Top 6 Moments from Gala 2024

Students playing electric guitar, trumpet and saxophone

On May 14, Merit School of Music’s annual Gala raised $1.275 million to lower barriers to high-quality music education to children and teens across Chicago. It was a beautiful evening full of laughter, delicious food, well-deserved recognition of our honorees, and, of course, memorable performances from Merit’s talented students.

Emmy Award-winning WGN reporter and weekend anchor and Merit alum Gaynor Hall returned for her fourth year as emcee. From the opening fanfare from The Bone Rangers (on the heels of their big win at Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition!) to a rousing closing number from Suzuki Alegre Strings Choir, it was a night to remember.

Whether you missed this year’s celebration or you simply want to relive the evening, take a look back at a few of our favorite moments from Gala 2024.

@meritschoolofmusic Thanks to our amazing supporters, we raised $1.275 MILLION for music education at Gala 2024! Take a look at the highlights from the evening. ✨ #musiceducation #gala ♬ original sound - Merit School of Music

The Grand Entrance

Three guests climb the stairs surrounded by violinists

Who needs a red carpet when you can ascend a grand staircase serenaded by more than 30 young violinists, violists, and cellists? The staircase at the Four Seasons is striking and elegant in its own right, but when the Suzuki Alegre Strings students line the stairs to greet guests with beautiful music, the experience is transcendent. This tradition is a mainstay of Merit’s Gala, one our guests look forward to every year.

Once the guests climbed the stairs, they mingled to the soaring melodies from the strings students in the lobby then enjoyed the smooth sounds of the Honors Jazz Combo as they drew closer to the ballroom.

Spotlighting Alum Kailie Holliday

Merit’s impact can last far beyond the time the students spend within our walls. At the Gala, Merit alum and member of the inaugural Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative (CMPI) class Kailie Holliday spoke about her experiences and performed a beautiful rendition of Adoration by Florence Price. Kailie graduated in 2021 and is now a junior cello performance major at Northwestern University. She cited many of the skills she learned in her time at Merit and CMPI as crucial to her success in college.

“When I got to Merit, I quickly realized that everyone was just like me. It was a wonderful, supportive place,” Kailie said. “I am truly grateful for Merit and CMPI. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without these opportunities.”

Kailie Holliday plays cello onstage

“When I got to Merit, I quickly realized that everyone was just like me. It was a wonderful, supportive place. I am truly grateful for Merit and CMPI. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without these opportunities.”

Celebrating Butch & Tom

The Alice S. Pfaelzer Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts was awarded to a dynamic duo of Merit supporters who have given so much to Merit over many years, Butch Pfaelzer and Tom Leopold. Butch describes himself as the midwife of Merit—he was present at the birth in 1979, but Merit was his late wife Alice’s baby, along with co-founder Emma Endres-Kountz. In 2005, Tom Leopold, a dear friend of Butch’s, joined the Board of Trustees, on which Tom and Butch have loyally served for many years.

Butch and Tom’s wildly different, but complementary, personalities were remarked upon by several people who know them. They were perhaps most accurately described as the Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, characters from White Christmas. Friends and colleagues shared their memories, thanks, and congratulations with the honorees in this video.

We are so grateful for Butch and Tom’s many years of dedication, support, and love of Merit. Their generosity of spirit and belief in Merit’s mission have impacted thousands of lives.

Guitar Ensemble’s First Gala Performance

Musical performances at the Gala frequently spotlight strings, jazz, and brass ensembles, piano duets, and more. But this year, we introduced a group that’s never performed at the Gala before: the Conservatory Guitar Ensemble. Comprised of 13 young guitarists aged 13 to 17, they played Vikingman by Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Lopez. The crowd went wild at the percussive, driving piece, which added a burst of energy to the evening.

Three students play acoustic guitar onstage

Honoring Morgan Lewis

Tom Linguanti and Julie Stapel posing with their trophy

We were honored to present Morgan Lewis with the Corporate Leadership Award, recognizing their steadfast partnership with Merit over many years. Offering countless hours of pro bono consultations, the firm has guided Merit through many milestones in its development including helping to review and establish Board By-Laws, governing documents, and expansion to new sites.

The award was accepted by two Morgan Lewis partners who also serve on Merit’s board, Tom Linguanti and Julie Stapel. We are so grateful to Tom and Julie, associate Tom Severson, retired partner Nina G. Stillman, and everyone at Morgan Lewis. Their support and expertise ensure that we continue to operate at the highest levels so that we may provide excellent music education to so many deserving Chicago youth.

Announcing Next Year’s Special Guest

One of the most thrilling parts of the Gala was the announcement of next year’s special guest. We are so excited to reveal the honoree for Gala 2025: internationally acclaimed pianist Emanuel Ax.

Mark the date on your calendars now—you won’t want to miss it! We hope to see you at the Four Seasons on Friday, April 25, 2025.

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Students playing electric guitar, trumpet and saxophone

Top 6 Moments from Gala 2024

On May 14, Merit School of Music’s annual Gala raised $1.275 million to lower barriers to high-quality music education to children and teens across Chicago. It was a beautiful evening

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