Music center expansion to bring 648-seat concert hall to Wheaton College

And Wheaton College dedicating component on sacred music to Maestro Nelson

Maestro John Nelson has raised his baton to acclaim around the world, but it's an honor at his alma mater that has left the famed conductor overwhelmed.

In less than two weeks, Wheaton College will officially break ground on a $32.1 million expansion of the Armerding Center for Music and the Arts, ushering in the second phase of a project years in the making.

The fanfare got an early start Thursday with school leaders celebrating fundraising milestones, newly created faculty positions and initiatives to train artistic leaders for the evangelical church.

Wheaton President Philip Ryken announced that a faculty position for sacred music will be named after Nelson and his late wife, Anita. Already funded with $4 million in donations is the John and Anita Nelson Distinguished Chair of Sacred Choral Music and Conducting, the first fully endowed chair in the arts at the college.

The college also has secured a commitment of $2 million in matching funds and more than $375,000 in initial gifts for the new John and Anita Nelson Center for Sacred Music, a program that will support "grand performances" on campus and commission new choral works based on biblical texts, Ryken said.

Both the center and the chair are fitting tributes for Nelson, a 1963 graduate who specializes in sacred compositions.

"They have been supported, loved and celebrated by this incredible community throughout their entire lives, and this honor today is overwhelming because of the efforts and the gifts of so many beautiful people," said a tearful Kari Nelson Chronopoulos, representing her parents at the gathering in Pierce Memorial Chapel.

Completed in October 2017, the project's first stage transformed the Armerding Center, a 1970s-era science building, into a new home for the Wheaton Conservatory of Music, with a 110-seat recital hall, teaching and recording studios, practice rooms and a digital keyboard lab.

Construction crews already have mobilized at Armerding in advance of a Feb. 19 groundbreaking for the project's second phase: Building an addition to accommodate a 648-seat concert hall, a choral rehearsal room and a lobby with the Marjorie Lamp Mead Art Gallery, a space also announced Thursday with a $1.5 million gift.

When the expansion is completed in August 2020, Armerding will grow to 78,770 square feet. Music programs previously have been spread across six different buildings, encompassing a total of about 48,000 square feet.

"This is a very much a situation where for many decades the facilities that we have were not up to the standard of musicianship that's being carried out on this campus," Ryken said.

Indeed, the college's Artist Series is a long-running tradition that brings performers in music and dance to campus. Musicians from the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony orchestras are among the faculty members at Wheaton. And their curriculum is popular: More than a half dozen bachelor's degree programs are offered through the Conservatory of Music.

But faculty and student recitals have been staged in less than ideal venues, including Pierce chapel, a space that has no air conditioning and no sound isolation.

"During a performance on this stage you can easily hear what's going on in a practice room elsewhere in the building and a number of acoustical properties that are lacking in this space," said Michael Wilder, the conservatory's dean. "We knew more than three decades ago from our music accreditors that we needed to get a medium-sized concert hall in the midst of this music program."

So far more than $58 million has been raised for the Armerding construction through a capital campaign, and the college hopes to secure at least $2.2 million more.

To help reach its goal, the school is starting a "Name-a-Seat" campaign to recognize donors that give $1,000 by placing their desired names on a concert hall seat.

The project is significant for another reason, Wilder said.

"These are spaces, the first in the history of the college, that have been designed specifically for music performance," he said.

"So we're thrilled about this."

Work to start on new home for Conservatory of Music Recital hall, 550-seat concert space among Wheaton College projects

In a lobby to the concert hall, the college will honor alumna Marjorie Lamp Mead with a namesake art gallery. Courtesy of Wheaton College
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