Cal Performances debuts intimate new venue with sweeping views

Beginning with acclaimed author Michael Ondaatje’s appearance tonight (Friday, Feb. 13), Cal Performances will hold some if its events in a new, intimate venue with a magnificent view — University Club, the elegant space at the very top of California Memorial Stadium.

The 200-seat room will allow for a cozy atmosphere as Chancellor Nicholas Dirks engages Ondaatje in conversation for the latest in the Berkeley Talks series. Ondaatje is best known for “The English Patient,” a poetic novel that was made into an Oscar-winning film. He has also created evocative narratives in memoir and poetry.

Michael Ondaatje

“The English Patient” author Michael Ondaatje (Cal Performances photo)

Co-presented by Cal Performances, Berkeley Talks features leading thinkers, scholars, performers and other innovators.

Next week, Cal Performances will turn the space into a jazz club, with a show by vocalist, pianist and composer Clarice Assad.

The two programs inaugurate what Cal Performances executive and artistic director Matias Tarnopolsky says will be a series of events in the University Club, with its gleaming surfaces and glass wall looking out across Berkeley and the Bay.

“Among the beautiful things about it are the majestic, one-of-a-kind views over the entire Bay Area, the intimate feel of the venue — full of light and air — and its flexibility,” he says. “The opportunities it affords us are quite wonderful.”

The club, currently an open space often used for weddings, galas and other social events, will be set up with a small stage and seats in rows and at high tables for the first two events, but could be reconfigured for other uses. A bar and hors d’oeuvres will be available in the room.

Reconfiguring the open University Club space for performances has taken not a little work. A stage and lighting had to be installed, and the acoustics tweaked. Figuring out how to move a piano in for Assad’s performance took some doing, too. A full-size grand would not fit into the freight elevator, but after considerable effort “we were able to engineer getting a baby grand in,” Tarnopolsky says.

“Eventually we would like to start a jazz club up there, with dining,” he say. “It’s a really unique type of space that we don’t currently have.”

Cal Performances plans to stage more events in the club next season. Improvements such as adding technology that would allow live-streaming and recording are being considered.

The University Club was built as part of the recent renovation of Memorial Stadium, and it is part of an ongoing effort to expand structure’s uses beyond athletics. The idea is to create more community between athletics and the rest of the campus, and also to enhance the stadium’s revenue stream, according to Solly Fulp, chief operating offer and deputy director of athletics.

“We had to diversify our financing model and transition California Memorial Stadium from an athletic-only facility into a diverse, dynamic multi-use facility that the campus community and the academic community could enjoy as well as athletics — beyond just seven football games a year,” says Fulp.

In addition to its new role as a Cal Performances venue, plans are in the works to make the University Club a showcase for the campus’s academic achievements, with digital displays about its Nobel Prize winners. Below, the Stadium Club will become a space to celebrate Berkeley’s athletic achievers, its Hall of Famers and Olympians.

Both will sync well with the planned move of the campus Visitor Center to the stadium.

Four academic units have moved into stadium spaces, or will this spring and summer: The Haas School of Business’s Innovation Lab and Executive Education Center, plus units of the College of Engineering and the Goldman School of Public Policy, Fulp says. And Recreational Sports has opened a fitness center there.

Parking in the area has been eased with the recent opening of the 450-space Stadium Parking Structure.

In terms of revenue, the strategy is paying off, Fulp says. And he sees fist-hand evidence that it has also begun weaving stronger connections between athletics and academics on campus.

”The spontaneous collaboration you get is incredible,” he says. “The other day I saw a student athlete outside talking to a Haas professor. That just doesn’t happen unless they share the same space.”

More information about tonight’s Ondaatje appearance can be found on the Cal Performances website.