Building the season involves years of planning to get stars aligned
Each spring, the Mondavi Center sounds a drum roll and announces the details of the coming season — replete with a glossy, graphics-packed brochure describing some 100 performances, from symphony orchestras to circus acts.
But the process of picking the headliners for the recently announced 2013-14 season actually has been quietly underway for several years. Jeremy Ganter, the Mondavi Center’s associate executive director and director of programming, took some time to explain a little of the behind-the-scenes planning process.
3-year planning horizon
Ganter and other Mondavi Center staffers do a lot of scouting at three big conferences annually — the meeting known as California Presenters, held somewhere in the state during May; the Western Arts Alliance, held in late August or early September; and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, held in New York in January.
At each of these events, performers typically showcase programs they will be taking on the road. For Ganter, it’s a hectic time as he samples shows, talks with agents and discusses how a particular performance might fit into either Jackson Hall (1,600 to 1,800 seats) or the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre (250 or fewer seats).
Ganter and his Mondavi colleagues are typically thinking a year or two ahead when they attend these conferences. As an example, Ganter mentioned the Stephen Petronio Company, a dance group that will perform at Mondavi over several days in late February 2014.
“We saw the Stephen Petronio Company at the Arts Presenters conference in New York in 2011, then we had more conversations with them in 2012, then in January of this year we sat down and worked out the final details (for their Mondavi dates in 2014),” Ganter said.
Last year’s Mondavi Center gala, featuring the American premiere of “Blanche Neige” by the French company Ballet Preljocaj, involved “what was essentially a three-year process,” Ganter said.
There were discussions at several conferences, Ganter flew to France to attend two performances of the ballet there, and there were consultations with the French government, the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Sciences (which co-sponsored the gala), a visiting celebrity chef and others.
The multi-event visit to UC Davis in March by the St. Louis Symphony — which included a master class with several UCD musicians taught by St. Louis concertmaster David Halen; a “side-by-side” joint rehearsal by the St. Louis Symphony and the UCD Symphony Orchestra under St. Louis maestro David Robertson; a well-attended “Egghead Walk” featuring St. Louis musicians performing chamber works composed by UCD faculty composers; and a formal concert by the St. Louis Symphony in Mondavi’s Jackson Hall — grew out of a conversation in the lobby between conductor David Robertson and Mondavi Center executive director Don Roth back in 2009.
Based on the success of this year’s residency, the Mondavi Center and the St. Louis Symphony are now exploring the possibilities of another residency a few years down the road.
Roth — who also served as the executive director of the San Francisco Symphony in years past — also has nurtured the Mondavi Center’s relationship with that orchestra, which performed at Mondavi’s opening gala in October 2002. The San Francisco Symphony now typically performs in Davis two or three times each season.
“The performances by visiting orchestras are usually planned around two years in advance,” Ganter said.
A visiting orchestra involves booking accommodations for about 80 to 90 musicians, as well as touring staff and administrators, for a total of 100 to 110 people, as well as transportation and meals for a group that size.
Ganter added that “right now, we are already well along in terms of planning our 2014-15 Orchestra Series” — but the details of that season won’t be announced until next spring.
“The next longest timeline in terms of planning is for the touring dance companies — they travel with 20 to 30 people,” Ganter added.
Sometimes Ganter and the Mondavi staff will put together two seemingly unrelated acts for a special occasion — like the concert on Picnic Day, featuring the jazz/funk trio Medeski, Martin and Wood together with the Joshua Light Show, a visual extravaganza recalling the psychedelic light shows of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Traditionally, the Mondavi Center had avoided evening concerts on Picnic Day. But this year, Picnic Day also happened to fall on “420″ (or April 20), which is celebrated in some circles as International Marijuana Day.
“The Joshua Light/Medeski Martin & Wood collaboration was something we at the Mondavi Center put together especially for Picnic Day — they have never done it before and have no immediate plans to do it again,” Ganter said.
Some 1,100 people turned out for the event, proving you can draw a crowd for a concert following a day packed with Picnic Day festivities.
“The show was epic, and it is something I will always be seriously proud of in the highlights my history of building seasons here,” Ganter said.
Other times, the Mondavi Center will see a performance at one of the presenters conferences and decide to book it. An example would be the play “Two Men Talking,” which will visit Mondavi in February.
“The people who put that show together have an agent that we trust, and she twisted our arm to see it when we were in New York in 2012. We loved the show, and booked it,” Ganter said.
Pianist Stewart Goodyear — who will perform a daylong marathon in Jackson Hall on Oct. 5, performing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas over the course of 14 hours (including a few breaks for meals) — “was also a conference discovery for us in 2012,” Ganter said.
“Don (Roth) loved the idea of booking it up front (as part of the beginning of the season) and featuring it on the Director’s Choice series.” These are acts that Roth selects personally.
Something old, something new
Ganter also likes to line up a mix of veteran performers with established names as well as younger and less familiar artists.
“Our Concert Series for 2013-14 includes pianist Murray Perahia, a very well-known performer who we had have never presented, and young organist Cameron Carpenter,” a flashy dresser in the glam-rock style whose flamboyant performances have earned him a growing following. The 2013-14 Jazz series also features 82-year-old veteran Ahmad Jamal as well as a younger group from the SFJAZZ Collective.
There are also a few high-profile artists who the Mondavi Center will more or less book automatically whenever the opportunity comes up. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is an example.
“He only does a handful of recitals when he tours the West Coast, so when a date becomes available, you take it,” Ganter said. Ma has a proven track record in Davis, having sold out the house several times.
“And he loves playing in Jackson Hall, he likes the way the hall sounds, he loves Margrit (Mondavi). … We are very happy anytime we can present him,” Ganter said.
For the Distinguished Speakers series, the Mondavi Center often personalities associated with NPR.
“For our audience at the Mondavi Center, the NPR link consistently produces the most popular speakers we present,” Ganter said. “They have a high profile, they are showcased regularly on the air as interesting people. And you may have noticed that we are now presenting our speakers in more of a conversation situation than in the traditional lecture format.”
Sometimes the calendar influences the Mondavi Center’s programming in a particular year.
“Brazil will host (soccer’s) World Cup in Summer 2014, so we picked the Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo, and the Bahia Orchestra Project, a Brazilian youth orchestra that will be touring the United States for the first time, for our 2013-14 season,” Ganter said, adding, “There’s a Portuguese-speaking crowd that comes out when we present Brazilian groups.”
Pop acts visit, too
The Mondavi Center also hosts concerts by indie pop acts that are sponsored by Another Planet Entertainment, sometimes in cooperation with UC Davis Associated Students.
“We help market these concerts,” Ganter said, and the Mondavi Center box office handles a portion of the tickets.
“Some of the artists are people we might want to have on the Mondavi season at some point — Wilco, for example — but those kinds of artists generally tour through promoters (rather than the university presenting circuit), so we might not be able to get them on our own.”
The Mondavi Center also has a series of “Just Added” concerts, which are not listed in the season brochure. Examples during 2012 would be Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello and Eddie Izzard; examples from earlier years would include Willie Nelson and k.d. lang.
These are artists who organize their tours on a much shorter timeline than, say, a symphony orchestra or a major dance company — maybe three to six months in advance.
“We just realized that we were missing opportunities to present these artists,” Ganter said.
The coming year features five “Just Added” concerts — Pink Martini, Dec. 2; Blind Boys of Alabama, Dec. 13; San Francisco Symphony, Feb. 13; The Chieftains, Feb. 19; and Diana Krall, April 13.
Sometimes, a performance becomes a bigger event than the Mondavi Center staff had expected.
“(The April 12) concert by The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain was a wonderful surprise for us,” Ganter said. “We felt it would sell well — but it sold out completely, well in advance. And Bobby McFerrin’s concert on April 5 — we had an overwhelming number of requests to meet him, people claiming a personal connection from the days when he was a student at Sacramento State, and his father was on the faculty there.”
Demographics in the mix
Different performers also draw on particular audience demographics. Pianist Lang Lang, who was born in China, drew an audience last season that included a lot of Chinese and Chinese-American families. When a touring Russian orchestra visits Mondavi, you’ll hear people conversing in a Slavic language in the lobby during intermission. Different categories of performers also draw on different parts of the region.
“Overall, about 40 percent of our audience comes form Davis, and the other 60 percent comes from elsewhere,” Ganter said. “But the orchestras draw a little more heavily from Davis, while the jazz performers draw a little more from Sacramento.
“One of the things that sets this region apart is the warmth and receptivity of the audience,” he added. “Sometimes our audiences get a little ribbing (from other cities) for giving standing ovations — but that is a reflection of their warmth and enthusiasm, and I’m 100 percent sure that the artists don’t mind.
“The artists often talk about how warm and engaged the audiences at the Mondavi Center can be. I spend a lot of time sitting with audiences in other venues around the country, and there’s a difference in terms of how warm the audience here is. We consider that a huge asset.”
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffHudsonDE