In the late 1970s, President Robert C. Good was exploring ways to expand and improve cultural opportunities at Denison. The realization of his vision was made possbile by an unexpected windfall: a nostrings- attached $1 million gift–at that time the largest Denison ever received–from Foster and Mary McGaw in memory of Jeanne Vail ‘46, Mary’s daughter.
The gift launched Denison’s Vail Program, which, in its three distinct aspects, provides comprehensive support for all four fine arts disciplines on campus. The original endowment has so far funded more than a quarter-million dollars in scholarships to 257 students in visual art, dance, music, and theater. And through the program’s artist-in-residence component, many more students have had the unique opportunity to learn directly from some of the world’s finest.
The Vail Series performances in Swasey Chapel are the third and most visible element of the program. Because of it the name Vail has become synonymous with the world-class music and musicians the series has brought to the college.
The standard was set in the 1979- 80 season with violinist Itzhak Perlman, and the quality and star power have never faltered: Pinchas Zuckerman, Alicia De Larrocha, Yo-Yo Ma, Dizzy Gillespie, Neville Marriner, Joshua Bell, Bobby McFerrin, Kathleen Battle, Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, and Branford Marsalis. The list continues, and quite a few performers have come back to campus two and three times. In fact, a gig for Denison’s Vail Series has become a coveted engagement for touring musicians and their agents–the word is out that Vail artists can count on a warm welcome, attention to particular needs, an appreciative audience, and a beautiful venue in Swasey Chapel. On one of her visits, diva Leontyne Price walked from the back of Swasey to the front stage while holding a single high note, then declared, “Don’t ever change this hall!”
In response to the tremendous impact of their original endowment, the McGaw family has also funded the Marimac and the McGaw Scholarships, which have benefited more than 500 students. In 2003, the Vail family honored the memory of James D. Vail III by funding Denison’s purchase of a new Steinway “D” Concert Grand Piano. World-renowned pianist and frequent Vail guest artist Emmanuel Ax handpicked the instrument for Denison at the Steinway factory in Queens, N.Y. Fittingly, it was Ax who sat at the magnificent Vail Steinway on Sept. 16 to open the silver anniversary season of the Vail Series.
The Vail endowment is now valued at $8 million, but concert series director Lorraine Wales, who has managed the program since its inception, doesn’t see the successful formula set in stone, especially given the current dynamics of classical music. Classical institution audiences across the nation continue to decline, even as the numbers of composers and live music attendance are increasing. While some bemoan the genre’s elitist image and lost relevance to the mainstream, others wonder whether classical music has become the new “underground.”
Where does classical music go from here? This year Wales is turning up the educational heat of the Vail Series by bringing small groups of students and faculty together with visiting artists for spirited discussion of these and other issues. In simple terms, it’s the liberal arts tradition of learning how to ask the questions before seeking the answers.
The Vail Series 2005-06
Emanuel Ax, piano
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra featuring Dan Meyer ‘94, conductor; Sarah Chang, violin
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
From the Top, radio program recording with special guest Béla Fleck