This Week @ UCSD
Top Stories Print this story Print Forward to a Friend Forward
Conrad Prebys Music Center (Photo / Victor W. Chen)

Music Center Draws Curtain on New Era for Music Department, Campus

Ioana Patringenaru | April 20, 2009

Watch a video about the new Music Center.
View a photo slideshow of the center.

On a recent Tuesday morning, the sound of a piano soared in the Conrad Prebys Music Center, rising along the venue’s triangle-shaped, wood-paneled walls and ceiling. Graduate student William Fried was performing "Feux d'Artifice"  by French master Claude Debussy.

He was one of a handful of students who got to test-drive the music center’s concert hall in March before its public opening in May. He said performing in the new space was thrilling. His excitement is shared by Rand Steiger, chair of UC San Diego’s music department.  

"We're moving into one of the best music facilities that any university has,” Steiger said. “And so it's a place that will inspire the students to do everything they do better.”

He added he hopes the music center will become a destination in the heart of campus for the UCSD community and beyond. “It will give us a bridge to the public and welcome them in to share what we do," he said.

William Fried (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Graduate student William Fried performs "Feux d'Artifice" by French master Claude Debussy.

The building reflects the music department’s needs and goals, Steiger said. It includes a 400-seat concert hall and several other performance spaces, including a high-tech venue called a black-box theater. It also includes practice rooms, rehearsal rooms and recording studios.

"The collection of rooms in the building was really a reflection of the kinds of spaces that the faculty aspired to teach in, to do their research in, to create their music in," Steiger said.

A 20-year project

The facility has been 20 years in the making. Steiger said he spent most of his career at UCSD advocating for the project. It almost didn’t get built. State funds were supposed to cover the building’s price tag. But it went out to bid in an era of unprecedented inflation for construction costs, Steiger said. The lowest bids came in $8 million over budget. “We did everything we could to build responsibly,” Steiger said. “We couldn’t do it any cheaper.”

That’s when UCSD officials turned to philanthropy. Conrad Prebys, a successful real estate entrepreneur, answered the call. He gave $6 million to the venue, which now bears his name. "We've been very lucky to have the benefit of his philanthropy,” Steiger said of Prebys. “He's an amazing man and has given to San Diego, not just UCSD.”

Rand Steiger (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Rand Steiger, chair of UC San Diego’s music department, poses with the campus’ new concert hall in the background.

Former UC Regent John Moores also gave $1 million and UCSD parents Ann and Joel Reed gave $350,000, Steiger said. “These three gifts really made the building possible,” he said. “Without them, it would never have been built."

A year later, Prebys gave a $3 million naming gift for the music center’s concert hall. The money will go to an endowment. Half of the income from the endowment will be used to maintain and replace world-class musical instruments and cutting-edge equipment, and half to fund graduate fellowships.

A focus on sound

The center’s concert hall was designed by LMN Architects of Seattle and by Cyril Harris, a well-known acoustical engineer. He has worked on the acoustics of concert halls all over the world, including at the Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Center in New York. When Steiger and other UCSD officials visited him, the elderly Harris said the project might be his last—so it also had to be his best.

UCSD’s hall was designed so that someone sitting in the very last row will hear just as well as someone sitting in the very front. On a recent Tuesday morning, before Fried’s performance, Dirk Sutro, the music department’s publicity manager, stood on stage and whispered. He was talking to a colleague who stood in one of the concert hall’s last rows. He was heard loud and clear.

Conrad Prebys Music Center (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
An overall view of the center’s concert hall.

The performance space was built with chamber music in mind, which is a key focus of the music department, Steiger explained. It can accommodate up to 20 musicians on stage and creates an intimate feel for both audience and performers. "The acoustics are terrific,” said Fried, the pianist who got to test-drive the hall before its official opening. “It is a very cozy space, so as an audience it's a very comfortable place to be in.”

Susan Narucki, a music professor and singer, agrees. Narucki, who has performed all over the world, recently sang in the concert hall, accompanied on the piano by graduate student Kate Lukacs. “For a hall of that size, it’s got a beautiful, warm acoustic,” the singer said.

Meanwhile, the music center is also helping faculty share their knowledge with students. Narucki teaches a master class in a room on the second floor, with two-story windows. The venue’s improved acoustics are allowing even the least-advanced students to perceive the changes in their voices and better understand what they need to do to make them better, said Narucki.

Other performance spaces

All the center’s performance spaces are perfectly isolated acoustically, Steiger explained. They were built as independent entities, separate from one another and from the music center’s overall shell. A 100-person choir can rehearse in one room while a percussion group rehearses next door—and the two ensembles won’t hear each another.

Conrad Prebys Music Center (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Steiger points to some of the features in the black box theater, a high-tech venue in the Conrad Prebys Music Center.

Across the way from the concert hall stands a 150-seat black box theater, which will serve as a sort of laboratory for the music department’s faculty and students. The small theater is a versatile space, where sitting, lights and the location of the stage can be easily altered. Steiger calls it the concert hall of the future.

"The room has capabilities that none of us have been able to work with before," he said.

Acoustics can be changed at the push of a button, using a digital panel that controls a matrix of small microphones and 60 loudspeakers. Different settings make the room sound like a concert hall, a lecture hall or even a canyon, with an exaggerated echo. The ultimate goal is to make the black box theater sound just like the concert hall next door, Steiger said.

Next door to the black box theater is a 150-seat lecture hall, which doubles as a small venue for recitals. And right next door to that is a room where the 200-player La Jolla Symphony and Chorus can rehearse, which can also be used as a lecture hall for up to 300 students. Both rooms can subtly modify their acoustics by using curtains that muffle or amplify the amount of reverberation sounds produce.

In addition to these spaces, the Conrad Prebys Music Center also houses several rehearsal rooms designed with specific types of music in mind, practice rooms, recording studios and faculty offices. It also features an open-air courtyard with amphitheater sitting.

The new facility has really brought the music department together, said Narucki, the singer and professor. Faculty get to know each other better in a common space, she said. They also are getting to know their students better.  

“It’s such a great space,” Narucki said.

The UC San Diego music department is offering the opportunity to honor or remember friends and family with a gift that will last a lifetime. For $1,000, or $5,000 for premium seating, a personalized plaque will be attached to the seat in the Conrad Prebys Music Center. For information about supporting UCSD’s department of music, please contact Frank Teplin at or (858) 534-9050. Click here for more information.

Subscribe Contact Us Got News UCSD News

UCSD University Communications

9500 Gilman Drive MC0938
La Jolla, CA 92093-0938