By Rachel Wisinski
A cool breeze off the water, music of every genre drifting through the air, friends and families gathered together, this summer tradition in the Geneva Lakes area means just one thing: Music by the Lake. The popular concert series in an idyllic setting on the campus of George Williams College of Aurora University, in Williams Bay, offers a truly unparalleled music experience. But last year due to the global pandemic, the beautiful venue was quiet and the 20th anniversary of the festival’s revival came and went without the celebration it so deserved.
“I haven’t had a quiet summer in 20 years,” says Aurora University President Rebecca Sherrick, who is responsible for the concert series’ revival. “It took me some time to adjust to heading to the garden rather than jumping in the car to head north.”
The idea behind Music by the Lake began in 1951 after a group of community members congregated the year prior at College Camp to form the George Williams College Summer Music Association. This marked the start of 19 seasons of live summer performances from some of the world’s most talented artists. The first season featured a lineup of De Paur’s Infantry Chorus, Williams Kappel, Elena Nikolaidi and Patricia Travers. From 1951 to 1969, music lovers gathered to hear the likes of violinist Isaac Stern, pianist Christoph Eschenbach, the New York City Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among many others.
Following the 1969 season, however, the music stopped due to escalating costs.
THE NEW MILLENNIUM BRINGS A REBIRTH
Sherrick says shortly after she was named Aurora University’s 13th president in 2000 she visited the archives to learn about the history of the Illinois and Wisconsin campuses. As a lifelong fan of summer music venues such as Ravinia in Highland Park, Illinois, The Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin, and Tanglewood in Lennox, Massachusetts, she was thrilled to read about the history of Music by the Lake and began thinking about a revival.
“I love the arts. I truly understand the arts as a source of spiritual sustenance. As a new president, I saw reclaiming our past as important to both the Williams Bay and Aurora campuses,” according to Sherrick. “We were about to embark upon a new chapter in our institutional story, so it seemed particularly important to celebrate prior achievements and to draw inspiration from this heritage.”
World-class music began to resonate from the lakeshore once again in 2001, with the first performance featuring Grammy award-winning soprano Sylvia McNair. That season marked the first in a pavilion tent gifted from the Allyn Foundation that was erected on the former site of Lewis Auditorium, where Music by the Lake had previously held performances.
The Allyn Pavilion showcased artists until 2008, when the festival’s new, permanent venue, the Ferro Pavilion, was dedicated following a leadership gift from the Ferro Family Foundation and contributions from more than 130 individuals and groups. The open-air setting offers concertgoers an up-close experience with a backdrop of Geneva Lake.
Average attendance reached more than 6,500 by the fifth season of the revival, and that number has continued to rise steadily, topping 7,044 concertgoers in 2019.
Since its revival, Music by the Lake has welcomed performances from a mix of local and national artists spanning various genres, including big band, classical, musical theater, classic rock and family shows. Recent years have featured appearances by Kenny Loggins, Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick, the Beach Boys, Michael Bolton, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Chicago Philharmonic and more.
Opera was first offered in 2002 with a young artist performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Sherrick initially intended to create a summer learning destination akin to Chautauqua and offered a workshop setting for several years.
Then the program evolved. “Over time, it became clear that local audiences were more interested in popular entertainment during the summer months,” she says. “Our program focus today is lighter.”
Aurora University still offers a free series called Sundays at 4 during the academic year, which Sherrick says fulfills larger educational purposes.
“Music has the potential to elevate and unite,” she says. “I can’t imagine more important purposes these days. We should try always to focus our eyes on something higher and to celebrate those experiences and values shared in common.”
20 YEARS: TRANSITIONING ON THE FLY
A lot of uncertainty surrounded the Music by the Lake festival in 2020 before organizers called off the anniversary celebration with eyes on ensuring the safety of alumni, community members, volunteers and performers.
Sarah Russe, vice president for communi- ty relations at Aurora University, says the decision wasn’t easy, and neither was tran- sitioning to 2021.
