Hill marks magnificent centennial

At 100 years old, auditorium’s acoustics still amaze

In the fall of 1965, a young University of Michigan student named Carl Smith sat in the last row of the second balcony at Hill Auditorium listening to, but not seeing very well, the Kingston Trio.

“The sound, oh the sound,” says the man who would go on to serve as faculty adviser to the Michigan Men’s Glee Club for 15 years. “It seemed as though they were playing just to me.”

Smith’s testimonial would have been music to the ears of noted architect Albert Kahn. When Kahn set about designing Hill Auditorium more than 100 years ago, he was intent on creating a space for music lovers just like Smith. The architect wanted to accommodate 5,000 people who could hear each and every note from each and every seat. His goal, according to a story told to granddaughter Carol Rose Kahn by her father, the late neurosurgeon Edgar “Eddie” Kahn, MD ’24, was to hear a pin drop on the stage while seated in the upper tiers of the balcony. Albert Kahn found the ideal partner in groundbreaking acoustics expert Hugh Tallant; he looked to the megaphone as inspiration for the shape of Hill’s sonically superior interior.

“Hill Auditorium was nearly finished when I was 14, or so, and my father and I went out to Ann Arbor,” Eddie Kahn said in an oral history Carol Rose Kahn recorded in 1978 while studying at U-M. She posted Eddie’s story on a U-M website celebrating Hill’s most recent renovation a decade ago. As Eddie told Carol, “Father stood up in the last seat of the second balcony, and I went down on the stage. On my word of honor, I dropped a pin and he heard it.”

Perhaps this explains why so many people have such wonderful memories of their experiences in Hill, whether they’ve come to hear a world-class symphony or a four-piece garage band, an a cappella chorale or a jazz ensemble.

Nights to remember

It all began on May 14, 1913, the first night of many “nights to remember” at Hill Auditorium.

On that spring evening at the dawn of the 20th century, the Chicago Symphony performed a program of music by Wagner, Beethoven, and Brahms. In the second half of the concert, the University of Michigan Choral Union presented an original musical work composed by the director of the School of Music.

That blend of honoring an artistic tradition and presenting contemporary creative works is the distinguishing mark of one of the most well-known and remarkable icons on the University of Michigan campus—a place, cited by cultural enthusiasts, as the “other” Big House.


The best of us

“Hill Auditorium speaks to the quality and the standards that we expect in our performances,” says Kenneth Kiesler, director of university orchestras and professor of conducting. “It distinguishes our school from any other school in the world. Very few, if any, have a hall as magnificent as Hill. It requires the best of us.”

Nearly 100 years after that inaugural concert, Hill Auditorium still occupies an indelible place in the memories of U-M students, alumni, faculty, staff, and visitors. But it is the performers—especially members of the University glee clubs, chorals, and symphony bands—who seem most touched by the opportunity to share such an awe-inspiring space with their idols.

Kingston Trio fan Smith, now a retired CPA who worked in the Office of University Audits for a little more than 27 years, performed with the University Choral Union nearly the entire time he worked at Michigan. “Hill holds a very special place in my heart,” he says. “I get a thrill every time I step on the stage to perform or when I sit in the audience.”

Women’s Glee Club performer Wendy (Westover) Christensen, BS ’98, agrees. “The greatest rush I felt in the grand venue was walking on stage and performing,” she recalled in an online post at the time of the 2002-04 Hill renovation. “The auditorium is just electric. Every performance was a new and wonderful experience.”

Hill left a similarly profound impression on budding music lover Justin McCudden. He attended St. Thomas High School in Ann Arbor from 1942-46. “From one of the top rows of the balcony I would listen to Fritz Kreisler, Lily Pons, Vladimir Horowitz, Marian Anderson, the blind pianist Alec Templeton, the Don Cossacks Russian Chorus, and many others,” he reminisced online. “In my last two years of high school I was able to join the University chorus for its annual performance of ‘Messiah’ and its appearance at the May Festival. Singing Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ with the chorus, conducted by Eugene Ormandy before a packed auditorium, was an extraordinary experience for a teenager.”

In addition to evoking such personal connections for student performers, Hill has welcomed a diverse range of world-famous artists: Enrico Caruso, Leonard Bernstein, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Elton John, the Grateful Dead, and Yo-Yo Ma, to name a mere few. Plus, the great hall has been center stage for countless U-M ceremonies and commencements over the years; it also has hosted addresses by great American leaders and literary icons, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Frost, and Maya Angelou.

Marking the occasion

The U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD), which presents dozens of student concerts at Hill each year, will mark the centennial with its annual “Collage” concert on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013.

Meanwhile, the University Musical Society (UMS) has dedicated its current season, which kicked off in September, to the special bond it shares with Hill Auditorium. From now through April 2013, UMS is presenting internationally renowned artists from the worlds of classical music, theater, dance, and jazz. A forthcoming highlight is the April 4 performance of Darius Milhaud’s mammoth and rarely performed “Oresteian Trilogy,” featuring the University Symphony Orchestra and a 350-voice choir. The concert will bring SMTD together with UMS for a powerful celebration of Hill’s centenary.

Thanks for the Memories

Walking up the steps and down the aisles of Hill Auditorium is an inspiring journey through the pages of cultural and campus history. The venue is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is named for Arthur Hill, who graduated from the University in 1865 with a degree in civil engineering. He joined the Board of Regents in 1901 and bequeathed to the University an unsolicited gift of $200,000 to construct an auditorium on the Ann Arbor campus.

Hill black and white

Hill Auditorium is named for former Regent Arthur Hill. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

At the time of its dedication U-M President Emeritus James Angell declared, “Long may it endure as the gathering place of the many friends of the University on great festival days and as the memorial of one of her most generous and devoted sons.”

Ask any Michigan alumnus and you are likely to hear a story like the one Jeff Rautiola, BSEE ’82, shared online: “My fondest memories include shaking Ella Fitzgerald’s hand at the end of her concert, being close enough to Oscar Peterson to hear him vocalize along with his improvisation, hearing a live duet with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and watching Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon ‘trade fours.'”

Charlotte Robinson, BA ’95, saw Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, and Patti Smith read poetry on the Hill Auditorium stage. “I’ll never forget how vulnerable yet hopeful Ms. Smith seemed, not long after the death of her husband, as she broke from her reading to launch into a tear-jerking version of the song ‘The Twelfth of Never’ in his honor.”

Today, as the University embarks on a series of events designed to celebrate the centennial in 2013, fans are reminded that Hill isn’t merely an auditorium. It’s a way of deepening one’s appreciation of culture and the many differences that define the great range of artistic expression. For Mark Powell, founder of the American Radio Chamber Orchestra, Hill is never far from his heart, no matter where he is making music: “At any hall in which I have conducted since my time at Michigan, even the Concertgebouw, I look out from the stage and see that arching ceiling in my mind’s eye.”

Sources include Hill Auditorium Reopening and Remarkable Cultural Icon. For more information on Hill Auditorium and the arts at Michigan, visit montage.umich.edu.



  1. taneal bhandari - 1999

    Digable Planets in 1995! Still remember it! Great show!


  2. CARL SINGER - G 1970

    My roommate had tickets to see Andres Segovia, but couldn’t attend due to a scheduling conflict. I took his fiance, as we were waiting to enter she asked me, “does he sing, too?”
    One of many wonderful performances that make Ann Arbor and U of M such a splendid memory.
    I later learned that my (now) wife, a “townie”, was in attendance as an usher. She recalls her parents having stage seats to hear Yehudi Menuhin. Besides pulling off stray bow hairs, when a string broke on his violin mid song, he simply transposed and kept going flawlessly.


  3. John Morris - 2011

    I graduated from my undergrad in 2011 (after four years of attending all of the concerts I possibly could at student prices!). However great these memories were, my ultimate memory of Hill was being able to play on the stage in 2006 with the Blue Lake International Youth Symphony Orchestra; The recording I have of that event is still one of my favorites of all the concerts I’ve performed.


  4. John Pollock - 1968

    My grandfather, Frank Pollock, told me of being in the chorus at the dedication of Hill. I attended many concerts and other events during my student days and also worked as a stagehand. Fond memories of diverse performances such as Dave Brubeck, Josh White Sr., Ella & Oscar on same program, Artur Rubenstein, Leonard Bernstein, Gordon Lightfoot & many others.


  5. Jo Baughman - 1956

    I will never forget Bob McGrath’s singing from the Men’s Glee Club of “My Echo, My Shadow and Me” with that high, high perfect pitch ending. Always enjoyed his performances on Sesamee Street….


  6. Sarah Newton

    I was a poor student (three times), but loved to go to the May Festival. I would buy “rush tickets” the day of each performance, and usually had to sit in the first or second balconies. No matter where I sat, I could hear every note the musicians and performers played or sang, and you could even hear the moving of the orchestra members’ chairs and the tap of the conductor’s baton. I have many favorites, but Jesse Norman stands out as one of the best! Go Blue!


    • Eldred Baird - 1969

      Jessye Norman


  7. Ann Bristow - 1961,1965,1972

    In 1959, as a 19 year old sophomore, I attended a concert by a young pianist I had heard a lot about. I was seated in the first balcony and intensely annoyed by someone behind me who was humming. I repeatedly turned my head and cast what I hoped were withering glances. Only later did I learn that it was Glenn Gould himself who was supplying the humming accompaniment. One of so many memories — including Eleanor Roosevelt gracefully dealing with some foolish questions.


