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.
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.
What makes a Stabat Mater so special? Is it the holy text? The seriousness with which composers undertake the task? Whatever it may be, the Santa Rosa Symphonic Chorus and Santa Rosa Chamber Orchestra plucked every string in both chambers of the heart this weekend with their rousing performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Rosa.
Rossini’s version of the sacred text, which dates back to the 13th Century as a somber hymn about the Sorrows of Mary, is powerful in a very Rossini way. At first, it might be surprising to know Rossini even composed a Stabat Mater (it was to me, at least). But the Romantic composer known for wild operas like the Barber of Seville and William Tell (think The Lone Ranger theme) was known for memorable melodies and dramatic crescendos stayed true to the feeling of the piece.
Spring is anon, meaning festival announcements and venue bookings are being shot down the pipe faster than the flowers can bloom. In a quick overview, there’s Classics of Love (with Operation Ivy’s Jesse Michaels) at the Last Record Store (Mar. 28); bass-heavy knob twiddlers Crystal Method at the Phoenix Theater (Apr. 15); walking freak-folk embodiment Devendra Banhart at the Mystic Theatre (Apr. 17); fado sensation Mariza at the Napa Valley Opera House (Apr. 30); electronic visionary Bassnectar at the Hopmonk Tavern (May 4); soprano legend Kathleen Battle at the Marin Center (May 9); and Lucinda’s right-hand man Gurf Morlix at Studio E (May 16).
What’s that, you say? You like to watch TV more than you like to listen to music? Fear not! The Wells Fargo Center has the interminably funny Joel McHale, he of dryly absurd wisecracking on The Soup (Apr. 11); and hang on to your thong straps—the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma has glam-metal washup-turned-reality show “star” Bret Michaels (June 27) to attract a slutsational crowd good for copious dead-drunk bikini-clad hoochie watching beneath the ferris wheel. Look what the cat dragged in, indeed!
Sounding a different note entirely, Napa’s beautiful Festival del Sole steps forward this year with young violin sensation Sarah Chang (Jul. 18-19) and the return booking of Renée Fleming (pictured above, Jul. 23), who in the festival’s first year was forced to cancel her performance of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs due to illness. Iran’s most famous composer, Anoushirvan Rohani, will appear for a dinner and concert (Jul. 20), and the dashing Robert Redford—be still our throbbing hearts!—benefits his Sundance Preserve by narrating a piece to be announced (Carnival of the Animals? Peter and the Wolf? An interpretive tone poem of The Horse Whisperer?) at Castello di Amarosa (Jul. 21). Full lineup here.
In economic-crisis news, the Russian River Jazz Festival and the Russian River Blues Festival this year will be combined into one solitary September weekend as the Russian River Jazz & Blues Festival preserves a 30+ year tradition of great music on Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville. “This allows us to keep the Russian River festival tradition alive,” says Omega Events president Rich Sherman, “while enabling music fans to still enjoy their love of jazz and blues outdoors in this picturesque setting.” Saturday’s jazz lineup and Sunday’s blues lineup (Sept. 12-13) will be announced in April. Check here for updates.
After the Masada show at Yoshi’s, I overheard a guy talking to bassist extraordinaire Greg Cohen, who along with accompanying Ornette Coleman as of late was part of the great New York band on Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years and Swordfishtrombones. “Hey, guess who I played with the other week?” the guy asked. “Waits. Went up to his place and rehearsed.”
“Oh?” asked Cohen. “New material?”
It seems so. In addition to finally releasing Orphans on vinyl soon, Tom Waits’ publicist confirms that he is writing, rehearsing, mangling, fixing and re-mangling new material for an album to be released in the sometime-maybe-this-year-who-knows future. Recording is anticipated sometime this summer. Waits, of course, was last seen snapping photos of the brimming crowd that gathered en masse at his daughter Kellesimone’s art show in Santa Rosa.
Despite a mission statement promising to “present and preserve jazz,” it’s probably time to just roll over and accept that the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival’s gonna book whoever they’re gonna book. We could say, you know, Lyle Lovett has some sax players in his band. Joe Cocker, you know, he might play some solos. And hey, they added that tiny little “+” to their name to represent past headliners like Steve Winwood, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, LeAnn Rimes, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt and Kool & the Gang. Who are we to be snobs?
But look, since no other media outlet in the area seems brave enough to protect this American art form—and since local jazz programmers don’t want to be quoted saying “You mean that bullshit thing they call a jazz festival?” (actual quote)—it’s up to us. There are plainly no jazz artists headlining Sonoma Jazz+ 2009 this year. Around here, we’d even be cool if, like, Rick Braun was playing. But Chris Isaak?
