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Mondavi receives $580,000 grant to help grow new classical audiences

Renaud Garcia-Fons and his jazz trio at perform at the Mondavi Center's Studio Theatre in 2007. The cabaret-style seating allows for a more intimate setting for the audience and the artists. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise file photo

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August 1, 2011 |

Students and other audiences will have more opportunities to hear and learn about classical music in Davis, thanks to a $580,000 three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

This is the single largest foundation grant awarded to the Mondavi Center in the 10-year history of the organization since the Center for the Arts Campaign, which funded the construction of the venue in 2002, campus officials said.

The Mellon grant will support initiatives designed to deepen the experience of classical music for artists, audience members and UC Davis students.

Don Roth, executive director of the Mondavi Center, said Monday, “This generous grant will give us the opportunity to deepen our work to engage audience members with classical music by supporting nontraditional and less formal concert formats; building artist residencies that bring community members and artists in closer contact; providing online audience engagement activities; and pursuing strategies to connect UC Davis students to the power of classical music.”

Roth sketched in some details about how the grant money will be used in four areas:

* Programming: Presenting new and challenging classical works in nontraditional spaces, such as the Mondavi Center’s Studio Classics series presented in a “nightclub” cabaret setting in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.

This already has proved popular with concerts featuring jazz artists, and some classical/crossover artists last year like pianist Christopher O’Riley performing transcriptions of songs by Radiohead, pianist Lara Downes performing jazz-inflected concertos by Duke Ellington and contemporary composer David Sanford, and the duo of classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and rock guitarist Tift Merritt, as well as UCD groups like the Empyrean Ensemble.

“We’re still tweaking (the cabaret concept),” Roth said. “The way I like to think of it, I want people to be respectful of the music, but not reverent. We’re trying to create the type of environment where people feel more direct connection with the performers, and are more at ease.

“The more relaxed you are, the better you can receive what the artists are doing. We’re learning from our jazz work in the cabaret setting, which has been so successful.”

* Artist residencies: Bringing established classical artists and orchestras onto campus and into the community. Roth said the grant will help support the Mondavi Center’s ongoing relationship with the San Francisco Symphony, which will come to Davis several times in the 2011-12 season.

He said he’s also looking to bring another orchestra to the Mondavi Center for a three- or four-day stay in 2012-12 or 2013-14, with a residency that potentially would involve a formal evening orchestra concert in Jackson Hall, performances by smaller chamber ensembles, youth concerts, master classes and other activities.

* Audience engagement: Providing accessible enrichment tools that give context, connection and feedback opportunities.

“This piece is the one that’s most ‘in development,’ ” Roth said. “I’m a big believer that simply presenting great work is not enough; you also need to make it available to people in ways in which they can deepen their connection to what you’re doing.

“These Mellon funds are essentially research-and-development funds to help us find ways to take what we’re doing in the hall onto the Web, and use more virtual means to get that out, not just to people who are buying tickets.

“What we proposed (to Mellon) was pretty conceptual,” he added. “Now that we’ve got the grant, we will be developing delivery systems — but they’re not developed yet.”

* Student engagement: Launching the Aggie Arts Classical Music Initiative, a student-driven program to build UCD student attendance at classical music events.

“This is a program that a team of our staff people, including some of our younger staff people, have been designing. But until now we didn’t have any money to launch it,” he explained.

“It will include an internship program for students who are interested in arts management (as a career). It will be a one-year program with four students involved, they will spend two quarters soaking up a lot of learning about arts management, and in the third quarter they will put together some of their own programming. It really is going to be student-driven.

“We will help them focus on projects developing what they think it will take to get more students to try out classical music.”

Roth said the funds will allow Mondavi officials to pursue “aspirations and initiatives that otherwise would not be possible to implement in the current economic environment.”

“We are grateful that the Mellon Foundation has been willing to invest in such ideas and that they retain a belief in the importance and power of classical music,” he said.

Roth said the three-year schedule of the grant is “one of the nice aspects for us, given our planning cycle. For the first year, there are projects that the grant will support that we have already started on. And there will be other grant-supported projects that will happen later, which we are just starting on now.

“It is very productive for us to have that kind of planning lead time,” given that touring orchestras and major classical artists often plan their schedules a year or more in advance, Roth explained.

The grant to the Mondavi Center will count as part of the Campaign for UC Davis, a universitywide initiative to inspire 100,000 donors to contribute $1 billion in support of the university’s mission and vision.

In addition to the Mondavi Center award, the Mellon Foundation’s total support to UCD, for a variety of initiatives over time, exceeds $5 million.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.

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