Established by the School of Music faculty in 2010, this annual award recognizes alumni who have achieved distinguished careers in the field of music on a regional, national, or international level in music performance, education, scholarship, theory and composition, arts management and administration, music business, or other outstanding service to the musical arts.

Distinguished Music Alumnus for 2020: Neal Berntsen '82

“To be a musician is a gift.”

This is how you begin your educational philosophy statement. In your impressive career, you have been generously sharing the gift of your musicianship. You go on to say:

"The primary role of a musician is to perform music at such a level that it ultimately enriches the life or soul of the listener. . . . As an educator, my goal is to impart both physical and mental skills to enable students to have total control of their instrument, giving them the freedom to focus solely on making music and connecting with the audience."

Born and raised in Tacoma, your trumpet playing and teaching have been a gift to listeners and musicians around the world. You began as a young violinist but soon “advanced to the trumpet,” graduating from the University of Puget Sound in 1982 as a trumpet performance major, studying with Manuel Laureano. You earned your Master of Music degree from Northwestern University.

You have been a prolific performer in a variety of settings, genres, and styles. You have been a member of the trumpet section of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since your 1996 appointment by Music Director Lorin Maazel. You have served as principal trumpet for the Ravinia Festival Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, San Diego Symphony Orchestra, and the Bamberg Symphony in Germany, among others. You have appeared as soloist at the Brevard Music Center, with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and frequently with the Pittsburgh Symphony. You have been a finalist in the Maurice André International Competition in Paris, and the Ellsworth Smith International Trumpet Competition in Boston.

An active chamber musician, you are a founding member of the Asbury Brass Quintet. You have recorded with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass, including your own arrangements. You toured Japan with members of the Chicago Symphony brass section, in the Chicago Brass Soloists.

A seasoned recording artist, in 2015 you recorded The Ancient Call for microtonal trumpet and orchestra, by Iranian-American composer Reza Vali. Your trumpet playing has adorned performances and recordings by Mannheim Steamroller, Diana Ross, and Michael Jackson.

A committed teacher, you are on the faculty at Duquesne University and Carnegie Mellon University. You pass along to your students the gifts of technical mastery, stylistic versatility, and effective communication.

The School of Music at the University of Puget Sound is proud to call you one of our own. We are delighted to present you with our annual Distinguished Alumni Award.

Distinguished Music Alumnus for 2017: Paul Dennis '68

Teachers have great influence in our lives. They open us to new worlds, challenge our assumptions, push us to excel, and inspire us to achieve at levels we did not know possible. They invest countless hours and effort in helping their students on their journeys—on finding their ways, of considering new possibilities—and nurturing them to be contributing citizens in our democratic society. This year we recognize a celebrated and inspiring teacher among us: Paul Dennis.

Paul enjoyed a 32-year career as a choral director in Washington public schools, his first seven years in the Longview School District and then 25 at Walla Walla High School. In that time he influenced generations of students. Consistently, his ensembles received superior ratings at regional and state choral contests and festivals. He was active in the Washington Music Educators Association (WMEA), serving in multiple leadership roles at both the regional and state levels. He earned a spot in 1998 in the inaugural class of the WMEA Hall of Fame, an honor that recognizes “exceptional support, inspiration, and outstanding contribution to the growth and development of music education.” Paul was a charter member in 1982 of Male Ensemble Northwest, an ensemble that has performed at state, regional, and national conferences of the American Choral Director’s Association. That organization, too, acknowledged him for his contributions, awarding him the ACDA Leadership and Service Award in 2004 which honors a conductor “of outstanding choirs, programmer of a wide variety of high quality literature, an inspiring and effective clinician and adjudicator, an effective communicator, demonstrated loyalty and service to ACDA at the local, state, division, and national levels, and a model of strong character and integrity.”

There is more. Paul also served on the board of directors of the Walla Walla Choral Society, an ensemble in which he also sang. In retirement, he has been a member of the Whitman College Chamber Singers and the Columbia Master Singers, a Tri-Cities choral ensemble.

In a career as a teacher and performing musician, Paul has contributed formidably to music and music education in Washington. His leadership, dedication to teaching excellence, and unselfish giving to his community deserve our praise and thanks. We are honored to recognize him as a Distinguished Alumnus.

Distinguished Music Alumna for 2016: Karla T. Epperson '64

Karla’s story begins in 1964, when she graduated from Puget Sound and launched a 30-year career teaching choral and orchestral music in the Olympia School District. She followed that work by founding the string program for the Bethel School District in 1994, which she ran for five years. In 1996 she overlapped her leadership in Bethel with directing the Tacoma String Symphony and Philharmonia for the Tacoma Youth Symphony, roles she continues to this day. Not to be kept idle, Karla also has served as the director of the Debut and Encore string symphonies for the Peninsula Youth Orchestra since 2001, and for 12 years, between 1999 and 2011, she was an adjunct professor in music education at her alma mater. Also active as a performer, she was a professional cellist in the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra for 44 years and still plays cello in A Trio Classique.

Karla’s prodigious undertakings are only part of the story. She is someone recognized as an advocate for music and a leader among peers. For six years she was a member of the Northwest Music Educators Board, and was an officer of the Washington Music Educators Association for 12 years, six of those years holding offices, first as secretary, then as president-elect, and finally as president. Karla has also served on the Arts Commission for the city of Gig Harbor, and she was on the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors for 19 years.

Her honors are impressive: Outstanding Contribution Award to Youth Through Music by the Capitol Music Club. A Proclamation of Merit and Thanks for contributing to “Youth for Arts” for Thurston County. Two Outstanding Teacher of the Year awards, one by the Olympia School District and a second by the Washington Music Educators Association. A Distinguished Service Award from the Northwest Division of the Music Educators National Conference. A member of the inaugural class of the Washington Music Educator's Hall of Fame.

“Karla Epperson is most highly recommended for this award for her outstanding and tireless service,” writes Pat Krueger, professor of music education at Puget Sound. We couldn’t agree more! Karla has influenced generations of students through her dedication to teaching excellence, her love of music, and her selfless devotion to her community. She has made all of us richer through diverse contributions in a remarkable music career.

Distinguished Music Alumnus for 2015: Jess Smith '50

Someone had to be the first. The University of Puget Sound has had a music program since 1893, but it was not until the late 1940s that it offered a Bachelor of Music degree in performance. That degree was awarded first, with honors, to Jess Smith in 1950. While that first makes Smith part of Puget Sound’s history, it is what he did with his education that leads to recognizing him as the outstanding music alumnus for 2015–16.

A Tacoma native, Smith graduated from Lincoln High School in 1942. He served in the Air Force in Europe as a clerk-typist the last two years of World War II, and upon returning to Tacoma he matriculated at Puget Sound, first majoring in English and then switching to music. A pianist, he studied with Leonard Jacobsen, the faculty member for whom the university’s faculty artist series is named. Following graduation Smith went to New York, where he studied one year at Juilliard. Short of funds, he left Juilliard to work for the Irving Trust Company on Wall Street, but continued to study piano privately. In 1967 he completed a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University.

In 1957 Smith began his relationship with the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, working in the main office and teaching music theory. He soon was transferred to the Queensboro branch as director, and in short order sextupled enrollment. He was brought back to the Brooklyn campus in 1971 as vice president, rising to executive director in 1977, a position he held until entering retirement in 1988. Smith’s career was marked by decades of outstanding service and leadership. It was a fitting tribute when the president of the borough of Brooklyn proclaimed his last day at the conservatory as “Jess Smith Day.”

Jess Smith is one of a kind. In an interview with Duane Hulbert, distinguished professor of piano at Puget Sound, Smith said, “UPS would be proud of the way I used my Bachelor of Music degree.”

He’s right. We are.

Distinguished Music Alumna for 2014: Freda Herseth '77

Freda Herseth ’77 is an alumna who already has enjoyed recognition from her alma mater for outstanding achievements. In 2001 she was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Humanitarian Service. An alumni award for professional achievement followed in 2007. In 2014–2015 the School of Music is proud to add a third honor: its Outstanding Alumni award.

