Award-winning Asheville, NC, bluegrass ensemble Steep Canyon Rangers is having another busy summer, touring the country with Steve Martin and finishing up touches on a new LP, Radio, due to be released in early September.
And for your listening pleasure, the band has released the music video for the album’s title track and first single. The nostalgic lyrics and melodic fiddles of “Radio” are presented in a video collage made up from intimate, on-the-road footage gathered from the band’s relentless touring life.
Earlier this year, I caught up with Steep Canyon Rangers banjo player Graham Sharp. You can read that interview here. And click below to hear “Radio.”
Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers perform on Thursday, Aug 20, at the Green Music Center, 1801 East Cotati Ave, Rohnert Park. 866.955.6040.
July 4 was full of patriotic mainstays at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center, with songs that celebrated both the country and Collins’ long career. Her touch on the Cole Porter songbook brought tingles of nostalgia to the crowd, and a John Denver medley was superbly arranged and executed. The show-stopping Sondheim classic, “Send in the Clowns,” the song Collins is perhaps best known for, was nothing short of marvelous.
“I said, ‘I want to do this song,’” she recalls telling her manager upon hearing it. “He says, ‘It’s been recorded 200 times already,’ and I told him I don’t care.”
Even at 75, Collins’ voice still has a good amount of power. The Santa Rosa Symphony kept up with her and her piano accompanist, but took a well deserved break during an a cappella rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.” The lawn patrons were less enthusiastic with the sing-along, perhaps because it was not as loud in the back of the sloped grass as inside the main hall.
The relaxing atmosphere is really the best way to experience a concert like this one; it’s relaxing to be able to lay back, watch the clouds and enjoy food and drink while tuning in and out of the concert. Intensive listening can be exhausting after a couple hours, and the casual setting provided perfect respite during Collins’ storytelling breaks between songs, which took up about one-third of the show.
The fireworks went off without a hitch this year, a welcome change from last year’s celebration at the GMC, when the light show was cancelled due to a technical difficulty. This year’s production was only marred by unusual July fog, but the explosions were still invigorating and loud enough to rattle ribcages.
Renée Fleming is a reeeeeeally good singer, but you already knew that. Hell, she’s probably the best American soprano performing today, but anyone who reads the arts & entertainment section knows that already, too. What we learned at her performance at Saturday’s opening concert of the second season at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center was that she loves the venue, deeming it a “favorite stop” for big-name touring artists.
Before singing “The hills are alive, with the sound of music,” Fleming described what she saw looking out at the rolling, green hills outside the opened rear wall of the main hall, saying she was “inspired” by the view. Indeed, her performance of the showtune was inspired, despite a false start, and had many in the 1,600-person crowd singing along.
Though not full to its 3,400-capacity (the interior showed some empty chairs; the tiered seating area was nearly full outside; the sloped hill beyond that was almost vacant), the concert could not have featured a more beautiful performance. Even sitting outside, Fleming and pianist Gerald Martin Moore were visible on the stage and facial expressions and the details of her stunning dresses (a silver gown by Vivienne Westwood followed by a golden gown with an opera cape by Angel Sanchez) were highlighted on a giant screen, with several camera shots including one inside the piano and one showing the crowd outside. Fleming’s voice carried just beyond the edge of the hall and was reinforced by a transparent sound system, picking up just the right amount of the hall’s beautiful acoustics to highlight its rich treatment of the human voice.
The program included classical pieces by Handel, Canteloube, Delibes, Korngold, Cilea, Puccini, Zandonal, Johan Strauss II and Richard Straus, whom Fleming called her “desert island composer.” Her performances of the latter composer’s work were especially touching, in part because he wrote such beautiful music for the soprano voice, but it was apparent that she was moved by it beyond notes on a staff. A section folk tunes, including a medley of “The River is Wide” and “Shenandoah” and a performance of “Wild Horses” by folk artist Jean Richie, ended with a powerful rendition of “We Hold These Truths” by J. Todd Frazier, a slow, stirring piece with text from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence.
Fleming finished with two songs from West Side Story (“I Feel Pretty” and “Somewhere”) and two Rogers & Hammerstein classics (“The Sound of Music” and “A Wonderful Guy”). And for her encore, another crowd favorite: “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. Taking advantage of the unique forum, Fleming broke the rules of a classical music hall’s opening gala–she invited all the singers in the audience to participate in the second half of the song, which freed her up to improvise a bit. From designer dresses to mom jeans, tuxedos to T-shirts, voices from the crowd carried the tune while Fleming showcased her incredible range and comfort on stage. Even outside the hall, we felt the warmth of a vocal embrace surrounding us.
Upcoming concerts at the Green Music Center include superstar pianist Lang Lang Sept. 17, classical violinist Itzhak Perlman Sept. 21, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock Sept. 28 and soprano Ruth Ann Swenson Sept. 29.
Renee Fleming, Izthak Perlman, Hilary Hahn, Lang Lang, Jessye Norman, Herbie Hancock to Play Green Music Center
Made public in a season announcement today, the Green Music Center‘s second season includes Renee Fleming, Izthak Perlman, Hilary Hahn, Lang Lang, Jessye Norman, Herbie Hancock, Richard Goode, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Mariza, Bryn Terfel, Garrick Ohlsson, Ruth Ann Swenson and more.
Without a doubt, this is another star-studded season for the center, which opened on the campus of SSU last year. Classical enthusiasts, especially, have reason to celebrate.
Renee Fleming will appear in a season opener on Sunday, Sept. 15, at 3pm.
Lang Lang, who performed at the hall’s grand opening last September, returns on Sept. 17.
