Lee Music Performance and Rehearsal Room at the new Lewis Center for the Arts is a revelation to Michael Pratt, conductor of the Princeton University Orchestra, and the students who are members.

By Anne Levin

Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, the historic building on the Princeton University campus, has played host to prestigious orchestras, chamber groups, and numerous other cultural attractions throughout its 131-year history. Chief among them is the Princeton University Orchestra, conducted since 1977 by director Michael Pratt.

Traditionally, the orchestra has held rehearsals on the Richardson stage. But upcoming concerts December 7 and 8 will mark the first time that the 100-plus ensemble has rehearsed in the Lee Music Performance and Rehearsal Room, the acoustically flexible, state-of-the-art space in the University’s recently opened $330 million Lewis Center for the Arts.

For the conductor and his musicians, the room is a revelation.

“We can hear each other in rehearsal now,” marveled Pratt, before a run-through of Antonin Dvoˇrák’s Symphony No. 7 last week (on the program along with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy and Rossini’s William Tell Overture). “It sounds really good in Richardson from the auditorium, especially the balcony. But on the stage, it is a challenge for the musicians, because there are not enough reflecting surfaces. The acoustic shield is not big enough.”

Pratt commented in a blog on the University Orchestra’s website: “In the Lee room, everyone can hear everyone, and the sound of the room is still generous. Pointing out musical relationships is quick, easy. Ensemble corrects itself. We are able to build a performance much faster on this platform, and the product we take with us when it’s time for a concert in Richardson has a stronger foundation.”

Richardson is known for its rich sound and superior acoustics — from the seats in the auditorium. On stage, it’s a different story. “It was okay in 1984 when the hall was renovated and the orchestra had 30 players,” Pratt said. “We now have short of 110. And rehearsing on stage, you were hearing just backwash. Now that we have Lee, we can bring a more refined product. It’s so much better. The students are pretty blown away by it.”

Among them is senior Nivanthi Karunaratne, who plays French horn. “I’m so ecstatic about this room,” she said while warming up before a rehearsal last week. “Richardson is an ideal performance space because it’s not a massive hall that swallows up the sound. It has great resonance. But when we rehearse on stage, it’s hard. In here, the resonance is different. It’s dryer.”

Fellow senior Peter Delong, also a horn player, agreed. “It’s so nice to have these acoustics here, because you can make it more or less resonant,” he said. “Us nerds like that. And it has the benefit of sounding great for horns.”

Architect Steven Holl designed the 3,500-square-foot music room to be 30 feet tall and encased in soaring cherrywood walls, meant to resemble the belly of a giant violin. The room has equipment for professional quality audio recordings. The orchestra shares the rehearsal space with the Princeton Chamber Orchestra, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, and various other ensembles.

The highly-trained musicians who make up the Princeton University Orchestra must audition each year to stay in. With a few exceptions, they are undergraduates.

“They are better than some kind of B-level professional orchestra,” said Pratt. “The level is a high bar, and it’s getting higher.”

Karunaratne, who is a neuroscience major, started playing French horn in fourth grade and got serious about it in high school. “I was part of the National Youth Orchestra twice and studied at the Royal College of Music in London,” she said. Delong played oboe before switching to horn in ninth grade. His first year at Princeton, he didn’t make the cut. He auditioned successfully the following year.

The December 7 and 8 concerts are a continuation of the orchestra’s 120th season, and the 40th for Pratt. He will conduct the Dvoˇrák and Rossini works, handing over the baton to University senior DG Kim, the orchestra’s assistant conductor and president, for the Tchaikovsky piece. Tickets are $15 ($5 for students) and concerts begin at 7:30 p.m. Visit for tickets.

Pratt’s blog sums up his feelings about the Lewis Center’s new accommodations for musicians: “… for me as a tenant and user, it is a dream come true. I take joy in the spacious practice rooms and studios. But my miracle is the Lee Music Performance and Rehearsal Room.”