About the Orchestra

Membership | Conductor | Guest Artists | History


Members of the Brown University Orchestra are ambitious, determined, and passionate. The Brown University orchestra integrated women from Pembroke College into the program more than 30 years before Brown and Pembroke merged in 1971. From its earliest stages, the orchestra has been largely run by undergraduates. The Orchestra Board, elected by orchestral popular vote at the end of each Spring semester, plays a critical role in the making of each concert season. The President and Vice President work directly with the orchestra conductor, helping to choose the concert season and prepare for each concert. The librarians and stage managers assure that each concert and rehearsal will run smoothly and on time. The web master organizes all of the content you are currently interacting with, writing each line of code from scratch. At the end of each year, forms are handed out to every member of the orchestra, allowing the chance for each member to voice concerns and hopes for next year's season. Needless to say, the members of the orchestra play a significant role in the organization and logistics of each season. In addition to this philosophy, the orchestra is dedicated to matching Brown's financial aid standards. When special tours and events require additional funds from each orchestra member, costs are reduced for any student on financial aid. In some cases, a student with significant need may have an entire trip across the globe paid in full so that they can perform with the orchestra. The orchestra is more than just an organization of musicians. It is a family.

The current membership of the Brown University Orchestra comprises of approximately 32 violins, 14 violas, 13 cellos, 5 double basses, 5 flutes, 5 oboes, 5 clarinets, 5 bassoons, 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 harps, 1 keyboard, and 5 timpani/percussion, for a total of around 110 enrolled members per academic year.

Student membership of the Brown University Orchestra is determined by audition. The majority of the orchestra body is made of Undergraduates from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), although there are always a few Graduate students, and sometimes members from the community or the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra. Generally about 70% of the Brown students in the orchestra pursue concentrations in the physical sciences, computer science, mathematics, or engineering, with the other 30% concentrating in the humanities. This year there are 12 music concentrators in the orchestra. No distinction is made between music and non-music concentrators in the orchestra - our philosophy is to judge chair placement based on audition and performance in rehearsal and concerts.

The Conductor
Mark Seto

Mark Seto leads a wide-ranging musical life as a conductor, musicologist, teacher, and violinist. In addition to his duties as Director of the Brown University Orchestra, he is the Artistic Director and Conductor of The Chelsea Symphony in New York City.

At Connecticut College, Seto directed the faculty ensemble and the Connecticut College Orchestra, and taught music history, theory, conducting, and orchestration. During Seto’s tenure at Connecticut, he helped double student enrollment in the orchestra. Furthermore, the ensemble assumed a greater role in the College’s cultural and intellectual life. Seto aimed to connect the learning he and his ensembles undertook in rehearsal to themes that resonate with them as engaged global and local citizens. For example, Seto programmed Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony and used the opportunity to convene a discussion about Russian-Ukrainian relations with Connecticut College’s Slavic Studies Department; and he served as music director for a staged production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, partnering with the New London organization Safe Futures to offer programming about domestic violence.

Since Seto’s tenure with The Chelsea Symphony began in 2011, the ensemble has programmed more than three dozen world premieres and has had debut performances at David Geffen Hall, Alice Tully Hall, the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, Merkin Concert Hall, and Symphony Space. Under his leadership, the orchestra launched an annual composition contest for early-career composers in partnership with Gerard Schwarz, Conductor Laureate of the Seattle Symphony and Music Director of the All-Star Orchestra; and established an outreach program to bring music to Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Seto’s recent engagements with The Chelsea Symphony include a popup performance in Times Square to promote the BBC America series Blue Planet 2, and an Earth Day collaboration at the American Museum of Natural History featuring Become Ocean, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work by John Luther Adams.

Seto’s research as a musicologist explores issues of influence, nationalism, and cultural identity in fin-de-siècle Paris. Seto’s articles and reviews have been published in 19th-Century Music (University of California Press), Nineteenth-Century Choral Music (Routledge, 2013), Nineteenth-Century Music Review (Cambridge University Press), Current Musicology, and Nineteenth-Century French Studies. Working from manuscript sources in Paris, Seto prepared performance materials and conducted the western hemisphere premiere of La Nuit et l’amour by Augusta Holmès, one of the most significant women composers of the French Third Republic.

