I used to sell meat. My favorite part of the day was sampling out bacon. Our bacon was real, thick-cut, how-it-should-be bacon, which many members of the public had never experienced. Their reaction always began at the eyes, then traveled up to the brow before sinking into the rest of the face and, sometimes, weakening the knees. It was something they were familiar with, but just didn’t know what it was really like, or how good it could be.
After seeing Alison Krauss with Union Station, featuring Jerry Douglas, last night at the Green Music Center, I now know that feeling from the other side of the counter.
It was maybe halfway through the concert that everything came together in a rush of emotion, and Krauss’ emotional songs might have played a factor, but I was holding back tears when the realization hit me. Nothing will ever sound better than inside this hall. This is quite possibly the best-sounding band, the most professional engineers, in the most gorgeous acoustic space I will ever experience. This is the French Laundry of concert spaces.
This was the first non-classical concert in Weill Hall, the five-carat diamond amongst the surrounding gems of the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. In addition to Krauss and Union Station wrapping up the festivities, this opening weekend included a gala opening concert with pianist Lang Lang, a sunrise choral concert with original music composed for and dedicated to those involved with the creation of the center, and an afternoon performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony, which has the privilege of calling the hall its home.
In comparison to the previous evening, which was full of tuxedos, Versace gowns, politicians and formal stuffiness, this was a decidedly blue-jeans event. There were even people dancing on the lawn, the mood was so jovial. The weather was perfect, absolutely perfect, and I can’t help but see exactly what drove SSU President Ruben Armiñana to create this indoor-outdoor concert space. In fact, though my seat was inside the hall, I strode outside in the second half to see what it was like, and honestly I preferred sitting on the lawn. Of course, weather permitting and musical style taken into account, it wasn’t inconceivable that the best seats in the house were, in fact, not in the house at all.
The two large LED screens flanking the opening to the concert hall were a little too bright, but what they showed was beautiful. Close-ups of the band, their expressive faces, their lightning-fast picking all dissolved with slow fades. Combined with the excellent, natural sound coming from both the hall itself and reinforced with high-hanging speakers and downfiring subwoofers (18 of them), this was the best outdoor sound I have ever heard. I had a tough time hearing some of the stories and witty banter between songs, but I suspect that had more to do with the storytellers turning away from the microphone for a moment. Can’t amplify sound that’s not there!
The band played together for about an hour before Jerry Douglas gave a solo performance on Dobro guitar, which blew me away from my 10th-row seat. Even with a stack of speakers in front of me, the sound was natural, even, pleasing and rich. Not once did this sound engineer turn to look back in the direction of the mixing board to suggest something unpleasant was happening. In fact, I would like to give a written high-five to the engineer for the evening. You did the hall justice. You got on that balance between acoustic and amplified and walked the tightrope all night long. And when the band came back for an encore set, using only one microphone, they were right there, too, blending themselves using distance and dynamics between voices and instruments.
Douglas announced this was the last stop of their two-year (!) tour. They were so musically tight and having so much fun, it seemed like they felt at home. At one point, Krauss turned to the balcony crowd behind her and waved, turning back to the microphone to say, as understated as her music, “This like no other place I’ve ever seen.”
More photos below.
Green Music Center Announces Inaugural Season: Yo-Yo Ma, Alison Krauss, Lang Lang, Wynton Marsalis, More
The Setting: The Green Music Center at SSU, Friday afternoon.
The Man on Stage: Sandy Weill, donor to and namesake of the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall.
The Announcement: Artists performing at the Green Music Center in 2012-2013 include Lang Lang (Sept. 29), Alison Krauss (Sept. 30), John Adams with Jeffrey Kahane (Oct. 27), Chucho Valdés (Nov. 11), the Tallis Scholars (Dec. 8), Yo-Yo Ma (Jan. 26), Barbara Cook (Feb. 16), Anne-Sophie Mutter (March 2), Wynton Marsalis (March 21), Lila Downs (Apr. 18), and those are just the names that everybody recognizes. As already announced, Michael Tilson Thomas hosts four concerts, and the Santa Rosa Symphony moves in. There’s plenty more, here.
The Story: After former Citigroup CEO and chairman Weill and his wife moved to Sonoma County in 2010, his neighbors mentioned the Green Music Center. “I knew we had horses, lambs, sheep, and a lot of land,” he said, “but nothing about a music center.” Weill’s talents had laid not in music but in making a bundle on Wall Street—his musical background was limited to playing bass drum in a military band. But his curiosity was piqued.
