Live music feeds the soul in a way a recording cannot. A shared and energizing experience, a live performance draws you closer not only to music you love, but closer to those who share that love. In a venue that seats tens of thousands, however, sometimes that’s too much closeness.
Now imagine instead seeing your favorite artists in a lakefront venue, alongside just a thousand or so souls. Imagine a great view, whether you’re in the front row or seated on an expanse of rolling green. In the Midwest, that’s what many have made a summer tradition. For decades George Williams College —on the shores of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin—has been a favorite small stop for big names.
Jim Karedes, a middle school vice principal at Phoenix Middle School in Delavan, loves the BoDeans. Last summer, this longtime fan got closer than he ever thought possible at what is now simply, and aptly, known as Music By the Lake.
“It was incredible to see them in such a small venue,” he recalls. “Obviously, it’s a lot more intimate. You could actually have a conversation with the people you went with, as well as hear the music. You could talk, you could listen to the music, or you could get up and dance if you wanted.”
How did this compare with other BoDean shows he’s been to?
“I’ve seen them at Summerfest,” Karedes said, “and they were great. But Summerfest is just so packed and loud and crazy. This was one of the coolest environments I’ve ever seen them in.”
The coolness, no doubt, can be attributed to the location. Here, musical acts of all genres take to the stage against the breathtaking, open-air backdrop of blue. Music By the Lake itself is only 16, but its roots run as deep as Geneva Lake—a favorite summering ground for Chicagoans.
Since the early days of the twentieth century, groups and families gathered in and around the Lewis Auditorium at George Williams College to enjoy live performances throughout the summer. Built in 1890, the building was originally known as the Tabernacle and was later renamed Lewis Auditorium. In 1950, a group of local citizens formed the George Williams College Summer Music Association, giving birth in 1951 to the Music By the Lake concept. The name would come later, but until then, it played host to artists like violinist Isaac Stern, the New York City Opera, John Denver, and trumpeter Doc Severinsen.
Rising costs ended the summer concerts in 1969, but a second act—and the Music By the Lake name—emerged in 2001. A pavilion tent was erected where the Lewis Auditorium once stood. The first performance featured Grammy Award-winning soprano Sylvia McNair.
Music By the Lake has a definite affinity for classical and opera, but also hosts rock icons like Peter Frampton, the Doobie Brothers, and Cheap Trick. Each season offers a variety of genres, and it’s become a summer concert go-to for those who believe the experience is bigger when the venue is smaller.
“It’s just a fantastic place to hear music and be with friends,” says Karedes. “You can’t get any closer to the music without being on stage.”
IF YOU GO
Music By The Lake offers seating in the Ferro pavilion, which seats 600; and the terrace, which seats 400 and is not covered. Lawn seating is considered general admission and is ﬁrst-come, ﬁrst-serve.
The lawn opens 90 minutes before the show. Ticket holders can bring picnic gear, including chairs and blankets and coolers and tables no larger than three-feet. Nothing can be staked to the ground.
Food and beverages, including alcohol, are permitted only in the designated lawn area. All items must be loaded and unloaded from the parking lot shuttle buses. An array of food and beverage vendors also operate at each concert.
Free parking is offered at nearby Williams Bay High School, and free buses transport concert goers directly to the George Williams College campus. Limited boat parking is also available.
Call George Williams College ticket ofﬁce for tickets, arrangements for those with limited mobility or special needs, or for other questions, at 262-245-8501. Online, visit musicbythelake.com.
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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