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.