July 21, 2015

Bidding fond farewell to NU's grand old music building

By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune*

The first thing you notice is the silence.

The weathered old building – which until last month shook with the sounds of pianos thundering, sopranos vocalizing, violins fiddling, students laughing – barely produces a whisper now.

Only when you open a door to a practice room and hear its rusty hinges squeak does the place hint at its rambunctious prior life.

Music and Administration Building

Yet for fully 75 years the Music Administration Building of Northwestern University churned out tunes like some highbrow jukebox run amok. Beethoven sonatas and Puccini arias, Gershwin preludes and Joplin rags, scales, arpeggios and whatnot poured from its open windows, on a windy day wafting clear across the street to the shops and fast-food joints in downtown Evanston.

The exact purpose of other buildings on Northwestern's campus may have seemed somewhat murky to students and the general public alike. But there was no question about what was happening beneath the gilded mansard roof of this gloriously anachronistic structure: music, and loads of it, the cacophony piping down for just a few hours overnight, when they locked up the place, forcing practice obsessed music students to go get some sleep.

In these halls, great jazz artists such as trumpeter Orbert Davis, singer pianist Patricia Barber, saxophonist Bunky Green and bassist Rufus Reid grappled with the rigors of their art. So did lyricist Sheldon Harnick ("Fiddler on the Roof"), pianist Ralph Votapek (first winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition), soprano Nancy Gustafson, members of eighth blackbird and Ensemble Dal Niente and thousands of other students.

But the building – a former women's college and dormitory built in 1874 and refashioned as the music school in 1940 – makes music no more. A sign posted on a main floor office tells the story: "The Bienen School of Music Has Officially Moved to Our New Campus Location."

That stunning, glass encased new building – on the lakefront, adjacent to Pick­Staiger Concert Hall – suggests a spaceship poised for lift­off and brings the music school headlong into the 21st century. Which may be why some students having nicknamed it the S.S. Bienen (the official public opening of the Music and Communication Building will occur on Sept. 24).

This transition from a historic but creaky building into a state-of-the-art facility was long overdue. But before the hulk at 711 Elgin Rd. will be repurposed once more, I had to say farewell to it. In this place, generations studied a most demanding art, eventually becoming jazz stars, symphony players, church musicians, lounge crooners, teachers, choral directors and arts critics. And I was one of them.

"People next door have been saying they miss hearing music coming out of here," said Toni­Marie Montgomery, dean of the Bienen School since 2003, as we strolled recently through the strangely hushed, dimly lit building.

"Before this was the music school, women lived in the bedrooms upstairs, which we used as practice rooms."

Ah, yes, the practice rooms. That's a generous term for those former bedrooms with paper thin walls and pianos in worse shape than the structure itself. If you were practicing a Mozart Sonata and someone next door was working on a Prokofiev Concerto, the chances that you'd hear anything you were playing were rather slim.

Worse, some of the rooms had been divided in half, meaning that someone had to walk through your space – while you were trying to interpret the sublime strains of a Chopin nocturne – to get to theirs. Then they traipsed through your area again, to get out. This process, repeated endlessly, did not encourage concentration.

"It's just embarrassing that this was so horrible," said Montgomery, herself a concert pianist who had spent years lobbying for the new building.

And yet by walking into this space, cherished memories came rushing back. In room 204 – on the floor below the practice rooms – I'd auditioned for admission to the School of Music. The studio, where Prof. Donald Isaak taught, is empty now, but I still can see those two gleaming, ebony grand pianos of his and hear a hopeful 18­year­old pianist playing J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and the Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona.

Down the hall, in room 218, the formidable concert pianist and professor Wanda Paul eventually allowed me to veer away from the classics I studied with her and toward something closer to jazz, particularly in the form of Gershwin's Concerto in F and Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Her studio, too, has been cleared of most of its furnishings, but I still can hear her admonishing me to be more expressive, make more music, play more sensitively, listen closely, slow down.

Back then, we young pianists dreamed of playing like our heroes, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, George Gershwin and Oscar Levant, Art Tatum and Bill Evans. Of course, we knew no one could play like them, but their brilliance had led us to this building. And the thrill of immersing ourselves more deeply into music than we ever had before took hold in these hallways.

No, the building won't be torn down, Montgomery assured me, because long ago it had been placed on the historic register in Evanston. So Northwestern will find other uses for it, and for Lutkin Hall, next door, where we played our recitals and tried to define ourselves as musicians.

There's some comfort in knowing these buildings still will stand, even if their flaws rendered them out of date decades ago. For if you studied music or attended performances there, you know the uniqueness of these places and how deeply valued they were.

The new building will serve students and the listening public far better. But the old ones are not easily forgotten. Nor should they be. 

*From Chicago Tribune, July 21 © 2015 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this Content without express written permission is prohibited.