Tickets for the season range from $27–$140 each, with subscription packages available starting today for donors in the $1,000 Benefactor Society and higher; Tuesday, April 2 for current subscribers and all MasterCard holders; and Monday, April 22 to the general public.
SSU students receive 50% off.
Ticket sales and more info. can be found at the Green Music Center’s site.
Other dates are as follows:
So Yo-Yo Ma’s deep into the third movement of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, right? And he’s plucking and pulling at the strings like a madman, and bouncing his bow all over the strings, and then he starts strumming the cello while grunting and heaving loudly and banging his head. And then, in the midst of all this chaos, Yo-Yo Ma twists his instrument sideways, stands up halfway out of his chair, throws his head backwards and at the same time glides the bow ever so softly to produce one entirely delicate, gossamer note that hangs in the air like silk.
You think you know Yo-Yo Ma; he’s the face of virtually every other PBS telethon, he’s a constant at awards shows and inaugurations, he’s the punchline for cheap standup comics because of his name. But as proven by a jaw-dropping performance at the Green Music Center on Saturday night, you don’t know Yo-Yo Ma until you see the man live, doing unearthly things with a cello and wresting a lifetime of emotion from his sheet music—which, incidentally, he ignores most of the time.
The San Francisco Symphony’s opening night performance at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center was beautiful and exciting. Each player in the symphony is fantastic individually, and together under the baton of the rockstar of the classical world, Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra elucidated every ounce emotion in the evening’s music program. Weill Hall, the acoustic gem and main hall of the GMC, plays gorgeously to this. The premier acoustic space seems to widen the ear canal, allowing for more sound to be heard at once than ever thought possible. The pieces on this night showcased this clarity.
Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (Op.28) begins with a sneaky little theme, proceeding to take the listener through all sorts of jollity but always with the sense of danger right around the corner. After all, a little mischief never hurt anyone, just don’t get caught. The clarinetist in this piece has a challenge, playing extremely high notes, the highest the instrument can make. I ran into a much loved SSU music professor during intermission, and he suggested this piece was specifically chosen for tonight to showcase the acoustics of the hall. I couldn’t agree more. The fast runs in the higher registers translated not into harsh overtones, but velvety notes that were easily followable in the clarity of the space. When the merry prankster does get caught (and executed), the low bass and drum notes were ferocious, vibrating my loose pant legs (or was that just my legs trembling from the tremendous magnitude of unamplified sound?)
The only sound that hasn’t made me gush so far in this hall is the low mid frequency. It can sound a bit muddled, especially with piano. On opening night with superstar Lang Lang at piano, his dexterous Mozart performance was lost a bit in this register, and parts of the SF Symphony performance were not as sonically brilliant in this area during faster sections. It sounds as though this frequency takes longer to develop than others in the hall. But really, this is splitting hairs. It’s not a problem so much as an observation.
Yefim Bronfman’s playing on Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto (Emperor) was superb. It was not flashy or self-indulgent but more bold and heroic like the piece itself. Though it did not have the passion one would imagine of Beethoven himself pounding the ivory keys, demanding more from his instrument than ever thought possible, it was not lacking for emotion, either. Whether it was just my ears or the players adjusting to the space, during the first five minutes it felt like the piano was just a hair too soft. But soon after, everything settled in. From then on it was pure ecstasy, like listening to a fabulous recording on the best audio system, but it was real, and it was happening right in front of us. I was reminded of this when, during a quiet moment just before the piano flourish at the end of the final movement, a cell phone, ironically with the “piano” ringtone, went off somewhere in the building. This only made enhanced the experience for me with its reminder that it was taking place in reality.
Also performed this evening was “Pandora,” which the SF Symphony had just performed for the first time the night before. This 20-minute piece for strings written by SF Symphony assistant concertmaster and violinist Mark Volkert in 2010 again showcased the heavenly acoustics of the main hall with several solos and double basses playing extended low notes, vibrating the floor in some cases. It is a 21st century work, to be sure, but it is more accessible than some newer pieces. It’s a story piece with a concrete narrative following the Greek myth of Pandora, and can be followed without too much confusion and with beautiful imagery. Volkert was in the audience and came up from his seat to shake hands with MTT after the piece. Both looked quite pleased with the result.
The sad truth of a generation hooked on mp3s is they will rarely experience a full acoustic experience in music. Earbuds are a terrible listening device, reproducing, at best, about two-thirds of the human hearing spectrum. The best mp3 is 25 percent of the data of a full recording compressed into the middle of the frequency spectrum where our ears are tuned to listen more easily. Without getting too technical, let’s just say the sound is flat and lifeless. The main hall at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center is the anti-mp3. It is pure sonic expression, giving music a forum to be heard as it was intended by its creator and perhaps even enhancing it through the warmth of the acoustic environment. Though their home, Davies’ Symphony Hall in San Francisco, is stunning in its own right, I wouldn’t be surprised if members of the SF Symphony prefer playing in Weill Hall. This was the first of four SF Symphony performances at the Green Music Center for its 2012-2013 season, and hopefully next season features even more.
It’s a concert hall hailed for impeccable acoustics, but the Green Music Center had an unfortunate reverberation to deal with after Chucho Valdes’ performance on Sunday night—the mutterings from the audience about the show’s bad sound mix.
Out in the lobby immediately after the show, I ran into a jazz radio DJ and a professional pianist, both going down the list of problems. The piano was tinny and abrasive. The drums were far too loud. The piano, in turn, was turned up in the mix to compensate, which only made everything worse, and although Valdés tried to talk into the microphone after each song, it wasn’t turned on for 40 minutes.
I heard the same problems during the show, but I sat in the seats behind the stage, where the sound is bound to be a little strange. Was it really that bad out on the floor? I decided to find out, and a stroll around the lobby yielded even harsher criticism.
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.
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.