From ag to arts

The new Mondavi Arts Center puts UC Davis at the cultural center of Northern California

Mondavi Center will serve as world-class venue for performing arts students and faculty, a thriving K-12 arts education program, and one of the largest arts and lecturers presenting programs in the nation.

Mondavi Center will serve as world-class venue for performing arts students and faculty, a thriving K-12 arts education program, and one of the largest arts and lecturers presenting programs in the nation.

Photo courtesy of Debbie Aldridge/UC Davis Mediaworks photo

Think of it as “the house that cabernet built.”

The Mondavi Center, a $57 million performing arts complex, opened on Oct. 3 in Davis with a hugely publicized gala.

The event brought the most prestigious personality in California wine together with an upwardly mobile UC Davis (already known for its scientific prowess and determined to become equally well known for the arts). The Mondavi Center is the most important new performing arts facility to open in Northern California since the San Francisco Symphony dedicated Davies Hall in 1980.

But the inevitability of comparisons to Davies Hall has been a source of anxiety for UC Davis. After all, Davies Hall initially proved to be an acoustic dud. The hall was put through an extensive (and expensive) makeover in 1992.

Comparing the Mondavi Center to Davies Hall is also a matter of apples and oranges. Davies is used almost exclusively for symphonic music. But the Mondavi Center is a multi-use space designed to host an orchestra one night, a rock musical the next and ballet the night after that. (The Mondavi’s mid-December lineup features the dance show Urban Tap, the Celtic band Altan, the highly amplified rock musical Rent, a recital of Shostakovich string quartets, the Latino holiday extravaganza Fiesta Navidad and a period instrument performance of The Messiah—all in 11 days.)

The hall was designed with multiple, adjustable acoustic features, including a 50,000-pound orchestra shell (that floats on air casters and can be positioned in minutes by just four stagehands) and an array of sound-absorbing acoustic draperies that can be mechanically deployed (or withdrawn) in a matter of minutes to adjust the resonance inside the hall. Even the stage is flexible—the front portion can be dropped to create an orchestra pit, lifted to floor level to add extra seats, or brought up to stage level for expanded performance space.

For maximum access (and visibility) the Mondavi Center was placed close to I-80, but that required special measures to block out traffic noise as well as low-range rumble from the heavily used railroad tracks that parallel the freeway. The main auditorium is an architectural “box inside a box” designed to stop any noise from outside.

How’s the new hall panning out? Here’s a running diary of the Mondavi Center’s first two weeks.

Sept. 24. The building isn’t yet open, but the UC Davis Symphony gives the main hall a trial, with acoustic designer Ron McKay on hand. Everyone is a little nervous because there’s an element of voodoo when it comes to good acoustics, and a great deal of money and prestige are riding on the new hall’s sound.

Robert and Margrit Mondavi, who gave $10 million toward building the UC Davis performing arts facility, mount the steps of the Mondavi Center to attend the gala evening performance Oct. 3.

Courtesy Of Neil Michel/Axiom photo

Conductor D. Kern Holoman recalls his feelings. “My first reaction was one of utter relief. My second reaction was amazement, little by little giving way to childish glee.”

Oct. 2. The Mondavi Center hosts the university’s fall convocation, featuring the UCD Symphony, a chorus and local teenage violinist Andrea Segar. But with so many dignitaries on stage, there’s no space for the orchestra shell, so the music isn’t heard in the hall’s “symphonic configuration.”

Oct. 3. The gala opening with the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra shell in place. It’s a media blitz, with music critics and TV cameras coming up from the Bay Area.

The programming is unconventional for an inaugural gala. First up is a new piece by Tilson Thomas, Urban Legend, featuring as soloist the SFS’s contrabassoonist Steven Braunstein. Next: Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Last, Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a blockbuster in terms of the number of musicians on stage but not a signature work. But UC Davis wanted Northern California’s top-tier orchestra, and this is the program that Tilson Thomas is touring to Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. The Mondavi Center’s publicists suggest it’s “edgy.”

The question on everyone’s mind: How’d it sound? Covering the event for the News & Review and Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, I’m seated toward the back in the Orchestra Terrace. With permission, I’m recording a few moments of music for a morning-after radio story. As Tilson Thomas leads the huge orchestra into the encore, from Wagner’s Lohengrin, the sound (particularly the brass—nine horns!) is so big that I hastily reduce the recording volume from my microphone.

Tilson Thomas, speaking from the stage, gives a thumbs-up, telling the audience that the Mondavi Center is a “wonderful new instrument.” Backstage, he offers further praise and says he’d like to come back soon.

Around midnight, at the radio studios, I transfer my digital recording into the computer. It sounds unbelievably good, especially considering that it was made with a hand-held, mono microphone from the seats. Producer Paul Conley teases, “Are you sure you didn’t pull that music off of a CD?”

Over the next few days, the big-city critics weigh in. Steven Winn of the San Francisco Chronicle (who typically covers theater) writes, “The orchestra sounded clean and transparent, with a slightly dry sound.”

But everyone is waiting for Robert Commanday to give his verdict. Commanday is the dean of Bay Area critics. He wrote for the Chronicle from 1965 until his retirement in 1993, and he still reviews for his Web site San Francisco Critical Voice. Musicians pay attention to what he says. But he doesn’t mince words, and his remarks sometimes cut deep.

In a fascinating review published Oct. 8 (still available at, Commanday takes several slaps at Tilson Thomas, calling the conductor “selfish” for programming his own piece first and accusing him of “showboating” by playing too loud in the Strauss. Commanday also jabs Ein Heldenleben as “the ‘leasterpiece’ of [Strauss'] tone poems, and as vulgar a work as anything accepted in the regular repertory.”

But when it comes to assessing the Mondavi Center, Commanday is all sweetness and light. “An excellent auditorium … ingenious theater design … [UC Davis] has really done it, capping its 50-year transformation from a small ag campus to a major university. … UC Davis is now the unquestioned cultural center for the region.”

(One can imagine several of the university’s administrative bigwigs passing out with delight.)

The opening of the Mondavi Center nets coverage in the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal as well.

And what about the man who donated $10 million to name the building? Robert Mondavi expresses delight with the auditorium and also with the sheer volume of publicity that both the center and his family name are receiving.

With the Mondavi name attached to a big, highly visible structure that will be visited by tens of thousands of people annually (and viewed from the freeway by millions of Bay Area residents as they drive toward Lake Tahoe), that recognition will be reinforced for decades to come. Mondavi, whose sense of marketing is very nearly the equal of his skill at wine making, describes his $10 million gift to the center as “one of the best investments I’ve ever made.”

Oct. 4. It’s the dedication concert for the Mondavi Center’s main auditorium, Jackson Hall, named after Davis resident Barbara Jackson and her late husband “Turpie,” a history professor. Jackson’s $5 million gift in March 2001 came at a critical time, when the fund drive for the (then unnamed) center appeared to be in danger of running out of gas. Jackson, surrounded by family, beams from a box seat and receives a standing O.

The concert is the opposite of the gala—mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing subdued, frequently pianissimo material accompanied only by restrained work from pianist Robert Tweten.

The concert is also an acid test in terms of outside noise. The singer pauses repeatedly for dramatic effect, letting the resonance of her voice fade in the upper reaches of the auditorium. But we never hear the sound of the freeway or passing trains or overflying aircraft. I make a field recording of Hunt Lieberson’s final encore (the spiritual “Deep River"), again from my seat, and have no difficulty picking up enough sound.

Oct. 6. An evening concert featuring the Alexander String Quartet and UC Davis pianist Lara Downes dedicates the Mondavi Center’s Studio Theater, a cozy 250-seat space that is also used for some rehearsals. The Studio Theater acquits itself well acoustically.

Oct. 8. The Mondavi Center experiences its first cancellation: Le Ballet National du Senegal. Following a Monday-night performance at CSU Humboldt, a vehicle carrying the company’s costumes and musical instruments runs off Highway 101 near Willits. The dancers are unhurt, but there’s no way to get everything together in time for Tuesday’s 8 p.m. performance at the Mondavi Center.

However, the company arrives in time for Wednesday’s 11 a.m. school matinee. It’s a short program, and Le Ballet bravely makes a go of it using the undamaged costumes and instruments. The response from the 800-odd schoolchildren in the audience is incredibly enthusiastic.

The Senegalese drums, amplified through the three 1,000-pound speaker clusters, are both thunderous and a bit too reverberant, even though (once again) all of the acoustic draperies are lowered to absorb sound. I’m guessing that this will be the biggest adjustment in the new hall—visiting performers will need to be told to restrain the urge to crank up the amplifier. The Mondavi Center may even need to look into a few extra, optional acoustic draperies (possibly covering some of the curved wood trim on the box seats?) for really loud shows like Rent.

But if you’re going to have a problem with sound in a hall, this is one you would prefer to have. It would be more difficult to address a problem with natural sound. In other words: So far, so good.