Herseth has traveled far since her student days at Puget Sound, building an international career that continues to this day. After graduation she undertook graduate studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Following her work as a Fulbright Scholar in Munich, Germany, her early professional career was spent as a freelance artist in New York City, and as a participant in summer programs at Tanglewood Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

It was at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, after auditioning for conductor Dennis Russell, that Herseth’s career went global. Russell cast her in a number of roles at the Baden-Württemberg State Opera House in Stuttgart, Germany. From there her career expanded to include performances in other European opera houses, as well as with orchestras and chamber ensembles throughout Russia, Israel, and the United States.

Herseth’s performing career is not limited to opera. She has been active in oratorio and especially new music, premiering many works with the world’s most renowned conductors and ensembles, such as with conductor Ricardo Muti and the La Scala Opera Orchestra. She can be heard in recordings from CRI, Crystal, Gasparo, MMC, South German Radio/Television, Hessen Radio (Frankfurt), Bavarian Radio (Munich), ORF Austrian Radio/Television, RAI Italian Radio, and Northeastern Records.

Since 1995 Herseth has been on the faculty at the University of Michigan, where she served as chair of the voice department for eight years and is currently the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Voice. Adding to her accolades as a performer, she recently was honored for her research and excellence in the field of vocal pedagogy with the Van Lawrence Fellowship at the Voice Foundation Annual International Symposium in Philadelphia. We recognize Freda Herseth ’77, exceptional performer and pedagogue, for her leadership, her professional success, and for being a model alumna of the University of Puget Sound.

Distinguished Music Alumnus for 2013: Paul B. Fritts

What does it take to be a master organ builder? A marriage of mechanical aptitude and a musical ear? Well-honed skills from years of experience and experimentation? An eye for detail? A quest for perfection? Patience? All of the above, actually, and all are found in Paul Fritts.

Fritts is a Tacoma native, and graduated from Franklin Pierce High School. He entered Puget Sound in 1969, living at the Commencement Bay campus, part of the Weyerhaeuser estate in northwest Tacoma, and taking classes both there and on the main campus. He studied violin with Edward Seferian and played in the orchestra, but he did not envision a career as a violinist. Another opportunity opened, literally, at home. His father, a professor of music for 20 years at Pacific Lutheran University, entered organ building, opening R. Byard Fritts and Company. Four years later Paul joined his father, building his own first organ for the Anchorage Lutheran Church in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1977.

In 1980 Paul took over the business from his father, focusing on historically inspired, mechanical-action instruments. His first completely mechanical-action organ, his Opus 1, was built in 1979 for the Shelton (Washington) United Methodist Church. The Bethel Schneebeck organ in the university's Kilworth Memorial Chapel, built in 1989, was his Opus 8, replacing the organ his father installed 20-some years earlier. Nine years later, his Opus 18 was installed at Pacific Lutheran University, a fitting tribute to the institution where his father had taught.

In 1989 the company adopted its current name: Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders. A quarter of a century later, Fritts is recognized as one of the leading organ builders in the country. He has installed 42 custom-designed organs in 13 states and Korea, in churches, cathedrals, residences, parishes, and at 10 universities. Fifteen organists have made 20 professional recordings on his instruments. The organs have ranged from modest instruments of two manuals and 10 stops to a current, three-year installation of a four-manual, 70-stop organ underway for the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at University of Notre Dame. Fritts’ meticulous attention to detail, thorough research of organ-building traditions in Europe and North America, and sensitivity to the acoustical properties of spaces for each installation have earned him the highest praise. With the exception of electric blowers and electronic pre-set systems, every detail of each instrument, from design through construction of its thousands of components, is done in the workshop, progressing from raw materials to the finished product.

While organs do not hold the prominence in the musical world they once had, there always will be a demand for high-end instruments like those built by Paul Fritts. His craftsmanship sustains the tradition of organ building. Paul and his instruments are the very models of excellence.