Sherrick says she tried to find ways to work in a single concert “in a responsible way” in 2020, but officials eventually settled on delivering Music by the Lake picnic baskets over Fourth of July weekend to thank donors who have contributed throughout the years.
“As the pandemic unfolded, we just knew it wasn’t going to be safe for artists, guests and volunteers, and we put that into forward thinkinganddecidedtomoveontothis summer,” says Russe.
Though some unknowns lingered regarding whether a 2021 season would be feasible, Russe, Sherrick and other university officials who make up an unofficial Music by the Lake committee pushed back the festival’s usual start date and will hold four performances at the Ferro Pavilion this year.
All performers who committed to take part in the 2020 festival agreed to return in 2021, but since this season will be condensed, some will instead be slotted into the 2022 lineup.
Booking talent takes some strategy, according to Russe. She typically attends an annual conference in New York, allowing her to work on-site with agents for more well-known names. However, if an act is booked somewhere within a 60- to 90-mile radius of the university, such as Ravinia or Milwaukee’s Summerfest, they wouldn’t normally sign on for a Music by the Lake show due to venue restrictions.
Russe credits the agents she worked with to make the 2021 season possible, noting the entertainment industry as a whole took a hit during the pandemic, with some agencies not surviving and others merging to stay afloat.
She talked to many different people and even looked at new artists for 2021 who she says likely will be booked for next season.
For now, there are no formal plans to mark the 20th anniversary, according to Russe. “We’re just celebrating the fact that we’re going to be together again finally,” she says.
Changes made due to the pandemic resulted in at least one trend that may be for the better when it comes to Music by the Lake. This spring, the university offered several virtual events, inviting the Music by the Lake and Sundays at 4 audiences to participate from home.
Music by the Lake staff decided to livestream popular performances from the past for an additional cost, according to Russe, but the performances were not available on-demand afterward.
“With the pandemic, a lot of performers and venues are allowing that now,” she says. “We saw there were so many people who were thankful to have that experience.”
YEAR 21 AND BEYOND
This year, most of the familiar traditions return to Music by the Lake. Friends and families will still be able to enjoy picnics on the lawn, ice cream will be served from the College Inn as usual, and beer and wine will be sold for people with a ticket to the pavilion or terrace, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, food likely will not be sold on-site this season, according to Russe.
Since all performances will take place Sunday afternoons, she says about 500 to 1,000 people for each is a reasonable expectation to maintain proper social distancing requirements at the venue, which can comfortably hold about 2,000 people.
Of course, these events wouldn’t be possible without the numerous volunteers who dedicate their time driving buses to and from the remote parking lots at Williams Bay High School, driving golf carts for people with disabilities, handing out programs or helping with seating.
“We have really valued the volunteers who keep coming back year after year,” says Russe, adding a lot of them support the Sundays at 4 series and attend events during the academic year.
Generous donors and community volunteers make the festival possible, Sherrick says, but all financial and operating responsibilities fall to the university. “At some point, I will retire and enjoy watching my successor build upon this tradition or create something new,” she says. “A great deal will depend upon ongoing support from the lake community.”
Sherrick says someone asked her years ago why Music by the Lake is so important, and she “laughingly” said such a program is what separates the Lake Geneva community from other communities.
“Music, friendship, moonlight by the lake. It’s all magical to me.”
2021 MUSIC BY THE LAKE PREVIEW
This year, the Music by the Lake season has moved to Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m. and includes the following dates:
- July 25, Straight No Chaser
- August 8, Chicago Philharmonic
- August 22, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan
- August 29, The Bacon Brothers
The first two “Sundays at 4” events will follow:
- September 12, Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra (title coming soon)
- September 26, Susan Frontczak performing her one-woman show “Erma Bombeck – By Your Side”
Tickets go on sale to the public June 22. For information, visit musicbythelake.com.