Nicholas Music Center renovations restore its "original glorious state"

Royal (blue) treatment

Extensive renovations return the 704-seat Nicholas Music Center to its “original glorious state”

Nicholas Music Center, the largest performance space at Mason Gross School of the Arts, recently underwent extensive renovations that included reimagining the concert hall and lobby in a new blue palette and extending the stage. A construction crew spent June through August sanding, sawing, and ripping up carpet, while in the parking lot, a parade of 740 red seats made their way to a cavernous dumpster.

After 37 years of heavy use for music performances, film screenings, lectures, convocations, and other school and community events, it was time for a face-lift, says George B. Stauffer, dean of the Mason Gross School.

“These renovations return Nicholas Music Center, the flagship venue of the Mason Gross School, to its original glorious state,” Stauffer says. “It was designed by the distinguished architect Pietro Belluschi, and it reflects the high hopes that Rutgers President Edward Bloustein and Mason Gross founding Dean Jack Bettenbender had for the school.”

Belluschi’s roster of other projects includes Alice Tully Hall in New York City, the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, and the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. He completed the 740-seat arts center at Rutgers, named in honor of a gift W. Cary Nicholas made in memory of his wife, Marjorie Bruce Nicholas, in 1981.

In addition to the elegant aesthetics, the construction added much-needed stage space—an additional 460 square feet—that will allow the school’s larger ensembles, including the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, Rutgers Wind Ensemble, and Opera at Rutgers, “room to breathe,” says Mark Piotrowski, production stage manager for Nicholas Music Center.

And though the seating was cut by 36 to make room for the stage extension, the new configuration “brings our audience closer, making the concert hall feel more intimate,” explains Piotrowski, who worked daily with the construction crew to make sure everything—trash receptacles, circuit drops, conduit lines—was put in its proper place.

The new stage will also allow for a more professional setup of the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra, which presents an annual concert series of six symphonic programs, a main-stage opera, and two popular programs.

“By extending the stage, we will finally have enough depth to adopt a normal professional configuration of the percussion directly behind the wind section, and thus closer to the brass, making ensemble easier for everyone,” says Kynan Johns, director of orchestras and orchestral conducting at Rutgers. “It will also allow easier combined orchestra/choral concerts. It will hopefully be the perfect concert hall stage in terms of dimensions.”

Flute student Schuyler Thornton took a tour of Nicholas, and noted that the refurbishments will boost both student performances and the school’s focus on developing professional performers.

“Nicholas Music Center now matches the quality of the performances that take place,” says Thornton, who is pursuing an orchestral career. “It is absolutely imperative that we have a space that allows us to give the [best] performance possible—this space does that.”

But the most impressive element of the renovations, at least to Piotrowski, are the seats.

“The seats are new—what else can I say?” says Piotrowski with a smile. “They are new and they are fantastic. Anyone who sat in our old seats will appreciate just how wonderful these new seats are. And I think the newly created box seats will be the most popular place to sit.”

And about the somewhat controversial palette change from Rutgers red to royal blue: perhaps change is good, especially after nearly four decades. The new colors refresh the space, which had become faded and worn. The wave-patterned lobby carpet has been redone in a modern blue-black marbled look.

Stauffer and Kevin Viscariello, director of facilities and scheduling who led the Nicholas project, worked with the architectural and interior design firm Clarke Caton Hintz, based in Trenton, New Jersey, to pick out each element.

The school will celebrate the new Nicholas Music Hall with a free concert on Sunday, September 30, at 2 p.m., featuring the Rutgers University Glee Club, Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir, Voorhees Choir, and Rutgers Symphony Orchestra—a rare convergence of these ensembles. They will toast the new performance space with—what else?—Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” as well as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with members of the Rutgers Marching Scarlet Knights, and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Coronation Scene” from the opera Boris Godunov.

The grand selections are most appropriate for such a special day, says Stauffer, who is already looking ahead to upcoming events at Nicholas, including 23 performances alone this fall.

“This is just the kind of extravaganza that we want to carry out moving forward,” Stauffer says. “The new hall will be a great resource for present and future generations of Mason Gross students, faculty, and guest artists. It puts Rutgers at the forefront of the arts, where it belongs.”

Renovations at the Nicholas Music Center concert hall were made possible by a $1 million contribution from the Marjorie Bruce Nicholas Fund and a $50,000 contribution from the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation. The Rutgers Class of ‘57 gave a gift of $75,000 in April 2017 for the renovation of the center’s lobby.

Information accurate as of September 2018.