“It really looked like a gem,” he said. “I spoke to Lang Lang, and said, ‘You gotta do me a favor.’”
That’s how, a few months ago, Lang Lang came to the Green Music Center to test its acoustics. He arrived in the dead of night, silently, at midnight. Six people from SSU were there to let him in the building, and he played the piano on stage in the hall until 1:30am.
Talk about a solo recital.
Lang Lang liked the acoustics and gave the hall his blessing, calling it “extraordinry” and “beautiful.” Yo-Yo Ma, also, came to the hall for a hush-hush test drive with Jeffrey Kahane, and “fell in love with this place.” Somewhere in the midst of all this, Weill—who with his wife owns the most expensive home sold to date in Sonoma County—donated $12 million to the center.
Surely, Weill’s ties to Carnegie Hall helped dot the schedule with top-name talent. But it was Robert Cole, formerly of UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, who assembled the full, impressive lineup—one that undoubtedly had all other performing arts centers in the Bay Area turning a deep, envious emerald. SSU president Ruben Armiñana, taking the stage after Cole, thanked him for “the quality that needs to be there, not just at the beginning, but on an ongoing basis.”
Armiñana, for his part, openly acknowledged that the Green Music Center was “a crazy idea.” He related a story about the university vice-president cautioning him, “We don’t even have enough money to buy toilet paper.” He admitted not all stories in the media had been kind, alluding indirectly to the many reports over the years on rising costs of the center, the related alarming debt burden of SSU, the resulting hikes in tuition and fees, the criticism of Weill’s background on Wall Street and more.
Mainly, though, he implied that critics of the center hadn’t had faith. “People have lots of issues when they cannot touch, kick, feel something,” Armiñana said.
“You have to understand and accept rejection,” Weill added.
And like Weill, Armiñana had a modest musical background. “I have to admit, I was kicked out of my single class in violin,” he said. “Since I could not do that, this was a second choice.”
The Highlight of the Afternoon: Soprano Esther Rayo, taking the stage and singing “Cancion de Cuna Para Dormir a un Negrito,” by Xavier Montsalvatge. The performance stopped time in its tracks.
The Tickets: Individual tickets go on sale in July. On March 25, series and subscription tickets go on sale. There are a lot of options, and the possibilities are complex. Also, Lang Lang and Yo-Yo Ma are “Special Events” that are available only with a series purchase, and require an extra ticket purchase. That sounds kind of insidious on the surface, but there are ways to do it that make sense.
Let’s say you only want to see Lang Lang, and don’t want to sit out on the lawn, and want to do it as cheaply as possible. On March 25, you’d buy “Choral Circle” stage seating for the minimum four “Price Level B” shows from the Choose-Your-Own-Series at $18 each, totaling $72. Then you’d have to add an extra ticket to Lang Lang, starting at $55 for either side balcony or stage seating.
That’s a $127 total to see Lang Lang, but it also means you get stage seating for—and these would be my picks—John Adams, Chucho Valdez, Wynton Marsalis, and Lila Downs. Divided by five, that’s only $25 per show.
There’s no word yet on what service charges will look like, but tickets are not sold through Ticketmaster, which is a good sign. SSU’s own in-house ticketing system will handle all orders; find out more here.
About Stage Seating: I’m telling you, it’s the way to go. It’s the cheapest ticket, it’s close to the performer, it provides a view of the audience, and with the acoustics in the Green Music Center being what they are, it still sounds great. I’ve sat in the stage seats at Davies Symphony Hall, and the only reason I’ve never done it again is because they’re always sold out.
Will the Santa Rosa Symphony Change Their Name?: No, they won’t. Though it may seem appropriate for the Santa Rosa Symphony to become the “Rohnert Park Symphony,” that’s not going to happen. Sara Obuchowski, Director of Marketing for the Santa Rosa Symphony, tells me they took the matter very seriously and discussed it at length, even hiring an outside consultant to analyze the pros and cons of a name change. In the end, “Santa Rosa Symphony” won. Though I’m sad to see the Santa Rosa Symphony leave Santa Rosa proper, calling them the “Rohnert Park Symphony” just wouldn’t feel right.
For more info., see the Green Music Center site.