Seto was the founding music director of Morningside Opera in New York City, a company acclaimed by The New York Times for its “bold imagination and musical diligence.” In 2009, he conducted the western hemisphere premiere of J.A. Hasse’s Alcide al bivio in a production praised by Opera News as a “lively, well calibrated performance.” He has also served as Assistant Conductor of the New York Youth Symphony, Yale Symphony Orchestra, and Columbia University Orchestra.

Mark Seto studied at the Pierre Monteux School for Conductors in Maine, where he served as an assistant to music director Michael Jinbo for two seasons. His conducting teachers include Lawrence Leighton Smith and Shinik Hahm, and he has participated in workshops with Kenneth Kiesler, Daniel Lewis, Donald Portnoy, Donald Thulean, and Paul Vermel. He was the 2003 recipient of the Yale Friends of Music Prize and has been honored with an ASCAP Morton Gould award. 

Guests of the Orchestra

Guest conductors and composers are brought in every academic year to enrich the orchestra's perspective and exposure to living musicians. Past guest performers have included, Joseph Kalichstein, Christopher O'Riley, Itzhak Perlman, Navah Perlman '92, Mstislav Rostropovich, Isaac Stern, Eugenia Zukerman, Pinchas Zukerman, and most recently pianist Jeffrey Biegel (at Carnegie Hall). Guest Conductors have included Dr. Walter Damrosch (orchestra conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra) in 1891, in Daniel Barenboim in 2006 during his residency with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and a surprise run through of Mahler's First Symphony in 2014 with David Harrington, leader and founder of the Kronos Quartet following a panel with the quartet. Composers-in-residence hosted by the Brown Orchestra include Samuel Adler, Peter Boyer, Lukas Foss, Steve Reich, Joseph Schwantner, Steven Stucky, Michael Torke, Nico Muhly, Bill Harley, and most recently Philip Glass in February of 2015.

History of the Orchestra
1775 - 1886

Not much is known about the status of a student orchestra during this period. Brown's first music group, The Harmonic Society (a singing club), was formed in 1775 - only 11 years after the University was established. The first reference to a student orchestra appeared in a poster for a concert at Seekonk Town Hall on April 19th, 1858 (see photo below). From 1858 to 1886, brief mentions of the occasional class orchestra appeared in various newspapers, including the Brown Daily Herald.

1886 - 1919

In 1886, a new group called the "Symphonic Society" began performing winter concerts annually. This group of musicians (all men), consisted of no more than about 20 players and would perform "out of doors" evening concerts for the students. The Society attracted the attention of Dr. Walter Damrosch, leader of the New York Orchestra, who came to give lecture on December 11th, 1891 and conducted the orchestra in a concert that evening. In 1895, the Brown Music Department was established, allowing for a more professional atmosphere and coaching of the music on campus. As the popularity for orchestral music on the Brown campus grew, the Society began performing more an more shows - culminating in concerts every Tuesday evening during the Fall semester of 1901. From 1901 onward, the society began to disband, performing scattered concerts with no consistent rehearsal schedule. Another group of students attempted to create an orchetra in 1912, but never had enough members to sustain competition against the symphonic society.

Orchestra 1919Orchestra 1919
1919 - 1940

Finally in the winter 1919, the precursor group that would come to be The Brown University Orchestra was born. This group of undergraduates, known as ahe College Orchestra, would have a clearly defined leadership structure as well as a rehearsal plan (rehearsals were publicly announced in the Brown Daily Herald for the few years of their existence). In the early 1920's the orchestra performed around 20 concerts a year to enthusiastic audiences. The orchestra was student conducted under the coaching of Leonard Smith. As the popularity of radio grew, the number of orchestra concerts reduced to a low of 8 concerts for the 1924-1925 academic year. The first major performance of this orchestra outside of the Brown Campus was on April 26th, 1926 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. As the prevalence of jazz orchestras grew on campus, not enough members or interest was available to sustain an orchestra. The orchestra disbanded for the 1928-1929 academic year.

1940 - 1953

Leading up to 1940, the popularity of the College Orchestra began to grow again, attracting the attention of the Brown Daily Herald, which began to give concert reviews for the orchestra. Starting in 1940, the College Orchestra was renamed to the Brown-Pembroke orchestra and became a combined effort of men from Brown College, and women from Pembroke College, just up the hill. The orchestra integrated men and women performers over 30 years before Brown and Pembroke college became fully integrated in to Brown University. The new combined orchestra would be the first orchestra to perform at the New York World's Fair on May 12, 1940.

1953 - 1989

In 1953, the Brown-Pembroke Orchestra officially changed its name to the familiar title of the "Brown University Orchestra", signifying both the acceptance of graduate performers into the orchestra, as well as a step towards full Brown-Pembroke integration into a larger university (18 years before the full merge in 1971). The popularity of student jazz orchestras outside of the Brown University continued into 1958, when a group known as the Brunotes spent a grand total of 50 days in Europe playing a series of concerts in night-clubs in Europe, and a performance at the World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium. In 1987, the Brown University Orchestra made a premiere on the Carnegie Hall stage in New York City, performing Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky with the Brown University Chorus, raising money for the department. By that point orchestra had grown to a size of 120 (roughly the size it is today).

1989 - 2017

Paul Phillips, a former pupil of Leonard Bernstein, became musical director and conductor of the Brown University Orchestra in the Fall of 1989. He helped put Brown's name on the musical map on a global scale. In December 2006, the Brown Orchestra became one of the first US collegiate orchestras to tour China, performing a two-week New Year’s concert tour of Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian, Suzhou, Changzhou and Ningbo produced by the Dalian Yilong Performance Company. The Brown Orchestra also completed a 10 day tour of Ireland, including performances with the Limerick Choral Union and a performance in the famous Wexford Opera Hall. A documentary about this trip can be found in the media section of this website, located here.

Itzhak Perlman, Navah Perlman ’92, Pinchas Zukerman, Eugenia Zukerman, Isaac Stern, Sergiu Luca, Mstislav Rostropovich, Laurence Lesser, Masuko Ushioda and Joseph Kalichstein are among the many renowned musicians who have appeared as soloists with the Brown University Orchestra during this period in its history. Actors Barry Bostwick and Brown alumna Kate Burton ’79 performed Peter Boyer's multimedia composition Ellis Island: The Dream of America with the orchestra in 2004 at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence. Composers-in-residence hosted by the Brown Orchestra include Steve Reich, Steven Stucky, Michael Torke, Lukas Foss and Samuel Adler. Notable events in the orchestra’s history include trips to New York for concerts in Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall and to Montreal for a concert and recording sessions with choruses from McGill University; a 2006 concert in Boston’s Faneuil Hall; and concert exchanges and collaborations with orchestras and choruses from MIT, Tufts and Wellesley.

The Brown University Orchestra, a member of the American Symphony Orchestra League, has won the prestigious ASCAP Award for "Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music" seven times since 1994, including 1st Prize in 2005 in the Collegiate Orchestra Division. The BUO sponsors orchestra retreats (usually held at Brown’s Haffenreffer Grant in Bristol, RI, or at Camp Canonicus in Exeter, RI) and its annual Concerto Competition, whose winners perform full concertos with the orchestra. In addition to student soloists, numerous student conductors and composers have performed with (or had their works performed by) the Brown Orchestra. The Orchestra’s alumni include current and former members of the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, New World Symphony and other outstanding orchestras.


Following Paul Phillips' departure from the Orchestra, Daniel Harp served as Acting Conductor for the 2017-2018 season. Mark Seto began his appointment as Director of the BUO on July 1, 2018.

References for Orchestra History

"Musical Clubs." Encyclopedia Brunonia. 1 ed. 1993. Encyclopedia Brunonia. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.
"Music." Encyclopedia Brunonia. 1 ed. 1993. Encyclopedia Brunonia. Web . 20 Aug. 2014.
"Pembroke College." Encyclopedia Brunonia. 1 ed. 1993. Encyclopedia Brunonia. Web . 20 Aug. 2014.
"BROWN STUDENTS' CONCERT." New York Times (1923-Current file): 29. Apr 06 1926. ProQuest. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.
Harvery, William. "Symphony Concerts." Brown Daily Herald 6 May 1901, Volume 10 No. 162 ed. 1. Print.
Eiseman, Robert. "The Concert Hall." Brown Daily Herald 18 February 1953, Volume 62 No. 85 ed. 2. Print.