Distinguished Music Alumnus for 2012: Donald Kirkpatrick ‘81

What does it mean to be a successful musician? It could be performing on stage in the world’s greatest concert halls or inspiring listeners in one’s own backyard. It might include winning a major competition or helping to secure funding to start a Children’s’ Concert Series with a local orchestra. It may show through a glowing review in the New York Times or at a moment when a listener is moved to tears with a performance in a remote concert hall. A successful life in music can look many different ways.

Donald Kirkpatrick is one of those successful musicians. He has given himself tirelessly to music in his community as a performer, educator, and advocate. Currently he serves as the Concertmaster of the Southwest Washington Symphony Orchestra in Longview, Washington, a position he has held for a decade in an ensemble for which he serves on its Board of Trustees. He founded the Chamber Music Society of Southwest Washington and serves as a Parent-Volunteer Coach for the Student Orchestras of Greater Olympia. He is a regular performer on the Celebration Concert Series at the St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Longview. He has helped secure grant funding to start the Children’s Concert Series by the Southwest Washington Symphony and has worked closely with the superintendent in Longview to keep arts in the schools. All of these activities he does above and beyond his practice as a physician specializing in Gastroenterology and Internal Medicine at St. John’s Medical Center in Longview.

Don Kirkpatrick’s work has contributed to keeping the Southwest Washington Symphony Orchestra thriving. His advocacy has helped the arts remain a priority in his community’s schools. He continues to perform as actively as many professional performing musicians. His love of music, passionate engagement in supporting the arts, and service to others is an inspiring model for us all.

Distinguished Music Alumna for 2011: Judith Arron ‘64

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice, practice, practice.

When it comes to Judith Arron, this well-known adage needs revision: “Practice, vision, perseverance.” Arron graduated from Puget Sound in 1964 with a performance degree in cello and piano. During her studies she assisted Professor Eduard Seferian, conductor of Tacoma’s then town-and-gown symphony orchestra, taking on managerial duties as his assistant. That experience, combined with her music degree, led to a career of far-reaching influence.

After graduation Arron worked as the manager of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO). During her 15 years at CSO she created an outreach program for schoolchildren that became widely admired in orchestra circles around the country. In 1986 she became the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, a position she held until 1998. There she presided over some of the most momentous years of the hall’s history. She oversaw an exhaustive $60 million renovation, the refurbishment of Weill Recital Hall into a vibrant performance space, and the season-long centennial celebration of 1990–91. Under Arron Carnegie Hall promoted and extended educational programs with workshops overseen by musicians such as conductor Robert Shaw and composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. Additionally she helped lead an endowment campaign in 1995 that continues to raise millions of dollars for the hall.

Judith Arron passed away in 1998. An inspiration to many, she is remembered as influential and hardworking, as someone who practiced her craft brilliantly with vision and perseverance.

Distinguished Music Alumnus for 2010: Leonard Raver ‘51

A native of Wenatchee, Wash., organist Leonard Raver grew up in Tacoma, attended Stadium High School, and graduated from Puget Sound in 1951, majoring in music and minoring in French. His journeys took him many places after finishing his Bachelor of Arts degree, including travels and study as a Fulbright Scholar. He eventually settled in New York City, where he became organist for the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s. Over the next three decades, Raver taught at numerous colleges and conservatories, including Yale University, Pennsylvania State University, and University of Hartford. Most notably he was a member of the faculty at The Julliard School from 1975 to 1990.

Along with his teaching career at Juilliard and membership in the New York Philharmonic, Raver was a frequent recitalist and a champion of contemporary music. He built a large repertory of modern American works in a variety of styles and worked hard to win audiences for them. In the 1970s and 1980s he commissioned and premiered dozens of important new works for the organ, and he established a series of “Organizm” concerts, which challenged audiences to confront and appreciate contemporary music. His legacy can be heard in recordings released by Sony, Columbia, Other Minds, New World, and CRI. He passed away in 1992.

From modest beginnings playing organ at local churches in Tacoma, to becoming a leading organist in one of the music capitals of the world, Leonard Raver enjoyed a successful career worthy of the recognition it earned. We are proud to honor him as a graduate from Puget Sound.