Classic Mondavi

Percussion and guitar: The Mondavi Center hosted two rare, exciting and challenging performances last week—but that isn’t anything new. Still, it can be easy to forget about all the cool stuff lurking across the causeway.

One night, I saw Third Coast Percussion in Mondavi’s more intimate cabaret theater, a lovely spot to see just about anything. In this case, it was a four-piece percussion ensemble that performed rhythmically lyrical works with layering speeds. Choreography took them back and forth across a stage crowded with drum kits, marimbas, a gong and more. They even played singing bowls—something I had previously only experienced in yoga classes—with precise touches that switched between delicate and fervent.

Everything about Third Coast Percussion felt precise, but not so technical that it overwhelmed you. Particularly with the main piece of the night, David Little’s “Haunt of Last Nightfall,” there were enough crashing symbols and loud builds to make it feel like a rock show. The distorted guitar track in the background helped, along with the clear heavy metal influence. Some ladies even covered their ears.

A couple of days later, I returned to the main concert hall to see super-famous classical guitar player Sharon Isbin with the New York Chamber Soloists Orchestra. It was a packed though not sold-out house, and it felt like an important thing to be experiencing for two reasons: it’s pretty unusual to catch a guitarist with a 28-piece orchestra, and it’s even more unusual to catch a female classical guitarist at all.

Isbin is often praised as one of the greatest guitar players of our time, as well as a trailblazer for both female guitarists and the role of the guitar in classical music. Her career is studded with huge achievements, including winning multiple Grammy awards as well as international guitar competitions. At Mondavi, she was clearly the star, with multiple lengthy standing ovations and an elevated placement front and center. The orchestra performed some compositions on its own, with Isbin joining for two works by Joaquín Rodrigo. During 1954’s “Fantasia para un Gentilhombre,” she wowed with technicality, but I much preferred her performance of 1939’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” It’s a piece she’s recorded before and knows by heart, and her passion for it showed through masterful dynamics and lyricism. There were moments of haunting beauty, classic flamenco sounds and pure, bittersweet soul. On both, though, there was a lovely echoing effect between her and the orchestra, with no part overpowering the other. After a warm solo encore from Isbin, fans rushed out to the lobby and lined up to meet her.

Of course, classical music is a staple at Mondavi. Last week, the UC Davis performing arts center also released its programming for the 2016-17 season. In addition to lots of classical and jazz, it carries a distinct global focus, with artists flying in from China, Australia, India, Brazil and elsewhere.

Some highlights: spoken word artist and YouTube celebrity Shane Koyczan from Canada will perform March 16-18 in Mondavi’s smaller cabaret theater; Joey Alexander, a 12-year-old jazz piano prodigy from Indonesia, will perform with his trio October 19-22, also in the cabaret theater; and Bassem Youssef, often called “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” will speak February 1.

Mondavi’s Speakers Series is always strong, and next year will feature actor and activist George Takei on October 15, writer David Sedaris on November 11 and, opening the season, Ira Flatow recording a live version of his popular NPR show Science Friday on September 24.

As for some more unusual events? Young, dancey roots band Bumper Jacksons will take over the cabaret theater October 5-8; Cécile McLorin Salvant, “the finest jazz singer to emerge in the last decade,” according to The New York Times, returns to the stage March 14; and Paul Dresher’s Sound Maze, an interactive exhibit of enormous instruments, will probably be super cool for kids and adults alike March 8-9.

Check out the full schedule at

—Janelle Bitker