  8. Terry Carnes (Wilhelm) - 1983

    My best memory of Hill – Nov 12, 1972 sitting through the Duke Ellington concert while in labor with my first child. During the encores, I left amniotic fluid on the lobby floor and in a puddle outside by the kiosk. Son born later, at 3AM, during first snowfall of the year. 🙂


  9. Anonymous

    From the back row of the 2nd balcony, when I was a poor student ushering, I remember once hearing the rattle of a page being turned in a piano recital. I also remember during the 2nd half of concerts by Andre Segovia and by Rudolph Serkin sitting in the seats right next to the stage, with these artists 6 feet above me! The most thrilling orchestral concert for me was when Ormandy and the Philadelphians played Rachmaninov’s Symphony #2, and the whole auditorium breathed and signed as one! Ah, Hill!


  10. Terry Ray - 1968

    In the spring of my 1956 freshman year a UM senior young lady dragged me to a Eugene Ormandy Philadelphia Orchestra concert. The encore was the Polka and Fugue from Schwanda. I can still hear every note. The young lady moved on but I still an enduring love of all things musical.


  11. Anonymous

    From the back row of the 2nd balcony, when I was a poor student ushering, I remember once hearing the rattle of a page being turned in a piano recital. I also remember during the 2nd half of concerts by Andre Segovia and by Rudolph Serkin sitting in the seats right next to the stage, with these artists 6 feet above me! The most thrilling orchestral concert for me was when Ormandy and the Philadelphians played Rachmaninov’s Symphony #2, and the whole auditorium breathed and sighed as one! Ah, Hill!


  12. Jim Crannell

    As a freshman in the fall of 1964, I was walking by Hill Auditorium, which people were streaming into. I decided to go in and see what was happening. It was the annual performance of “Messiah.” I had heard bits and snatches of it, but never a Christmas performance. At the end, I left with tears streaming down my face. I immediately went to Discount Records (Liberty & State) and bought it. It has been an immense part of my life since. By the time of my junior year, I had attended many performances at Hill. Never did I see a standing ovation from the Ann Arbor audiences. Then the London Symphony performed. At the end of Beethoven’s 3rd, the audience shot up and cheered for 10 minutes. I had chills down my back. After I graduated in 1968, I attended the May Festival. Ormandy was conducting Beethoven’s 9th. About 20 seconds into the scherzo, the orchestra fell apart! The audience uttered the loudest gasp I’ve ever heard. Ormandy had to stop and then restart the 2nd movement. I always wondered if someone got fired for that. These are some of the indelible memories I have of Hill Auditorium.


  13. Brian Mills - 1976

    I attended many concerts and university events at Hill. My fondest memories are sitting in the upper balcony in the back and listening to the Messiah in 1972 and then Joni Mitchell in 1974. I heard the performances like I was in the front row. Every seat was a great seat.


  14. Elizabeth McPherson Cregger

    Where to begin? I attended many concerts with my mother growing up in Howell. When I arrived again in Ann Arbor, I ushered for all four years of my undergraduate career. Favorites were Andres Segovia, Arthur Rubenstein, and Peter Serkin. So many great moments. I will never forget my then boyfriend’s (now husband’s) reaction on hearing the Vienna Philharmonic…”Wow, I never knew classical music could be anything like that!”


  15. Paul Avery - 1989

    Saw too many concerts there but the one I will remember the most is hearing Kurt Vonnegut speak. Got to meet him afterwards at a reception. Instead of hanging with the “important” people like he was supposed to do, he bee-lined it for the unwashed undergrads and made the “important” people come hang with us. I was in awe. What a great man. Wish there was a complete list somewhere of every event ever hosted at Hill.


  16. Steve Gunning - 1966

    I sang with the Choral Union (and am happy to have had some part in Mr. Crannell’s enjoyment of The Messiah in ’64. A few years ago I had the good fortune to talk with William Christie after a Chicago performance by his remarkable baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissant. I asked if he had ever performed at Hill. “Hill!”, he exulted. “My God, that’s probably the finest performance hall in the country.”


  17. Sue Green Henderson - 1975

    I graduated in 1975 at winter commencement which was held in Hill Auditorium. My father, Dr. Robert Green was on the faculty and a dean in the medical school, so he was seated on the stage with other dignitaries. When the time came for me to walk across the stage and receive my diploma, my father emerged from the faculty, took my diploma from the presenter and handed it to me, with a hug and a kiss. A special memory of a special time with a special man.


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