Celebrating a 20-year Tradition of Community & The Arts
Established in 1886 as a YMCA training camp, George Williams College of Aurora University today is a thriving educational institution offering service-related degrees in social work, psychology, and most recently, nursing. To music fans, however, this hilly 130-acre shoreline campus is better known as host and home to its celebrated summer performance series, Music by the Lake.
Driven by a desire to enhance both community and culture, a group of full- and part-time residents banded together in 1950 to form the George Williams College Summer Music Association. The club’s first order of business: producing a summer concert series. Music by the Lake kicked off in 1951 with appearances by De Paur Infantry Chorus, American pianist William Kappel, opera singer Elena Nikolaidi, and violinist and child prodigy Patricia Travers.
“Back in the 1950s, the campus was a college camp, the summer home of George Williams College. You couldn’t earn a degree or take an entire course here, but you could enjoy an amazing lineup of high-caliber performers,” states Dr. Rebecca L. Sherrick, President of Aurora University. “The playlist was heavily classical – from symphonies to dance to opera and string quartets, even drawing a dance company from San Francisco and the Budapest String Quartet.”
Indeed, from 1951 to 1969, such legendary names as trumpeter Doc Severinsen, bass-baritone William Warfield, violinist Isaac Stern and the Chad Mitchell Trio with John Denver graced the humble stage of George Williams’ Tabernacle. Later named the Lewis Auditorium, this rambling 1890’s wooden structure had little architectural significance but possessed the gift of phenomenal acoustics.
The 2001 Revival
Sadly, after 19 seasons, rising costs silenced the musical program for 32 years — until, Sherrick, a former American History professor, started digging into the past. “What touched me was the college and community working together,” recalls Sherrick. “This wasn’t a contemporary musical venue focused on tickets and profit – but a cultural program built on fellowship.”
As Sherrick listened to people share their Music by the Lake memories, she was enchanted. But when she shared her dream to revive the music festival, she received mixed feedback, from “that’s a nutty idea” to “that would be fun to try.”
Much to her surprise (and later, delight), an unassuming comment to a Chicago Tribune reporter brought her vision to reality. “I was asked about my plans for Lake Geneva and I brought up the possibility of bringing back Music by the Lake,” recalls Sherrick. “Someone read the article, contacted me, and said he would like to work on it. From there, the project took on its own life and quickly fell into place.”
Just as Sherrick imagined, Music by the Lake once again became a tradition of community, as the university introduced itself to its neighbors through art. The Allyn Family Foundation stepped up and graciously donated a new pavilion tent which allowed for lawn seating and stunning lake views from both sides of the stage. Volunteers emerged to assist with concessions and parking.
“That first summer was a little scary,” recalls Sherrick, “and the opening days turned out to be the most hot and humid of the summer. We weren’t sure if anyone would come.”
With hopeful spirits, Sherrick and her two staff dressed up the Allyn Pavilion with white lights twinkling behind blue organza, created a carpet of walking mats, and filled an old sailboat with ice and Champagne. “Three hundred people turned out,” says Sherrick, “and we had a party.”
The 2001 re-opening night performance featured two-time Grammy award-winner soprano Sylvia McNair adorned in a glamorous evening gown despite the intense heat. “What a trooper she was,” remembers Sherrick. “At one point, she dabbed a white washcloth to her face, pulled it away and announced to the audience that her whole face was now on the washcloth. Later she pulled a local businessman out of the audience and waltzed with him onstage. It was a wonderful, magical night.”
Encore: 18 More Years
Each season became a bigger hit than the next. The Irish Tenors, 5th Dimension, Glenn Miller Orchestra, Ramsey Lewis Trio, Duke Ellington Orchestra, New Sousa Band, and Broadway’s Maureen McGovern headlined during the first four years of Music by the Lake. Puccini’s beloved opera La Bohème, was an audience favorite.
While the shows appeared flawless, Sherrick admits with a laugh to a few close calls during those initial years. “Once a premier Metropolitian Opera vocalist presented the first half of his recital and then got locked in bathroom restroom during intermission,” she recalls. “We were ready for the second portion of the concert and had to call together a search team. We found him banging on the door and had to take it off its hinges to get him out.” Another time, Maureen McGovern’s suitcase became lost en route to Wisconsin. “She had no stage clothing,” adds Sherrick, “so she went on a shopping spree at Kohl’s and plugged the local department store all night long.”
By the fifth season, annual attendance had grown to some 6,500 concertgoers, spurring a joint campaign between the community and university to fund a larger and more permanent venue. Generous donations poured in from more than 130 individuals and groups, including a leadership gift from the Ferro Family Foundation. Inspired by the Benedict Music Tent at the Aspen Music Festival, the Ferro Pavilion was dedicated in July 2008. A tensile structure with open sides, the new auditorium provides scenic shoreline views for both audience and artists.
Be our Guest
Despite the pavilion’s increased capacity, Sherrick says they try not to exceed 2,000 attendees per concert. “Our goal is to provide an intimate and seamless experience, so that people can arrive, enjoy, and depart easily,” she says. While Music by the Lake is often likened to the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, the two differ in that Aurora University aims to offer a unique personal touch – from helping guests unload their picnic belongings on the lawn to shuttling guests in golf carts about the undulating property.
“We genuinely value our guests and artists and make every effort to provide them an exceptional experience,” notes Vice President for Community Relations Sarah Russe. “Many guests have shared with me how organized and well-run the concerts are, and I’ve heard amazing stories from our performers about how the friendly faces of the crowd and views of the lake truly elevate their experience.” In several cases, Russe says performers stay on to play tourist and dip their toes in the lake life or simply to visit with patrons.
Now celebrating 20 years since bringing Music by the Lake out of retirement, Sherrick and team reflect on what keeps the concert series humming (or drumming, as it were).
“Community support is so important,” states Sherrick “Like the premiere Music by the Lake concert series that began in the ‘50s, ours is a joint venture. Ticket revenue covers about 35% of our costs. Aurora University and our incredibly gracious donors bridge the gap.”
Additionally, Sherrick adds that more than 100 community volunteers led by Peg and George Cokinsas well as some 30 staffers from Aurora University and George Williams College are essential to delivering a truly harmonious experience for guests and performers.
For first-time concertgoers, Sarah advises parking in a nearby lot at Williams Bay High School and boarding a shuttle downhill to the venue. Those with lawn seats can BYOB (bring their own basket), visit one of several food stations selling popcorn, hot dogs and burgers, or pop in the College Inn for a sandwich, salad or ice cream. Beer, wine and Champagne are available for purchase for those seated in the Pavilion and terrace. Donors have the option to enjoy a private pre-show dining experience in the Beasley Center and may choose to invite up to eight guests. (Those listening while anchored out in their boats are on their own.)
Performing for the Future
After two decades of bolstering both community and culture, Sherrick looks back on the rebirth of this burgeoning musical program.
“Early on, it was a bit of a risk, a dream – but I think we made it,” says Sherrick, the unassuming inspiration behind Music by the Lake’s revival. “For me, it is a dream come true that we can set the stage for world-class performances and spend evenings together in a place that is truly magical. How many other venues in the world allow you to gather with friends to enjoy a live performance then leave by boat as the moonlight cascades over the lake?”
For Sherrick personally, the pinnacle of this experience came in 2016, the moment the Chicago Philharmonic introduced Oscar Hammerstein II, the grandson of the famed lyricist. “He wove stories of his grandfather into the production and then they played Edelweiss from The Sound of Music,” she recalls. “The entire pavilion sang spontaneously. And it was glorious. It was everything.”
Looking forward, Sherrick and team hope to grow the venue’s artistic offerings, complementing Music by the Lake with Aurora University student performances on Saturday afternoons in addition to the already established free Sundays at 4 lecture and drama series.
“If we could provide an outlet for our students to learn alongside Music by the Lake’s great performers as well as the opportunity to present their own productions to our welcoming audience, what a triumph that would be,” she says.
Sharing that vision out loud – and in print – has proven successful for Sherrick in the past. In other words, don’t discount this dreamer, who foresees a brilliant future for Music by the Lake.
“We are so happy to have shared this amazing venue and experience with our community,” she says, “and we will continue to share it again and again.”
By: Barbara Karabas
Photography by: Jen Schildgen