Big gift gets UCSD Music Center back on track

Planning delays and inflation threatened to put the kibosh on UCSD’s new music center, but a $6 million gift from a San Diego philanthropist has the project, to be named the Conrad Prebys Music Center in honor of the donor, back on track.

Based on a $40 million budget comprised of state funds, a lengthy planning process resulted in bids 15 percent higher than expected because of rising construction costs. Although the university added some funding, the $8 million shortfall needed support from the private sector. Three individuals immediately came forward with gifts to cover the deficit, including a $1 million donation from John and Rebecca Moores.

“That gave us the confidence that we’d be able to find other benefactors,” said Rand Steiger, chair of UCSD’s department of music.

Concerned that funding would be withdrawn if the project did not move forward, construction began a few months ago. It was a risky move for the university because private supporters had not yet been secured. The official groundbreaking ceremony for the Conrad Prebys Music Center was held May 25.

“The reason we were unable to announce before we broke ground is there is a lengthy process to approve the naming of the building,” Steiger said.

Prebys, owner of Progressive Construction and Management, has been a San Diego resident since 1965, when he relocated from South Bend, Ind. The son of a professional musician, he grew up with a love of music, even aspiring to follow in his father’s footsteps. A high school teacher expanded his cultural appreciation to include theater.

The developer’s philanthropic gifts extend across the width and breath of San Diego. He has donated more than $31 million to organizations such as the Old Globe theater, the San Diego Zoological Society, Moores Cancer Center, Scripps Mercy Hospital and the Santee Boys and Girls Club.

“I have fewer birthdays in front of me than behind me and I decided to become a philanthropist,” Prebys said. “It’s much more fun to do it when I’m alive.”

After learning about the new state-of-the art music center, Prebys made his generous donation. He’s pleased his namesake will offer musical education and public performance opportunities to so many people.

“I think it broadens the horizons for our people,” Prebys said. “Let’s face it, people want to enjoy life to the fullest and I think there is so much here, in the music and theater, that once they’re exposed to it, they’ll like it and it will enrich their lives.”

The final price tag for the 46,880-square-foot building will be $52 million, covering everything from planning and construction to the purchase of new equipment. It is slated to open with a series of concerts and special events in September 2009.

Designed by a team of industry icons, acoustician Cyril Harris and architect Mark Reddington of LMN Architects based in Seattle, the music center will include a 400-seat concert hall, a 150-seat black box theater, a 150-seat recital/lecture hall, percussion facilities, a cutting-edge recording studio, faculty and administrative space, and student practice rooms.

In keeping with the university’s history of experimentation while maintaining excellence, Harris and Reddington were given free rein to create a unique concert hall. With walls and ceiling made up of large triangular panels, Steiger described it as an asymmetrical geodesic dome.

“The hall is designed to be very intimate so that no matter where you sit in the hall, you’ll feel very close to the performers,” Steiger said. “That’s the one space in the building that we tried to build without compromise because the one thing we wanted to come out of the project was an excellent performance space.”

Unlike the natural acoustics in the main concert hall, the black box theater was created to be a neutral acoustical environment. An electrical system will allow the space to accommodate experimental music, theater productions and other individualized effects.

“This is the kind of emerging technology that we didn’t feel we could rely on for our main hall, but by using it in our black box room would give us a lot of versatility,” Steiger said.

The new music center incorporates classic and contemporary settings and technology, looking back and forward simultaneously.

“Everything we do comes from this great classical tradition,” Steiger said, “but at the same time, we want facilities that will allow us to experiment and create the future.”

Countless dedicated staff members, university supporters and benefactors like Conrad Prebys are making this goal a reality.

“I’m just overjoyed to be part of something as magnificent as this music center,” Prebys said. “It took 18 years from the dream of having it built, and I’m sort of a Johnny-come-lately and I’m just so excited to be part of it. I plan to take full advantage of it. I can’t wait to hear the first performance.”