The making of the Donald and Maureen Green Music Center and the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall
Dr. Ruben Armiñana doesn’t play any instrument. Not the bass guitar, not the bassoon, not even the bongos. He had one disastrous violin lesson, his first and last. His favorite composer is John Philip Sousa. And yet, the spectacular Green Music Center was a twinkle in his eye before it occurred to anyone else. That happened almost 20 years ago.
Armiñana is president of Sonoma State University, and he had always wanted to bring more arts to his liberal arts university. But how? By chance he attended a concert at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer venue in western Massachusetts. The concert was given in the newly constructed Seiji Ozawa Hall, the back of which opens up so people can enjoy music under the stars.
During intermission, Armiñana wandered into a bookstore on the site and purchased a little booklet about the construction of the stunning new hall. He read it over quickly, his heart racing. Returning to his seat, he stuck the booklet in his pocket, and said to himself, “Now we have a roadmap.”
Why not have this kind of venue in Sonoma County, he thought. Here in Lenox, Masschusetts, he concluded as he sat back down, scratching a mosquito bite or two, it’s hot, humid, and buggy. There, it’s “dry, cool, and without flying insects.” In addition, his Seiji Ozawa Hall would be attached to a large public university where it could play a major learning role, a “lab,” as he puts it, for arts students of all stripes.
Like many dreams, this one was a long time coming. Groundbreaking in a yellow grass field on a far corner of the university campus took place in 2001. For years, those driving by could see only an odd up-sloping structure rising above the meadow, looking a lot like a ski jump or part of an outsized skateboard park.
But on September 29, the building with the curving roof will open to thousands, its 1,406 seats booked months ago, its outdoor tables filled for the Hall’s debut concert. Chinese superstar Lang Lang will christen the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Lawn and Commons with a tour de force performance on piano.
Some of those attending the concert that night, those with generations of Sonoma County history, may have been shocked to find all this happening in a place where not so long ago there were more cows than people, where imagining anything of world-class culture would have been a stretch. Then came world-class wine, of course, and the rest is recent history.
Without Armiñana’s uncensored imagination and the generous donations of Donald and Maureen Green and Joan and Sanford Weill, among more than 1,800 others, the magnificent hall would simply never have happened. But already several concerts are sold out months ahead of their dates.
Those lucky enough to attend the inaugural Lang Lang concert will be in magical territory as soon as they arrive. They’ll walk toward the Weill Hall on Spanish tiles down a path lined by 100-year old olive trees, their gnarled trunks more than two feet in diameter. They’ll enter a grand foyer where donors’ names are inscribed and, as they find their seats, they will be struck by the stunning simplicity of the place: a symphony in wood and stone, flowing together perfectly like a Bach fugue. Steamed European beech, Douglas fir, and white maple seats, stage, floor, and railings projecting a woodsy feeling of warmth and welcome.
Sitting down, visitors are surprised by how comfortable wooden, slatted seats can be, especially when fitted with cushions of three separate layers and densities of foam. Some may not notice, but under each seat is a green circle, several inches in diameter. These circles regulate the hall’s natural air-conditioning. Built over a layer of air, with just the ground—that is, dirt—below, the hall is cooled by the 59-degree temperature of the earth itself, let in a little or a lot depending on the adjustment of those circles.
For the audience, though, the best of what Weill Hall has to offer is yet to come. It is, as it should be, the sound that Armiñana says he’s proudest of. Lang Lang’s every note will be heard in crystal clarity due to world-class acoustics engineered by Lawrence Kiergegaard and architect William Rawn, the same renowned duo who created Seiji Ozawa Hall in Massachusetts and whose names were on the booklet Armiñana stuffed in his pocket that humid night. Even the seats are acoustically neutral, empty or filled. In fact, each beechwood seat was made by hand with minute adjustments to fit its exact placement in the hall for the sake of sound. Slats that front the balconies are designed to let sound flow through. Window curtains with baffles adjust (by computer!) to suit the kind of music being played, be it vocal or jazz or a full orchestra. Speakers are everywhere; outside they are hidden underground and in trees so those sitting at the 2,000 tables or on the terraced lawn won’t miss the subtle shadings of notes and delicate phrasings even in pianissimo.
The stage on which Lang Lang will sit rises up and down on a cushion of air. Its layers of white maple fold into themselves to create a lower, higher or flat surface, as needed. And of course the entire back of the shoebox-shaped hall slides open for the outside audience. When closed, that wall too is acoustically neutral.
Once the applause for Lang Lang finally dies out, it will be comforting to remember that this was only the inaugural weekend, just the beginning of an inaugural year encompassing the world’s most distinguished performers in five categories: Acclaimed Classical Musicians, Orchestral Concerts (this is the permanent home of the Santa Rosa Symphony). Vocal Arts Series, Jazz and world Music, and Early Music Offerings.
Big names stand out in all groups. Alison Krauss & Union Station will appear that very first weekend. Later, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and Vadim Repin, four concerts with the San Francisco Symphony, two with music director Michael Tilson Thomas; vocalists Stephanie Blythe, Elina Garanca, Joyce diDonato, and Barbara Cook will take the stage. Wynton Marsalis headlines the Jazz and World Music series; and Early Music Offerings include Tallis Scholars and Masaaki Suzuki conducting Philharmonia Baroque with original instruments in Handel’s Messiah.
And not to forget, too, that the Donald and Maureen Green Music Center is not just a concert hall: It is a complex. Shroeder Hall, a 250-seat space for choral works, is already under construction thanks to Jean Schulz, and named after the Beethoven-obsessed Peanuts character her late husband created. And soon Mastercard will construct an outdoor amphitheater for amplified music, dance, and large crowds. A fine-dining restaurant will open shortly. And true to Armiñana’s vision, there is an education center with practice rooms, lecture halls and ensemble spaces that are already attracting new students and dozens of events for Music Department students.
Different views of the Joan and Sanford Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA