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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

By Dirk Sutro

"It’s a gem that will benefit UCSD students and audiences for many years to come. It’s difficult to imagine anything else, in this region or beyond, topping it.”


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It’s summer and UC San Diego is quiet, except at the University’s new Conrad Prebys Music Center.

Ethereal computer music fills the center’s experimental theatre as ghostly images drift across the enclosing rectangle of video screens.  After nearly 20 years of discussion, the Department of Music has opened its new building—a state-of-the-art center for the kinds of cutting-edge music that the department has nurtured since its founding in 1967.

The three-story Conrad Prebys Music Center was designed by LMN Architects of Seattle. Renowned acoustician Cyril Harris collaborated with architect Mark Reddington on the design of the concert hall. A UCSD team including Department of Music chairman Rand Steiger and UCSD architect Michael Downs selected LMN and Harris after ­experiencing the team’s Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Considered one of the best-sounding venues in the world, it is also a visual stunner.

“When we heard Benaroya Hall, we knew we had found our designers,” Steiger says. “In retrospect, we were fortunate to have Cyril’s services. He’s 92 years old, and our hall is his final project, his ‘swan song,’ as he puts it.”

Harris, the acoustician, talks about sound in terms of “diffusion” and “reverberation.” Diffusion refers to the even distribution of music throughout the hall. Unlike traditional “showbox” designs, Harris’s concert halls are often configured with ceilings and side walls that take exciting angular forms while creating a continuous, acoustic shell. In UCSD’s new concert hall, Harris has created a faceted ceiling of triangular bamboo panels and that, along with its faceted side walls, provides even, balanced sound to every seat in the house. Even in the back row, one can hear the nuances of the softest notes played on a flute or violin.

At the Gala Opening Concert last May, UCSD’s Gospel Choir filled the open-air courtyard with sound, and Conrad Prebys recalled his own efforts as a young pianist, his realization that music was not his calling, and his ongoing passion for music, which led to his support of the new music center. Prebys contributed $6 million as the music center’s naming donor, and another $3 million as naming donor for the concert hall.

As a result of Prebys’ largesse, the commitment of UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, who shepherded the project through UC system approval, and the relentless efforts of Steiger, UCSD finally has a world-class home for its highly regarded music program. Besides the concert hall and experimental theatre, the music center also includes a 150-seat ­lecture/recital hall, a recording studio, computer labs, a percussion suite, rehearsal and practice rooms, and administrative and faculty offices.“For the first time in more than 40 years,” Steiger says, “the Department of Music has a building that meets all of our needs.”

Now that the concert hall and other spaces have passed their first tests with flying colors, the department is set to present its first full season of music in the new center. The 2009-2010 season opens with a Camera Lucida chamber music concert on October 5, a collaboration with San Diego Symphony; and an experimental mus
ic concert on October 7, the first in the department’s new Wednesdays @7 series.
And already the complex is earning rave reviews from performers, composers, critics and audiences.

When San Diego Union-Tribune music critic George Varga reviewed the concert last May in the new Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, he wrote: “It’s a gem that will benefit UCSD students and audiences for many years to come. It’s difficult to imagine anything else, in this region or beyond, topping it.”

Dirk Sutro writes about music and architecture. He is the author of San Diego Architecture: From Missions to Modern.

The Department of Music has opened its new state-of-the-art Conrad Prebys Music Center.