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Thursday, September 16, 2021

An interview with Mondavi Center Executive Don Roth

Executive Director Don Roth has implemented a creative goal for the UC Davis’ Mondavi Center by moving towards an artistic, educational and operational vision for the past three years. Muse interviewed him on Tuesday.

Tell me about the duties of the Mondavi Center Executive Director.

The heart of the job is shaping, (with my Associate Executive Director Jeremy Ganter) our programs and programming – to help bring the Mondavi Center team together around a vision of programming that achieves our goals.

What are those goals? To make it as easy and accessible as possible for everyone, regardless of age and arts “experience” or education, to connect with what’s happening on stage, to have their hearts and brains open to the music, the dance, the theater, the film, the speech.

Accessible might mean having programs that help us “get it” better (podcasts, pre-performance lectures, post performance Q&A’s). Accessible might mean making it affordable as we do through the $5 Curriculum Connections tickets for students. Accessible might mean having a wide range of art from the “classical” to the “popular.” Accessible might mean having one of the largest arts education programs for K-12 students in Northern California. Accessible also means getting our audience to trust us that everything we do will be worth their time and to get them used to [being] challenged to go beyond their comfort zone in the arts.

The rest of my job is to make sure we have the funds available to support our programming and vision – by working with our team on fundraising and marketing, on budgeting and oversight of spending.

Shortly after its opening, the Mondavi Center became a nationally and internationally renowned performing arts center. How do you orient your vision in the programming and image of such a world-class hall?Jackson Hall is a big plus for programming. Artists who may never have heard of Davis (or even Sacramento) before want to come back. This is true of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Mexican singer Eugenia Leon and singer-songwriters Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt – they all marvel at both the beauty and the acoustics of that space. Others love working in the intimate space of the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre – especially when we set it up like a nightclub or cabaret. The choice is fantastic – a great 1,800 seat concert hall or a cool 200 seat club.

For Jeremy Ganter and myself, the key is to never, and we mean never, program anything not worthy of our space. It is easy to be tempted by bringing someone who will sell a lot of tickets, but we don’t think it is the very best, or sometimes even very good. We just won’t do that – our promise to you is that each artist we present represents the best at what they do, whether it is twang or taiko as our ads say!

How does one bring together classical music, which many students might find foreign or distant, into a college atmosphere?In many other countries, what we call “classical” music is “popular” music. Italians and Germans will line up around the block to score tickets for their favorite opera. I’ve been to sold-out “classical” concerts in Germany on Christmas Eve. There are only a couple of reasons why students think of classical music as foreign or distant.

First, we don’t hear it on the radio or see it featured on iTunes – the recording industry and artists aren’t putting the large amounts of money to promote it that go into “popular” music. Second, film, comics and other sources have created this image of classical music and musicians as stuffy and distant. Third, much of the best classical music requires a longer attention span – symphonies average 30-45 minutes in length – than most popular music (not jam bands like The Dead or Phish).

How to overcome this? Pretty simple I believe – all I would ask is for students to try out some classical music. [Attend] one of the symphonies we present, or the UCD Symphony Orchestra – without prejudice (I ask the same thing of some of my older patrons when I encourage them to try out Lyle Lovett). Don’t feel forced to like it but don’t feel forced to dislike it. Let the music carry you (much of it is way more powerful and louder than a lot of rock) and if you are bored for parts of it, don’t worry. The more you listen, the more you will hear and the fewer parts will leave you behind. If you want to, attend the pre-performance lecture or read the program notes online in advance – but none of that is necessary. You don’t have to be “educated” about it, you just need to have open ears!

You clearly have a very strong background in classical music. What made you want to write for Rolling Stone?

A conductor I know once talked about how, at a concert, the music is to each audience member as a book is to a reader – each person receives it in their own direct way. What I love about music, all music, is that it speaks directly to our emotions (heart and soul). I grew up with rock and roll, became avid about classical music when some musician friends started dragging me to concerts in high school (in NYC) and started hitting jazz clubs at 18 – the boundaries really didn’t matter. I could get as worked up about the Rolling Stones as Verdi and Wagner.

In the early days of the Rolling Stone magazine, they lived off of unsolicited manuscripts and paid about 10 cents a word. They published three pieces of mine: one about a rhythm and blues version of Shakespeare’s Othello (I liked it), another about a jazz festival in Austin Texas which included Miles Davis and a third about the late Texas Blues singer Big Joe Williams (my favorite). Probably the best thing I ever wrote was with a friend of mine, Jan Reid, for Texas Monthly about the beginnings of the music scene in Austin in the 1970’s when Willie Nelson moved back to Austin from Nashville. We’ve been told that this article was the inspiration for the long-running PBS series, “Austin City Limits.”You have had the opportunity to work with the most talented people in the world. What do you think this does to your visual scope for the Mondavi Center and how do you think you have done this?

I have been very fortunate to have had a long career where I worked with many wonderful artists. My biggest thrills were holding Martha Graham’s hand right before she introduced a performance by her company – she appeared, as if by magic, on a kind of throne. She was 91 years old and still incredibly elegant. Another was meeting Ella Fitzgerald before she sang with the San Francisco Symphony.

Because I have been around [for] a while, there are a lot of artists whose work I love and it is my intention to bring them – in many cases introduce them – to our Mondavi Center audiences in the years ahead. This year, for example, the amazing Russian pianist Vladimir Feltsman comes in April. He is so fantastic and has never been to the Mondavi Center before – and since he loves sushi, I know he will be happy to stay in Davis!

KAREN SONG can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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