The Williams Center’s 40th Anniversary Annual Series Continues with Reminiscences by Music Prof. Larry Stockton

“The intimacy of the space is probably the biggest plus of the whole building,” he says

Williams Center for the Arts

By Brian Hay

The marching band rehearsed in Alumni Gym, the jazz band in Colton Chapel, and other instrumental ensembles formed to practice wherever space permitted.

Life for the students and faculty involved in Lafayette’s instrumental music program was quite nomadic before the Williams Center for the Arts opened in 1983, says Larry Stocktonprofessor emeritus of music and former department chair who came to Lafayette in 1977.

“We were scattered all over the place. The answer in the early days always seemed to be to see if we could move you somewhere else,” he recalls. “Obviously the facilities were not good. When we heard that this new center was being planned, we were all very surprised and delighted.”

Larry Stockton, professor emeritus of music and former department chair

Larry Stockton, professor emeritus of music and former department chair

As part of the planning for the new Williams Center, Stockton’s job was to work on the specifications for the large rehearsal rooms for the concert band, orchestra, choir and other facilities.

“We had to negotiate, of course, a number of individual practice rooms and offices and things like that. But we got some information, and the Williams Center has served us well for the last 40 years,” he says.

Stockton can still feel the excitement and reaction when students and faculty walked into the Williams Center for the first time, even before it officially opened.

“In the fall of 1983, we were waiting for the opening. I used to play marching band in those days and we always had a band camp that was held five days before classes started,” he says. “I kept telling the kids, kind of a bait, that we might get into that building before band camp was over. I thought it would be such a big surprise for the kids to be able to walk into the building and say ‘look what happens next.’

The equipment was prepared for the move to the new space, expectations rose, and then came the disappointing news that the city had not completed its final inspections. With so much anticipation built up, Stockton acts impulsively.

“Being a young, carefree professor at the time, I said we’d never get caught,” he laughs. “So we found the door open and I was able to get the kids inside to look at it. Everything was working in terms of electricity and such. So that was quite a pleasant surprise for everyone.

In addition to Williams’ educational facilities, the center became a cultural hub in the Lehigh Valley and raised Lafayette’s profile as a supporter of the performing arts.

“It really gave us a presence in the Lehigh Valley arts community because the Performance Series blossomed almost immediately,” says Stockton. “Before the Williams Center opened, most, if not all, of the concerts were in the Colton Chapel, which is a large facility, but with terrible acoustics and not designed for musical performances. The fact that we were able to create such a magnificent performance series is still something really special.”

Intimate concert experiences

Stockton recalls doubting whether a 400-seat auditorium would be large enough to accommodate the world-class performances that were envisioned at the Williams Center, but the intimacy and acoustic properties of the space ultimately made the concert experiences unique and memorable.

“A larger space would have contradicted the intimacy that was achieved in this hall,” he says. “It’s such an acoustically stable facility. Almost every group I’ve come in contact with that has performed there has commented on how much they like the intimacy. It’s not common for a group like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which usually plays at Carnegie Hall, to look out into the audience and connect with audience members and vice versa. This is a truly unique experience for the performers and audience members who come to Lafayette.”

Recalling a performance by Kodo drummers at the Williams Center, Stockton says the Japanese ensemble put a wide variety of percussion instruments on stage, including a four-tone drum.

“They had to have special accommodation to put him center stage,” he says. “There is no curtain. The first thing you focused on was this huge drum, and you thought, what the hell is that going to sound like in that space? With the first beat of that drum, I could feel everyone tensing up. But in the space and with its great acoustics, it was just one of those magical musical moments. We invited the pianist, Keith Jarrett, who was very interested in seeing this group. He was sitting just a few rows away from me. I’ll never forget him rocking back and forth trying to get those rhythms back on his own. The intimacy of the space is perhaps the biggest plus of the entire building.”

Percussionist by training and specialist in traditional Japanese music, particularly the music of Kabuki theatre, Stockton, who will retire in 2021.after 45 years of service to the college, says it still needs some fine-tuning at the Williams Center.

“WI’ve really always needed better acoustics, especially in practice rooms,” he says. “When someone works out, you hear it all over the building. It’s the way it’s designed. We just need more space.”

Educational alignment

Stockton says he has always valued the collegiality and partnership with Ellis Fingerthe first director of the Williams Center and his successor, Hollis Ashbyand how they integrated Williams Center performances with the classroom experience.

“I required the students in my world music class to attend a certain number of performances,” he says. “We will discuss it for each one. The students who came to me were just amazed. We are talking about students who in some cases come from very culturally rich backgrounds but have never been to certain types of concerts. And I’ll never forget students who said, “I’ve never seen a live orchestra. It was amazing. And we were so close. It has definitely made an impact and will continue to inspire.”

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