Our History

Prelude to a Concert Hall

School of Music PhotoUntil 1975 the Northwestern University School of Music offered one of the country's premier music programs without a performance space large enough to accommodate an orchestra or band. Thomas Miller, dean of the school from 1971 to 1989, recalled the chaotic process of hauling instruments, equipment and musicians to a local high school gymnasium for concerts as "a three-ring circus"--scarcely furthering his vision of raising the school's prominence and contributing to the cultural well-being of the entire University.

Plans for a concert hall had been in existence for many years, but only with the completion of the lakefill project in 1964 was space available. The J. Roscoe Miller Campus initially provided 74 acres of new lakefront land to expand the University to the east. In 1968 Northwestern added 10 more acres to the south end of the new campus to be devoted to a Center for the Fine and Performing Arts, as initially outlined in Northwestern's First Plan for the 70s. All that remained was to secure the support of a generous donor.

The Picks and the Staigers

In 1970 Albert Pick Jr., former chairman of Pick Hotels Corporation, and his wife, Corinne Frada Pick, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. He told her that his anniversary gift would be a concert hall for her alma mater.

At age 13, Corinne Frada had been the youngest pianist to play with the San Francisco Symphony. While in Chicago to perform with the American Symphony Orchestra, the teenage virtuoso met Pick, who was just starting a promising career with his family's company. She went on to study with pianist Arne Oldberg at Northwestern. Pick and Frada married after a four-year courtship, and she then retired from performing professionally, though she continued to play privately.

Avid arts supporters, Albert and Corinne Pick established the Corinne Frada Pick Scholarships in 1958 to support piano students at Northwestern's School of Music. As their 50th anniversary neared, Albert Pick learned of the school's need for a concert hall. He seized the opportunity as a perfect way to honor his wife and her love of music. To ensure that the concert hall would be among the best in the country, Pick encouraged his brother-in-law, Charles Staiger, to join him in supporting the project. The two had remained close after the death of Pick's sister, Pauline, a year after her marriage to Staiger.

Charles Staiger had begun his career in a New York fine arts firm, where he developed a lifelong love of Chinese art. (The glass cases in the Pick-Staiger lobby display numerous Chinese pieces from his personal collection.) In the 1930s he joined the Harry Winston jewelry firm, traveling the world for a clientele that included many top names in the social register.

pick_interior3.jpgA Dream Fulfilled

Once Albert Pick and Charles Staiger committed leadership gifts to the project, construction of the school's long-sought dream finally began. In breaking ground for the concert hall, the Picks and Staiger effectively laid the cornerstone for a comprehensive Northwestern arts complex that eventually grew to include Regenstein Hall of Music, the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, the Theatre and Interpretation Center, and the Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center. This complex provides a rich offering of musical, visual, and theatrical events that enrich the University and the surrounding community.

At the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall dedication on October 26, 1975, the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra was joined by pianist Ralph Votapek. For Corinne and Albert, the choice of soloist held significance even beyond his status as a prominent School of Music alumnus and his distinction as winner of the first Van Cliburn Competition: He had also been the first recipient of the Corinne Frada Pick Music Scholarship. Votapek's performance in what Corinne Pick called her "shining palace built on the sands," therefore, represented both a culmination and a new beginning. A quarter-century later, Pick-Staiger remains an enduring legacy to the School of Music and Northwestern.

A Visual Experience

"When you go to a performance, you go to listen to the music," observed Edward Dart, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall's lead designer and a former partner in the architectural firm of Loebl Schlossman & Hackl. "But at the same time it is a visual experience."

The visual allure of Pick-Staiger begins even before you enter the lobby. As you approach the building, its gleaming white facade floats before a sweeping lakefront panorama that culminates to the south with the dramatic crescendo of Chicago's skyline. As you come closer, your eyes catch the jewel-like shimmer of the glass-fronted lobby.