Sonoma Jazz+ does many great things, not the least of which is providing support to music programs in area schools. They also have a second stage, and ‘Wine and Song in the Plaza’ with small combos. But in light of the PR assertion that they’ve already booked any jazz headliner who could fill a 3,800-seat tent, our suggestion is to honor jazz and please just call the festival what it actually is: the Sonoma Music and Wine Festival. Joe Cocker, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, Ziggy Marley, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Shelby Lynne and Keb’ Mo’ come to Sonoma May 21-24. Tickets are on sale here.
Simultaneous with the creative definitions emanating from Sonoma is the encouraging news from the Healdsburg Jazz Festival announcing its initial lineup, and it looks great. John Handy, Randy Weston, Airto Moreira, Esperanza Spaulding, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Denny Zeitlin and Julian Lage head up a list-in-progress of bona fide jazz headliners appearing May 29-June 7 this year. For updates, check here.
Hey man, the Harmony Festival is full of good vibes this year! Michael Franti, India Arie, Matisyahu, Cake, Steve Kimock, ALO, Balkan Beat Box, and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars head up the festival June 12-14 at the Fairgrounds. Barring any John Mclaughlin-esque guitar freakouts by Kimock, the weekend should be bereft of maniacal discord. Be harmonious.
The Santa Rosa Symphony announced its rough sketch for the 2009-2010 season today, including a finale performance by Ute Lemper singing Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins! Also on the slate: returning conductor emeritus Jeffrey Kahane playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (the one from Shine), performances of Beethoven’s 4th, 5th and 9th symphonies, Mozart’s Requiem, a program celebrating Chopin’s 200th birthday, the Red Violin concerto, and more. I always love the symphony’s Magnum Opus commissions, and Bahzad Ranjbaran’s new work will receive its world premiere next season as well.
On a semi-related note, I listened to Elliott Carter last night—an LP I found years ago, bought for the cover art and loved for the music. It’s his Sonata for Cello and Piano, and I still love it. Unbelievable that he’s 100 years old and still completely lucid about his work. I love the excerpt from this interview, which succinctly captures not only his sense of humor but the reason why I give such a damn about music:
Q: Could you imagine a day when people, concertgoers, would hear your music and walk out humming your music?
A: Well… it’d be hard on their throats!
Q: What would you want the listener to walk away with after hearing your music?
A: Happiness. And pleasure. One of the fundamental things always that music should do is not only give pleasure, but widen one’s horizons, and give new kinds of fantasies, and new kinds of pleasure, and new kinds of surprises, and new kinds of connections between things.
During my interview with Christopher O’Riley about his performance with the Santa Rosa Symphony of Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3, he warned of the difficulties involved in the concerto’s second movement: “It’s really important to get the mix right with the orchestra, and to have them participatory instead of deferentially,” he said. “It’s a real concerto for piano with orchestra, not piano and orchestra. And so hopefully we’ll get that right.”
O’Riley, who strode to the stage last night in a dramatic, long black button-up coat, handled Bartok’s swiftly shifting themes in the first movement with keen versatility. The second movement, as predicted, tested the delicate balance between O’Riley and the orchestra—truthfully, a strenuous challenge of musical ESP—but the seesaw only faltered a couple times during passages of whimsy, somber tones and mid-century blues lines. And the triumphant finale after the third movement brought the crowd to their feet as O’Riley determinedly yanked conductor Bruno Ferrandis off the podium to clasp hands, orchestra and pianist together sharing in the praise.
One of the nice things that Ferrandis has brought to the Santa Rosa Symphony is variety, and tonight’s set included Janácek’s suspense-ridden From the House of the Dead overture, played beautifully. (Incidentally, I watched Brian De Palma’s Sisters last week, mostly to hear Bernard Herrmann’s score, and the overture reminded me of Herrmann, famous for his work with Alfred Hitchcock.) Brooding pulses, high-pitched discord and yes—I’m not kidding—clanging steel chains, rattled in time to the music.
After the intermission, the orchestra was completely in its element for Brahms’ Symphony no. 1, full of sweeping passages, nice solos (particularly the flute) and a crescendo-busting, whiz-bang ending. Just when the night couldn’t have ended any better, it was announced that this very month marks the 80th anniversary of the Santa Rosa Symphony (which presented its first performance in April of 1928) and to mark the occasion there was free cake and champagne for everyone afterwards in the lobby. Right on!
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P.S. Christopher O’Riley, well-known as an interpreter of Radiohead, Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith, felt pretty weird about being billed as a “hipster” pianist. But I can understand why. After all, how many classical soloists know how to play Guided by Voices’ “Surgical Focus”? And how many classical soloists have this as their ringback music?: