A little diamond in a big university: MU School of Music celebrates its centennial

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Ben Colagiovanni plays to a sea of empty seats on Feb. 16, 2016, in Whitmore Recital Hall at MU as he rehearses his composition.

Julia Gaines was one of the youngest faculty members when she joined MU’s School of Music in 1996 as a percussion professor. Now, as the school’s director, Gaines is regarded as one of the senior faculty members.

Plenty has changed in the school in the 21 years she’s been there — and much more in the 100 years since what was then the Department of Music was founded in 1917. As the school marks its centennial, Gaines finds herself reflecting not only on the past but also big changes coming in the next few years, including the $24 million phase one construction of a building.

“Everything will radically change with our new building,” Gaines said. “It’s really great that we’re celebrating our centennial now, and then we’re looking around the corner to a brand-new 100 years.”

The centennial has given Gaines the opportunity to talk to people about the school.

Julia Gaines Julia Gaines

“We’re quite a little diamond here in the middle of this big university,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t know our excellence and our quality of our faculty and our students, so a centennial makes it easy for me to be able to talk to people.”

Although the program has been spread across several buildings for decades, the current Fine Arts Building on Lowry Mall has been the hub of MU music since 1961, Gaines said. The new building, at Hitt Street and University Avenue, is scheduled for a spring 2020 opening.

Given the different locations, Gaines said it’s challenging for faculty members and students to fully collaborate. She hopes the new building will foster a greater sense of community and attract more students.

With that in mind, the centennial symbolizes a new start for the school, Gaines said. A groundbreaking ceremony is set for April 8 as part of a weekend celebration.

“We’re going to close out our first 100 years seeing what is coming,” she said.

W. Thomas McKenney, a composer and retired composition professor, joined the faculty in 1967. Looking back, McKenney said, “One of my charges when I came to the university was to start and build as best I could a composition program.”

W. Thomas McKenney W. Thomas McKenney

Today, the program is steadily gaining in stature — built not only on the labors of McKenney, composer and teacher Stefan Freund, retired composer and teacher John Cheetham and others but through an infusion of financial support from Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield. McKenney pointed to the Mizzou International Composers Festival as an example, an annual event in July that draws new talent and features the prestigious new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound.

“We have composers from all over the world that are in attendance for that,” McKenney said. “We have Pulitzer Prize-winning composers here who are interacting with these resident composers. It’s really becoming a world-class event.”

Although he’s retired, McKenney still feels excitement for the centennial because he feels a connection to the school.

“I think it’s pretty significant,” McKenney said. “The University of Missouri itself is not a new institution. It seems to me appropriate that there would be a music program that would have this kind of longevity to it.”

Milestones for the MU School of Music Starting with the formation of the Cadet Band in 1884, this timeline includes Marching Mizzou's performance at the 1985 World Series — the "I-70 Series," when the Kansas City Royals bested the St. Louis Cardinals — as well as Sheryl Crow's benefit concert for the School of Music in 2015.

The first celebratory event was the Centennial Kick-Off Concert on Sept. 25. The next big round of celebrations will be April 7-9, to which the school will invite alumni and dignitaries. The annual Chancellor’s Arts Showcase will be April 10.

Gaines has also asked faculty to program works this year that have been significant to the school in the past 100 years. The history behind these pieces will be described in concert program notes.

Michael Budds, a curators’ teaching professor and musicologist who came to MU in 1982, is compiling a book on the school’s students and evolution.

Michael Budds Michael Budds

“First of all, one of the most important parts of it is a timeline,” Budds said. “I, with the help of all kinds of people, have gone through the history of music at the University of Missouri.”

Starting with the formation of the Cadet Band in 1884, the timeline includes Marching Mizzou’s performance at the 1985 World Series — the “I-70 Series,” when the Kansas City Royals bested the St. Louis Cardinals — as well as Sheryl Crow’s benefit concert for the School of Music in 2015.

Along with the timeline, sections are dedicated to demographic diversity, honorary degrees and students’ memories of the school. The book is filled with personal anecdotes and commemorative photographs.

“If I had written a history of the School of Music at the University of Missouri, people would have looked at it and thrown it away,” Budds said. “But I’m presuming that many people will look at this book and find the memories of their time.”

Budds is also interested in the changes the School of Music has experienced, such as academic content.

“For example, for 30 years or so, I taught a course called ‘Jazz, Pop and Rock,’” Budds said. “My teachers never would have thought of having a course like that being taught at a university.”

Budds said this change is a natural process, describing it as organic.

“They don’t teach chemistry the way they used to teach it. They don’t teach English literature the way they used to teach it,” Budds said. “Everything keeps going through these interesting processes of growth and understanding.”

Patrick Graham, a fifth-year vocal performance major, said he has had such positive experiences with the school’s faculty that he switched his major from journalism to music.

Patrick Graham Patrick Graham

“Looking back at five years, there’s a lot of really talented faculty in the School of Music who really invest a lot in their students, who really care about their research and their scholarship,” said Graham, a former student representative on the UM System Board of Curators.

Graham’s long-term goal is to go into academia. The school’s faculty has played an important role in inspiring him.

“Seeing how dedicated the faculty are to the School of Music, how much they care about their students, that’s really something that’s important to me,” Graham said.

Although Gaines is not an alumna of MU, she feels deeply connected through teaching and performing at the school and now leading it.

“I don’t have those kinds of memories of getting my education here,” she said, “but I think it’s certainly significant that we have this kind of history, and I’m certainly proud of it.”

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