Dart's nod to the interplay of senses continues as you walk into the main hall. From the lower level, only about half of the hall's 1,003 seats are visible, yet the presence of a substantial balcony is barely evident, making Pick-Staiger feel simultaneously spacious and intimate. The unobstructed sightlines focus naturally onto the stage, and the hall's muted earth tones fade into the background as the houselights dim.

A Unique Musical Instrument pick_interior1.jpg

As the first notes of a performance fill the hall, you may not notice the many architectural details that help fine-tune the room's outstanding acoustics and bring out the subtleties of soloist and ensemble alike. Even before a concert begins, the hall's design shields the audience from the sounds of musicians warming up; Pick-Staiger's full-size rehearsal stage rests on its own foundation, effectively isolating it from the rest of the building.

Acoustician R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, who would later oversee renovations at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Symphony Center and design Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood Music Center, equipped Pick-Staiger with three adjustable elements to make it as suitable for solo performances as for large ensembles:

Stage canopy: The 30 adjustable "sound cloud" reflectors control the strength and projection of sound throughout the hall and help performers hear one another on stage.
Wall panels: The 12 independently movable wall sections behind the stage can form a wide variety of shells that reinforce the sound of soloists or sections and eliminate distortion in large ensembles.
Sound curtains: The curtains over the upper-level walls can close to absorb excess sound or open individually to reveal a more acoustically live stucco surface that sustains and reinforces reflected sound.
Each of these elements can be arranged according to the type and size of the forces performing. Together with the hall's stunning interior and exterior design, this acoustic flexibility makes Pick-Staiger the unique musical instrument that its designers and benefactors dreamed it would be.

A Respect for Sound

When it was built in 1975, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall promised to be an extraordinary facility for performance. In its first 25 years it has fulfilled that promise and more.

Created as a showpiece for the School of Music, Pick-Staiger has long since achieved and surpassed what its founders envisioned it to be: a world-class concert hall and a magnet for many of the finest students, educators, and performers.

Since it opened, the hall has functioned as both a performance facility and classroom for School of Music ensembles, musical theater productions, and artist faculty. Each year students and faculty present nearly 400 performances ranging from jazz to symphony to opera. These concerts showcase the developing talents of School of Music students, promote interaction among students and faculty, and provide cultural offerings to the Chicago-area community.

pick_interior2.jpgA Parade of Performing Artists

A performance venue of the highest caliber is central to the School of Music educational experience, but it also draws many of the world's most renowned performing artists to the Northwestern campus. Yo-Yo Ma, Pinchas Zukerman, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Julian Bream, John Cage, Sir Georg Solti, the Tokyo String Quartet, Max Roach, Maria Tallchief, and countless other luminaries have graced the Pick-Staiger stage over its first quarter century. Symphony II, the Chicago Chamber Musicians, Midwest Young Artists, North Shore Concert Band, and other Chicago-area professional ensembles regularly rent the hall. This stunning array of artists and performers adds a glittering dimension to the rich cultural diversity available to Chicago-area residents and the Northwestern community.

Many visiting artists who perform at Pick-Staiger also conduct master classes while on campus, giving students an unparalleled opportunity to gain insight from their wealth of knowledge and experience. "We're bringing the world to our students' education through master classes in ways you couldn't through books or teachers," notes former School of Music Dean Bernie Dobroski.

Pick-Staiger has helped elevate Northwestern University to the top of a short list of the best university-based music schools in the country and keeps it in close competition with conservatories such as Juilliard. Dobroski sees the concert hall as the School of Music's nucleus, around which its entire academic experience revolves. "Everything we do is reflected in the performances and lectures at Pick-Staiger," says Dobroski. "It gives a sense that Northwestern values not only the education of the intellect but also the education of the spirit and the soul."

The legacy of Pick-Staiger is one that treats musical artistry and the performing experience with the highest respect. In Dobroski's words, "Pick-Staiger allows us to touch in others what music has touched in our own lives."