USO Performing in Hill Auditorium
Collage Concert in Hill AuditoriumHalloween concert at Hill in the 80'sUniversity Choir in Collage '08Kyle Acuncius performing in Collage '12

Hill: 100 Years of Students at the Center Stage

by Marilou Carlin


May 14, 1913 was a night to remember. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) performed Wagner, Beethoven, and Brahms. A Metropolitan Opera soprano sang two arias. And the UMS Choral Union joined the CSO to present the world premiere of Laus Deo for chorus, orchestra, and organ, composed by the director of the School of Music, Albert A. Stanley, and featuring music professor Earl V. Moore as organ soloist. The piece was written in honor of the late Arthur Hill, whose life and legacy was being celebrated with the grand opening of the building bearing his name: Hill Auditorium.


Kicking off the star-studded, four-day 20th anniversary of the May Festival, and filling all 4,300 seats, the event unveiled the beautiful new venue to the public for the first time. But the opening of Hill was significant for another reason: It launched a critical new part of the student musician’s University of Michigan career, in which invaluable experience is acquired by performing and experiencing music in a concert hall of the highest caliber.


In the last 100 years, many thousands of students have performed on Hill’s legendary stage, including ensembles primarily comprising non-music students, such as the Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs. Many thousands more have attended performances by the world’s greatest musicians in concerts presented by UMS. But for students at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Hill Auditorium is not just a great venue; it is part of their training, raising the bar and pushing them to a higher level of achievement.


“Hill Auditorium speaks to the quality and the standards that we expect in our performances,” said Kenneth Kiesler, director of university orchestras and professor of conducting. “It distinguishes our school from any other school in the world; very few, if any, have a hall as magnificent as Hill. It requires the best of us.” 


“Hill is where the rubber meets the road,” said Steven Whiting, associate dean for graduate studies and professor of musicology. “It is crucial to our enterprise; it’s where we teach a large number of the lessons we have to teach.”





For many, Hill Auditorium is most associated with the vast spectrum of concerts presented by UMS over the last century. Along with many of the world’s most celebrated orchestras and conductors, the roster of UMS performers reads like a who’s who of the greatest artists of the 20th century: Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Joan Sutherland, and Pablo Casals, to name just a few, not to mention the hundreds of legendary rock, pop, folk, and jazz artists from The Grateful Dead to Joan Baez to Miles Davis.


But for every music star that has taken the stage at Hill, there is a student who has followed. Performing on the same stage as their idols is one of the unique benefits that music students realize from performing at Hill. “The opportunity to walk on a very historic stage and to know who’s gone before and who’s coming after is quite a remarkable experience for students—especially that very first time,” said Jerry Blackstone, director of choral activities and professor and chair of the conducting department.


Emily Avers (BMA ’96, clarinet), director of ensemble operations for SMTD, remembers that experience well. “Perhaps you’re performing the day after the Chicago Symphony was there—you know that you sat in the same place that your clarinet idol sat. It gives a sense of inspiration that other schools can’t possibly provide.”


Equally important is the sense of intimacy that exists in such a large hall. “It’s nearly twice the size of Carnegie Hall,” said Kiesler, “but from the stage, it doesn’t seem so large, and especially from the audience perspective, because you can’t see all of the seats, no matter where you’re sitting.”


Blackstone agrees, but points out that there is one negative aspect to the size. “Because it’s so huge, often we’ll perform to a house that might have just 400 or 500 people, which is a very respectable audience in most halls, but seems small in Hill Auditorium.”


Michael Haithcock, director of University Bands and the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Conducting, says that the hall’s spectacular acoustics provide a natural learning environment that provides two primary benefits: “The first is the luxury of the sound. The sound world is warm and the depth of the resonance captures the natural sound qualities of the individual instrument (or voice) as well as the combined forces. The second is that students get a ‘true’ indication of their individual sound. A lesser environment can create the need to change, by over playing, changing equipment, or not hearing yourself in a natural way. The combination of these benefits makes Hill a great place to learn.”





Throughout its first 100 years, concerts by SMTD’s large instrumental and choral ensembles have traditionally been performed at Hill Auditorium. Current practice includes multiple concerts by each, as well an annual concert in which the University Symphony Orchestra (USO) and one or more of the School’s choirs perform a major work together, such as Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 or Carmina Burana. This year, the major orchestral/choral event of the season will be Darius Milhaud’s rarely performed Oresteian Trilogy which will also be recorded for commercial release (see An Epic Celebration in this issue of Michigan Muse). One of the key events of the Hill centennial, the concert is a joint production of SMTD and UMS and will feature the USO performing with SMTD’s University Chamber Choir and Orpheus Singers, as well as the UMS Choral Union.


One of the oldest performance traditions at Hill is Band-o-Rama, started in 1936, in which the University Bands and the Michigan Marching Band join together for a boisterous brass and percussion extravaganza, made all the more resonant in Hill.


Over the years, other important musical events have also been held at Hill, including performances of the groundbreaking Contemporary Music Festival (1961–1976), with student and faculty performances of a vast spectrum of 20th century music, including many compositions by U-M faculty members.


In recent years, other annual Hill events include the Concerto Competition, in which graduate and undergraduate instrumental and vocal students compete for the chance to solo with a large ensemble, and the enormously popular Halloween and Collage concerts, both introduced in the 1970s by Gustav Meier, professor emeritus of conducting. The Halloween concert showcases a different side of orchestra students, who perform appropriately spooky music decked out in full costume. It is entirely student run, with graduate students conducting and choosing the music. The concert grew so popular that two performances are now scheduled each year.


Collage is where students from all divisions of the school—music, theatre, and dance—strut their stuff in a seamless procession, with no pause and no applause between numbers. It began in 1977 with 11 musical performances, all but one classical. In 2012, Collage featured 30 different performances including classical, jazz, electronic music, theatre, musical theatre, and dance, highlighted by interesting and unexpected ensembles, pairings, soloists, and repertoire.


“That was an unforgettable and invaluable performing experience for an aspiring young artist,” said Kyle Acuncius (SM percussion performance, MM chamber music, ’12), who performed a medley of Edith Piaf songs on marimba last year. “This was my first and only instrumental solo experience at Hill. The house was packed, but as a performer you couldn't really see the audience through the multiple spotlights. But you could feel everyone watching intently. My performance adrenaline had never been so high. I felt like a rock star afterward.”


Katherine Standefer played in both a trio (with cello and harpsichord) and as a soloist in the 2012 Collage. “It was one of the best experiences that I had at U-M,” said Standefer. “It was definitely the largest audience that I have performed for, and I loved it. Somehow I wasn't completely terrified to solo on the Hill stage in that setting, because I knew that I was just a small piece of something so much bigger.”


This year, the official SMTD celebration of the Hill centennial will take place at the Collage concert on Saturday, January 19, 2013. Jerry Blackstone, artistic director for Collage XXXVI, promises that the show will be “particularly special” with tributes to the building’s legacy and festivities befitting a major milestone.





During the first 12 years of the current century, a number of high-profile student events took place at Hill Auditorium, a testament to the hall’s continuing and evolving role in elevating the student musician experience. One of the first of these followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. The tragedies inspired Kiesler and the USO to organize an impromptu concert, and they extended an open invitation to the community to join them in the performance at Hill on September 14. Local musicians, SMTD faculty members, and members of the Detroit, Toledo, and Flint symphony orchestras showed up with their instruments, along with 450 singers, all of whom joined the student orchestra. The result was a concert of exceptional power that provided performers and audience the healing and unity that was so desperately needed.


Just a few years later, another historical concert took place at Hill when the building was re-opened, in 2004, after the final phase of major renovations. After being closed for 18 months, USO students eagerly returned to their beloved venue for the grand re-opening, where celebrated guest artists joined them. “That was a very, very special evening, and of course every seat was filled,” said Kiesler. “There was a real sense of history being made.”


That same year, also in celebration of Hill’s re-opening, a huge number of music students participated in the historic performance and recording of William Bolcom’s monumental Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The student orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, joined forces with a choir comprising students, the Choral Union, and the MSU Children’s Choir (all under the direction of Jerry Blackstone), along with a dozen professional vocal and instrumental soloists. A total of 450 performers took the Hill stage for the three-hour piece, which was also recorded. The resulting CD on Naxos Records won four Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Performance, an unprecedented achievement by a university music school.


A new tradition at Hill was launched in 2010 when Jerry Blackstone introduced “A Grand Night for Singing,” a celebration of vocal music in all forms—choral, opera, and musical theatre—that are taught at SMTD. It has quickly become one of the school’s most popular events.


Yet another recent landmark concert at Hill, and one of Michael Haithcock’s favorites, took place when the University Symphony Band performed its “China Tour Bon Voyage Concert” on May 5, 2011, two days before the ensemble departed for a three-week, ten-concert, six-city tour of China. Although the tour would provide multiple breathtaking moments for the USB, the send-off at Hill was just as memorable. “It was a very special night for so many reasons,” said Haithcock, “including the quality of playing that won the hearts of the audience.” 


As Hill Auditorium enters its second century, the possibilities for great moments of music-making continue to increase, making the venue ever more valuable to the student experience.


“No matter how accessible music is through technology, there is no substitute for hearing great music by great players in a great concert hall,” said Haithcock. “In Hill Auditorium, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance has one of the great concert halls in the United States. Students who perform and/or attend concerts there should never take their good fortune for granted!”