Experts describe what makes Hill Auditorium special, on its 100th birthday
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The University of Michigan’s pre-eminent performance space, Hill Auditorium—which turns 100 years old today, May 14, 2013—is enjoying the extra love and attention that comes with a milestone anniversary.
Historical accounts abound, outlining how U-M Regent Arthur Hill secretly set aside $200,000 in his will for the construction of a new auditorium; how Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed the building (which manages to be both large and intimate at the same time); and how the first-ever performance at Hill was the 20th annual May Festival, featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which drew a sold-out crowd of 4,300.
A documentary focused on Hill's history, called "A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone: 100 Years of UMS Performances in Hill Auditorium" will air on TV Sunday, May 19 at 5 p.m. on WTVS, channel 56.
But Hill’s origins and rich history are only part of the story.
There’s also the hard-to-articulate, visceral, human experience of performing in Hill. While I was a member of the Michigan Marching Band in the early '90s, I looked forward every year to Band-O-Rama at Hill. As the closing act, MMB members did, and still do, (cautious but adrenaline-fueled) entries down the slanted aisles toward the stage as the crowd stood and clapped and screamed around us; hearing “M Fanfare” fill the space made me tear up every time; and after the show, kids approached many of us, still in our uniforms, and asked for autographs on their programs, making a bunch of lifelong “band nerds” feel like rock stars for one night a year. It was electrifying and unforgettable.
That’s only one story of many, of course. AnnArbor.com asked a variety of people with ties to Hill what sets the venue apart from others all over the world.
Jerry Blackstone, director of choirs, chair, conducting dept., U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance: “Stepping onto the Hill Auditorium stage to conduct a performance is always a thrill. I will always remember those first performances, as a young faculty member, with the University of Michigan Men's Glee Club - looking out at the massive expanse of filled seats, awaiting our first notes, being honored and humbled to make music in that legendary space. Now, 25 years later and after the wonderful recent renovations (completed in 2004), Hill's distinctively elegant and warm sound continue to challenge all of us to do our very best. Hill Auditorium sets the bar high, and the results are stunning!”
Ken Fischer, University Musical Society President: “If an artist arrives and does not know about Hill, when they step out on that stage for the first time, I always ask how many seats they think there are. Inevitably, the person says 1,800, or 2,200, when actually, it’s 3,600. And that is an amazing observation - that (Hill) seems so much smaller to an artist than it actually is. There’s an intimacy about it, so that when someone performs, it feels small.
“ Hill’s got some serious limitations - it really needs a backstage area, which it doesn’t have, and there’s some embarrassment when members of these great orchestras from all over the world have to change clothes in the back of a semi, because there’s no room to change their clothes backstage. We’re working on that. But we’re just happy that the experience they have in the hall is so profound and distinctive that that’s what really matters to them. Their comfort backstage is secondary.
“ One time, Kurt Thoma, our house technician, and his wife came out on the stage, and they were oblivious to the fact that anyone else was in the hall. I was up in the balcony (with members of the Mariinsky Orchestra, including conductor Valery Gergiev), so I spoke up and said, ‘Hey, Kurt, do you have a pin?” He took a hairpin out of his wife’s hair, and I told Valery to go all the way up to the second balcony. We got everybody quiet, and then Kurt dropped the pin. Gergiev heard it drop and bounce. Now, this wasn’t a nail, it was a hairpin, and (Gergiev) was just blown away. Two weeks later, I was in St. Petersburg after a performance, and he told this story to friends in Russian, and then said, ‘There are three great halls in world for me: my own in St. Petersburg, Carnegie Hall and Hill Auditorium.’”
James Kibbie, professor and co-chair of U-M’s organ department and curator of Hill’s Frieze Memorial Organ: “Over the past 35 years, I’ve spent many hours on the Hill Auditorium stage, teaching, practicing and performing on the Frieze Memorial Organ. Audiences see the decorative facade pipes at the back of the stage, but they may not realize that behind and above them are 7,599 speaking pipes. It’s a unique instrument, and older than the auditorium itself. The organ was built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, then brought to U-M the following year, when the Regents resolved to install it in University Hall and name it in honor of Henry Simmons Frieze (Professor of Latin, interim University President, and a founder of the University Musical Society). It reportedly took 100 trips by horse-drawn wagon to move the organ to Hill Auditorium in 1913. It’s been rebuilt and enlarged several times since. Currently, University Organ Technician Jerroll Adams and his associate Merrill Falk are nearing completion of a multi-year project to completely restore the organ’s mechanical systems, ensuring it will continue to be heard in solo recitals by faculty, students and guest artists, ensemble performances, and commencement events. It will also play a role in helping to recruit the finest young student organists to Michigan, as it has always done.”
Lee Doyle, U-M director of Communication Policy and Administration, director of U-M’s Film Office, and chief Freedom of Information officer: “I like to refer to Hill as ‘the other Big House.’ This substantial structure brings more people together to experience live performance and lectures than any other place in the region. It is rare for any town or university to be able to invite more than 3,500 people into their cultural space to share something that moves, informs and captivates them.
The walls echo with history. The excellent acoustics in this august hall has supported a wide range of performances from teenaged youth choirs to Leonard Bernstein and Yo-Yo Ma - and also hosted the likes of Robert Frost, Eleanor Roosevelt and Hlllary Clinton. Renovated to its original beauty, it stands proud and ready to host tomorrow's great performers and leaders as well.”
Scott D. Pfeiffer, partner, Threshold Acoustics LLC in Chicago (the following is an excerpt from a lecture Pfeiffer recently delivered on Hill’s stage): “There is a special connection between performer and audience in a live venue, especially one where the connection is acoustic, and it is in these unique experiences that legends are made. Legends of Perfect Acoustics are built on exploitation of acoustic idiosyncrasy, artistic excellence, and community support. The physics of this phenomenon are in the acoustic idiosyncrasy, but to explore only that, without context of the artistic experience here on stage would be to tell only part of the story. So we begin with Acoustic idiosyncrasy, which becomes the acoustic signature of Hill, progress to the role of the artists that have graced this stage, and finish with the role the University, the University Music Society, and the community of Ann Arbor play in fulfilling the legend.
“Hugh Tallant, the original acoustic designer, exploited the physics of the searchlight reflector to assure that a performer in the sweet-spot of the hall will be heard with extraordinary presence at even the most remote seat. Not only is the artist well-served by this support, but they are lifted off of the stage with audience appreciation that experiences the same focus in reverse, propagating the reputation of the hall wherever that artist travels.”
Sophia Kruz, UMS video producer and editor: “I began working on ‘A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone’ in the fall of 2011, and right away it was apparent I would not be lacking in material to work with. We had countless anecdotal stories collected from over 40 interviews with members of the Ann Arbor community, as well as archival images, original Albert Kahn architectural drawings, local news articles and concert recordings. Without a doubt, the biggest challenge in producing the film was in deciding which elements to include, and which we'd have to leave out.
For me, personally, researching and producing "A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone" was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the history of my own community. I grew up in Ann Arbor, and have fond memories both performing on Hill's stage and attending concerts in the hall. Prior to starting this project, I was certainly familiar with how important Hill Auditorium has been to the southeastern Michigan community over the past 100 years. What I didn't realize, however, was how many other members of our community share such deeply personal relationships with the hall, and how important Hill Auditorium is to them as well."