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Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Mondavi Center is one sweet place to play

The Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts has always attracted legendary performers: singer Tony Bennett, comedienne Sarah Silverman and the acclaimed San Francisco Symphony, to name a few from this year’s season alone.

With talent like that, you know something really interesting is going on, acoustically speaking, or else UC Davis has been blessed with some serious good luck. More probable is the former: The state-of-the-art architecture built into the Mondavi Center provides musical opportunities rarely seen in the performing arts world.

“The Mondavi Center’s acoustics provide an exceptional aural experience for audience and performers alike, with the theatre acting as a natural physical sound enhancement for all the instruments and voices,” said Gregory Stapp, an opera singer who recently performed in Bluebeard’s Castle at the Mondavi Center. “Unlike many venues, it is an utter delight to perform at the Mondavi Center.”

Of course, the superb acoustics weren’t a random coincidence. Mondavi Center Associate Executive Director and Director of Programming Jeremy Ganter explained that this was all part of the grand design.

“To mitigate sound and vibration bleeding from the outside and to keep interior sound in, [The Mondavi Center’s] Jackson Hall is isolated as a ‘box within a box.’ This means that there are literally two roofs, two floors and two walls on each side of the structure, providing enough mass for acoustic isolation, and total audience immersion in Jackson Hall’s acoustic environment,” Ganter said.

They also kept this in consideration while choosing the furnishing. Each theater is surrounded by curvy, smooth wood paneling, latticework and canted stone walls, with adjustable and sound-absorbing velour curtains.

This not only does wonders for the theater functionally speaking, but it also provides a beautiful space in terms of aesthetics.

“What has always stood out to me is that Stan Booles has this amazing sense for the visceral, and the completely integral impact the lobby experience can have on us as audience members,” Ganter said. “He understands that the arrival and departure experience impacts the performance experience, and so there are dozens of touches in our lobby spaces – overlooks, bright open spaces, multiple levels, places to see and be seen, or to talk quietly – that make you feel welcome, and ready, for a performance.”

So Mondavi is both beautifully and acoustically designed, but don’t forget the variety of performances that need to be accommodated for. The Mondavi architects and designers understood this key element in theater production, and of course, took that into account.

The architecture and technology incorporated into the structure is so state-of-the-art that Mondavi generally attracts a wide range of artists and musicians because the space is so versatile.

“We have an extraordinary stage crew that is particularly artist-centric – they understand that happy artists give better performances, and artists love us for that,” Ganter explains.  “The Mondavi Center’s two theaters [Jackson Hall and the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre] are both state-of-the-art, highly configurable spaces that can accommodate almost any type of performance, and Jackson Hall has the best acoustics in the West.”

The design team, headed by acoustician Ron McKay and theatrical consultant Len Auerbach, made sure the theater would excel for everyone present at a performance: the performers and the audience.

“The team understood from the start that they were designing a multi-purpose venue serving the campus community, a major presenting program, and a myriad of academic performance uses by the Department of Theatre and Dance, and the Department of Music,” Ganter said. “What they achieved, which so many performing arts projects aspire to but fail at, was a center that could be many different things to many different people, and that would do everything it was designed for exceptionally well.”

This is especially true for the recent production of Bluebeard’s Castle.

“We needed a fairly intimate feel for our production of Bluebeard’s Castle and the stage was able to provide that, while on another date it can accommodate anything from a soloist to a large ensemble,” said Jessica Medoff, one of the two opera singers in the performance.

With all of these aspects combined, it’s no wonder that artists genuinely delight in performing at Mondavi.

“The most exciting part of performing in the Mondavi Center is knowing that everything about the center is designed to enhance rather than inhibit one’s performance,” Stapp said. “This adds such joy to the entire endeavor and allows one to focus on the performance itself.”

Bluebeard’s Castle cellist Stephen Hudson has a slightly different perspective.

“When you play in Jackson Hall, even the smallest sound you make projects out into the whole hall and becomes something huge,” Hudson said. “The way this affects the performance is that anything you do wrong is completely exposed and evident to anyone who is paying attention – however, also anything you do right is amplified and becomes ten times more awesome.”

BRITTANY PEARLMAN can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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