By now, perhaps you’ve heard about, read about or even seen the construction of the new SFJAZZ Center on the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets in San Francisco. Now complete, the 35,000-sq.-ft. building is poised to redefine live jazz in the Bay Area, as it’s funded largely by private donations and handily dispenses with the tables-and-waitresses, two-drink minimum nightclub model.
After the SFJAZZ Center was announced, entirely valid concerns rose about the “museumification” of jazz. Jazz has always thrived in nightclubs—or, for that matter, seedy bars. Charles Mingus’ famous remarks about nightclub chatter notwithstanding, a certain amount of cultural globetrotting is present when the blues is played on the stage of a $64 million performing arts center.
I’m happy to report that the SFJAZZ Center strikes just the right balance between nightclub and theater. Cup holders allow the audience to bring drinks in from the bar, but nobody drops a credit card tray in front of you while the headliner is in the middle of a particularly engrossing solo. The sound, notably, is stunning, thanks to architect Mark Cavagnero and acoustician Sam Berkow. And as a mini-amphitheater set in the semi-round, with a steeply raked floor, the hall is very intimate—capacity is 700, but feels much smaller than that. There are no seats further than 50 feet from the stage.
By now, you’ve read about how many millions went into the Green Music Center, you’ve seen photos of Sonoma County movers and shakers in tuxedos and gowns, you’ve read about the hall’s world-class lineup and perfect acoustics, and maybe you’ve thought, “Oh well, I’m not part of Santa Rosa’s upper crust—doubt I’ll ever be able to go there.”
Guess what? It’s just not true. Although last night’s grand opening twinkled with glitterati, from Nancy Pelosi to Governor Jerry Brown, today’s Santa Rosa Symphony opening offered a look at exactly how the common person can enjoy the place. White-collar donors, blue-collar fans, y’all.
I was headed to the hardware store today, to be honest, and I was certainly dressed for the plumbing aisle in cutoffs, tennies, and a T-shirt. Halfway to Friedman Bros., though, the lingering buzz from last night’s opening caused a spontaneous left turn onto Petaluma Hill Road to get myself to the 2pm symphony opening. “I’ve been watching the Santa Rosa Symphony for 25 years,” I thought to myself, “and I’m going to miss Corrick Brown, Jeffrey Kahane and Bruno Ferrandis inaugurating a beautiful new venue. . . . so I can work on plumbing? Am I nuts?”
So, bypassing the long line of Lexuses clogging Petaluma Hill Road near the Green Music Center, I parked my clunky old car in the south lot of SSU and caught the shuttle. (This is tip No. 1.) Waited for a while in line at the box office, and then asked, “Do you have any lawn tickets?” Yes, they did. What’s more, lawn tickets were free. That’s right: F-R-E-E.
I felt underdressed for a symphony opening, but lots of other people out on the lawn were wearing shorts, too. Some were eating hot dogs. Others were laying flat on their back in the grass. A few dudes were drinking Lagunitas IPA. See those trees down the side of the concrete walkway in the photo below? That’s considered “lawn,” too, meaning you can sit just as close for a fraction of the cost—we sat far off to the side, but still, right up front.
So, yeah, did I mention the concession stands? Formerly, the Santa Rosa Symphony food offerings were limited to wine and cookies. I scanned the menu today, which included salads, wraps and fruit bowls, and got a burger. It was five bucks. Another three bucks bought my three-year-old a hot dog. That’s half the cost of ballpark prices, right there.
And about that three-year-old of mine. There’s no way I could have brought her to a grand opening of the symphony at its old home. Outside on the lawn seemed like a safe bet. Being able to talk to her about the pieces, the instruments and the performers while we listened to the music and watched the jumbotrons on either side of the lawn made it a special daddy-daughter outing—her first symphony. Those with kids, take note.
Yes, it was hot. But that’s another bonus of the lawn’s casual nature: if you want to leave, you just get up and leave, without worry of disapproving stares from the benefactor’s circle. Plenty of tables were abandoned by the end of the program, and we bailed just before the end of Bolero to beat both the heat and the traffic. In doing so, we passed even more people who were lounging around barefoot, fanning themselves in tank tops or flip-flops, or just plain sleeping on the ground. Sleeping on the ground, at the symphony! Crazy!
From the Notebook: What a treat it was to watch Corrick Brown conduct again, and yet the highlight for me was Jeffrey Kahane, whose piano playing I’ll take over Lang Lang’s any day. His notes have far more definition, and unlike Lang Lang, he extracts from the score what the composer truly intends instead of what he believes will most titillate the crowd. . . . Symphony Executive Director Alan Silow waxed the usual rhapsodies about the hall, predicting that in ten years, Sonoma County would become as well-known a destination for the performing arts as we are for our wine. But he also delivered a veiled reference to election year, noting that the emotional connection music provides can be “a really healing force in a divided world.” . . . Charlie Schlangen, symphony board president, thanked several of the hall’s donors, and Don and Maureen Green stood up to receive another sustained, thunderous standing ovation . . . Seated applause for all the others.
Schlangen also thanked the city of Santa Rosa, and the Santa Rosa Visitors’ Bureau; if I’m not mistaken, there was no mention of Rohnert Park from the stage. You might think this a curious omission for a Rohnert Park-situated orchestra, but between retaining the name “Santa Rosa Symphony” and applying for and receiving a $15,000 grant paid for by a business improvement tax on Santa Rosa hotels, the symphony clearly has designs on keeping ties to its hometown. Their main offices are still right across from Santa Rosa City Hall, so what the hell. . . . Oh! Kudos to Nolan Gasser, composer of Sonoma Overture, written for this day—the piece danced along fantastically—lively, triumphant and very early-20th-Century-American-sounding. After the orchestra pounded out the final downbeat, the hall erupted, and Gasser himself came from the wings for his bow. Always a treat to stand and personally applaud the composer. . . . Over at the PD, there’s possibly the world’s eeriest photo of Bruno Ferrandis. Someone cast this guy in a Lars Von Trier film! . . . And I gotta say, the tradition of the gong being struck at the beginning of all shows at the Green Music Center is a fun one, presumably with rotating honors, like throwing in the first pitch or ringing the NASDAQ morning bell. Note to self: new life goal. Strike gong.
More Photos Below.
It started with a gong, and ended with a bang.
When we remember the grand opening of the Green Music Center years from now, we’ll talk about the hall. We’ll talk about the pianist on stage, Lang Lang. But we’ll also talk about the see-and-be-seen atmosphere, and the fact that for one night, dignitaries like Jerry Brown and Nancy Pelosi visited the otherwise quiet suburb of Rohnert Park.
“It’s a marvel,” said Governor Brown of the hall, casually sipping a glass of wine near a stageside box seat and chatting amiably with the public during intermission. “I’m glad to be here.”
Glad, too, were the other 3,400 estimated people in attendance witnessing this rare, strange piece of history. Strange because of the long, obstacle-laden ride toward opening the hall at a public university, and rare because, really, how often does the governor pop in on Sonoma State University? (Overheard was at least one younger attendee pleading with him to increase funding for education, alas.)
But the whole point of the night was the venue’s debutante ball, with Lang Lang as its chaperone. After a ceremonial gong pealed from the outdoor balcony, SSU President Ruben Armiñana stood on stage to announce visiting luminaries and major donors. Jerry Brown? Oh, he got a polite round of applause and all. He certainly couldn’t compete with namesake donors Donald and Maureen Green, the first to contribute financially to the project, who received a rapturous standing ovation.
Sandy Weill then took the podium, gazed over the hall that bears his name, and elicited the first unintentional laugh of the night. “To see a music center like this being part of the campus of Sonoma State,” he said, “will make this university known all over the world through our priceless partnership with Mastercard.” (It wasn’t a joke, but the crowd chuckled anyway.) Before ceding the stage to Lang Lang, Weill also expressed gratitude for the Harvest Moon, meant to bring good luck; if every performance is as special as tonight’s, the hall may not need it.
There are a few reasons why Lang Lang was a perfect choice with which to open the concert space. One is his popularity. Two, his dramatic, flamboyant stage presence is apropos for an event imbued with such importance. But for purposes of introducing the hall’s fine-tuned acoustics, Lang Lang’s touch is incredible. Tonight, his notes seemed to emerge out of thin air, and then dissipated just as smoothly. During Mozart’s Sonata No. 5, the hall responded to even the tiniest nuance, amplifying each dynamic choice, like droplets hitting a glassy-surfaced lake at dawn and producing pure, clean ripples in the water.
After the Mozart sonatas, Chopin’s Ballades 1 through 4 comprised the second set, where the hall had a chance to bench-press Lang Lang’s dexterity. At times, the pianist seemed to extend certain phrases simply to hear the reverberation; then again, taking liberties with the score is as much a hallmark of Lang Lang’s performances as selling the material. And boy, is Lang Lang a power seller—when his fingers hit a key, it’s not just his finger hitting that key. The force originates somewhere in his back, his feet, the air—take your pick—and glides through his body, with a pitstop at the face for emotive expression, to delicately trickle through the epidermal border and finally channel into the piano.
At the end of the prepared program, Lang Lang addressed the audience, off-mic. “I know that we are really proud to have this beautiful hall in this wonderful community,” he said. “And I know it took a really long time.”
Then, mentioning it was his first time performing any of the pieces in the program, Lang Lang suggested something familiar: a Chopin nocturne. Another encore followed, the applause was lenghty and hearty, and the lights came up.
The concert was over, but the night didn’t end there. SSU arranged for fireworks after the set, bursting above patrons in their gowns outside on the red carpet and on the large, expansive lawn. Classical piano gave way to John Philip Sousa, Ray Charles, Kenny Chesney and R. Kelly while huge explosions popped overhead, illuminating the courtyard, the parking lot half-full of Priuses and Lexuses and the VIPs gallivanting at the aftershow gala.
Without a doubt, a new era for the arts dawns in Sonoma County.
More photos below.