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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I arrived at Warren Auditorium tonight, there were already more than 20 people standing in the hallway outside the theater, craning their necks to see through the doors. There were additional seats, full of people, placed behind the stage. There were speakers going out into the lobby, where even more people stood.
You shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.
It is unfortunate that one of the greatest listening experiences to be had in Sonoma County all year had to come with a tinge of sadness. Mel Graves, the great bassist and composer, died on Saturday of terminal cancer, just one day before the big farewell concert that he’d organized and looked forward to. The music heard tonight—presented by Mel’s alumni, close friends and colleagues—was so incredible, so blossoming and full of life. It was an utterly fitting tribute for a passionate, funny, smart, brilliant man.
I was lucky to be able to hang out with Mel a couple times in the last year. He was a no-nonsense soul who was at equal ease discussing the difference in the 1964 and 1965 versions of Charles Mingus’ “Meditations” as he was accepting life’s ultimate key change. The last time I stopped by his Petaluma home, his girlfriend Pam was taking care of him with what was obviously a great deal of love. He was surrounded by notes, preparing for this farewell concert, suggested by his friend Jessica Felix and which he himself titled, in pure Mel fashion, “Movin’ On.” He was at peace.
My only wish is that he could have seen the gales of love that were showered on him tonight. Hopefully he felt it.
Among the highlights: Denny Zeitlin, recalling the phone call he received in 1968 from a young Graves who said “I’ve just come out from the Midwest, and I love your stuff on Columbia, and I want to play with you.” (Graves and Zeitlin would go on to play together for 40 years.) Zeitlin sat down, chalked up his hands, and played a commanding, emotionally charged improvisation which led into “What Is This Thing Called Love” before it ended, hanging in air, unresolved.
Mel Martin, recalling the inconvenience of working so often with someone who shared his name. Both Mels eventually discovered that Martin’s Melvyn was spelled with a Y; Graves’ Melvin with an I. “He’d call me up, and say ‘Hey there, Y,’ and I’d say, Hey, I.’ I will miss that.” The band then kicked into “Flamenco Sketches,” and Martin played a razor-sharp cascading solo.
One of Graves’ specific requests for the night’s program was for Zeitlin and guest pianist Art Lande to sit together and play a four-hand piano duet, and he would have been bowled over at the results. Assuming the “missionary position” with crossed arms, the two oscillated from battling each other to cooperating on the keys in what was the night’s most freewheeling and humorous moment.
But most of all, every player on stage seemed to exhibit a certain extra empathy. There was a lot of listening going on between the players, and perhaps this was why they were so wonderful to listen to. During the final number, a solitary chorus of Gordon Jenkins’ beautiful ballad “Goodbye,” each member of the bandstand was united in the cause to properly bid farewell to their friend. The standing ovation from the full theater was overwhelming.
Aw, you shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.