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Beautiful Music

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
December, 2012 Issue


The opening of Green Music Center brings a world-class music facility to the North Bay.

 
On a stage built of white maple, a black Fazioli concert grand piano resonated with rich sustain in the hands of Kamen Nikolov, a classically trained pianist and associate director of production operations for the Donald and Maureen Green Music Center (GMC) at Sonoma State University. Two weeks before the official opening of Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, the center’s focal point, Nikolov played a portion of Beethoven’s “Pathetique Sonata” for a small group of visitors. The final, mournful chord from the first movement’s allegro lingered undisturbed in the hall’s climate-controlled air. It was a brief but powerful demonstration of Weill Hall’s music-centric construction and attention to acoustic detail.
 
It’s been 15 years since the Greens committed $10 million to build a concert hall on the SSU campus. Donald Green, one of the founders of Telecom Valley, and his wife are active supporters of local choral groups. Together with the university’s president, Ruben Armiñana, they first envisioned a music venue in Sonoma County made specifically for unamplified choral and instrumental performances. But the university’s dream for the center grew ever larger––along with the cost––to include music education classrooms and rehearsal halls for students, offices for faculty, a restaurant and hospitality wing and an amphitheater and lawn space to accommodate up to 10,000 concert goers.
 
After all the expense (close to $148 million) and years of waiting, GMC was finally ready for its close-up in late September. Two diverse evening concerts tested Weill Hall’s capacity to host close to 6,500 audience members at a time, both inside the hall itself (1,400 seats) and outside on the adjacent lawn space known as Weill Lawn (where there’s room for another 5,100). Only days before the grand opening, contractors and landscapers were racing against the clock to finish the lawn seating, polish the grand marble staircase and fine-tune the venue’s acoustics in preparation for Mozart sonatas performed by pianist Lang Lang one night and lively bluegrass toe-tappers courtesy Allison Krauss & Union Station just 24 hours later. The hall’s new resident orchestra, the Santa Rosa Symphony, also kicked off its inaugural season at the venue Sunday afternoon with an orchestral opening concert featuring its current and past conductors (Jeffrey Kahane and Corrick Brown, respectively).
 

Labor of love

In addition to Donald and Maureen Green, other local philanthropists contributed large sums of money over the years to keep the music center project moving forward. They included Jean Schulz, wife of the late “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz; Evert Person and his wife, Norma, one-time owners of The Press Democrat; business executive John Webley and his wife, Jennifer; Herb Dwight, former CEO of Optical Coating Laboratory, and his wife, Jane; and the Trione Foundation, founded by local businessman Henry Trione.
 
But it was the single largest cash donation in SSU’s history––$12 million, courtesy of “Sandy” and Joan Weill in 2011––that made it possible to fast-track completion of the music hall.
 
“For us, philanthropy is much more than just writing a check,” the Weills announced in a prepared statement. “It’s donating our time, energy and knowledge to the causes we’re passionate about. There is no question that [the Green Music Center] has been a labor of love…it could be a transformative project not just for the [SSU] campus but for the entire Northern California community.”
 
Relative newcomers to Sonoma County, the Weills purchased a grand estate near the town of Sonoma in 2010 for $31 million, one of the priciest transactions of its kind in the county. They were already widely known for their philanthropic projects in the arts, education and health care, mostly on the East Coast. Sandy Weill is the former chief executive of Citigroup and has been chair of the board of trustees of Carnegie Hall in New York for more than 20 years. Joan Weill has served as chair of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Foundation since 2000, and the Joan Weill Center for Dance at Alvin Ailey in New York City is reportedly the nation’s largest facility dedicated to dance.
 
Before the Weills came on the scene, a number of factors had contributed to delays in completing GMC, including escalating construction costs, economic downturns and sluggish fund-raising. The price had ballooned from an estimated $40 million in the mid-2000s to more than $140 million by the time it was finished.
 

From classrooms to concerts

The first structure erected at GMC was the exterior shell of Schroeder Hall, named by Jean Schulz after the piano-playing character in her husband’s beloved comic strip. Construction soon followed on the adjacent two-story music education facility and headquarters of the SSU Music Department, which opened in 2008. At 27,152 square feet, the facility is comprised of two soundproofed ensemble/rehearsal rooms, a dozen practice rooms for solo instruments, five classrooms large enough for up to 60 students each, numerous administration and faculty offices and conference rooms.
 
The hospitality center, with a restaurant and patio named Prelude, came online next. Meanwhile, the building that would become known as Weill Hall was also taking shape, with steel reinforcements rising from its foundation in the summer of 2007. By late 2008, skilled carpenters were hard at work crafting the hall’s predominately wood interior. Private recitals and fund-raisers began in October 2010; at that time, several million dollars more were needed to construct 1,400 permanent, acoustically neutral wooden chairs, and to finish the hall’s restrooms, lobby and some backstage areas.
 
Patterned after Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, Weill Hall was designed by the same architectural team, William Rawn Associates of Boston, and the acoustician firm of Kirkegaard Associates. In photographs, Weill Hall’s interior is strikingly similar to its New England counterpart, which opened in 1994. Both halls are rectangular in the “shoebox” style of performance hall architecture, and both feature modular rear doors that, when open, extend the reach of the music and the view of the interior to 3,000 more audience members outside.
 
“We’re trying to replicate the Tanglewood experience,” acknowledges GMC Associate Director of Communications Jessica Anderson. “The audience outside doesn’t necessarily have to be looking at the artists or watching them perform. At a concert, you usually don’t have your eyes focused on the stage the whole time anyway. It’s more about hearing the music, which will be fabulous on our high-quality sound system.”
 
Above Weill Hall’s stage is a microphone and speaker system that projects the sound being made inside to speakers set on tall poles outside. Subwoofer speakers are installed in boxes edging the lawn area. “You want the audience outside to feel as if they’re in the hall—to hear the applause and even the shuffling of feet—but without any weird echo effect,” says Anderson. Two large video screens facing the audience on Weill Lawn give close-up views of the performers on stage.
 

Acoustics and climate-controlled air

The house pianos in Weill Hall are a nine-foot Steinway concert grand, donated anonymously several years ago and valued at $125,000, and a nine-foot Fazioli, purchased two years ago for an undisclosed sum. The Fazioli’s soundboard is made of red spruce harvested from the same forest in northern Italy where violinmaker Antonio Stradivari sourced the wood for his famed instruments. “There’s a special certificate inside the piano about it,” says Nikolov. “The forest is off limits, and apparently the only one who can touch the trees is piano maker Fazioli.” On its gold-lacquered cast iron frame, the piano bears the autograph of jazz icon Herbie Hancock, who played the instrument at the Grammy Awards a few yearsbefore it came to SSU.
 
Though it appears as a true rectangle to the naked eye, Weill Hall is actually built in a subtle horn shape. For every foot of its length from the stage to the back wall, the width of the venue increases by one-eighth of an inch. “This is another way to project the sound backward and out into the lawn space,” says Anderson. “It’s one more feature that’s been built into the acoustic infrastructure to improve sound quality.”
 
The hall’s interior is predominantly European steamed beech wood, used for the walls, railings, trim and seats. Douglas fir makes up the undersides of the balconies as well as the orchestra and balcony floors. The 48-foot-by-60-foot stage has adjustable lifts and risers that can be manipulated to tweak the hall’s sound as needed. Color-coordinated acoustic baffling blends into the woodwork and can be moved in small increments sideways or up and down to further perfect the sound.
 
“Everything is built for an acoustic purpose,” says Anderson. “The hall is really an instrument in and of itself.”
 
Each of Weill Hall’s custom-made chairs, handcrafted by the Fancher Chair Co. of New York, was created for the exact spot where it sits on the gradually sloping main floor and the balcony slots––some singly and others in sets. Also made of steamed beech, their burgundy-colored cushions match the shade of the acoustical panels that surround the stage, and the slatted backs are curved to provide lumbar support. Special quiet hinges on the seats eliminate squeaks.
 
Vents for the totally silent and draft-free air conditioning system are located under the seats approximately every three feet. “This eliminates the problem of a whoosh of air or the mechanical sound of a forced-air system cycling on and off,” says Anderson. And because there’s so much wood in the hall, it can’t be allowed to dry out. “It’s a very robust humidity and temperature control system,” she points out. “It’s on full blast all the time, but you don’t hear it and you don’t feel it.”
 
Though restrooms in performance halls can sometimes feel like an architect’s afterthought, with a meager number of facilities for the size of the audience, Weill Hall’s are grand by comparison. To guarantee less waiting and fewer missed performances, the first-floor ladies’ room is generously equipped with 22 maple-doored stalls and 12 roomy sink spaces. “We’ve created the Taj Mahal of restrooms here,” boasts Anderson.
 

Generating revenue

Right from the start, the GMC project had its naysayers, including some SSU faculty who believed Armiñana was siphoning too much money and attention into the center and away from the university’s academic mission.
 
“We respect that everyone is entitled to their opinion,” says Anderson. “While I understand some of the criticism, I think it’s growing pains—not everyone likes change. But in difficult economic times like now, universities have to get themselves on the map in a way that donors are going to say, ‘Ah-ha! That university is worthy of my philanthropic giving.’ You have to set yourself apart from the pack.”
 
She emphasizes that Weill Hall was entirely donor-funded. “And the educational spaces [in GMC], which our entire university can use, have been funded in part by state grants and bonds.” (Approximately $45 million came from taxpayers through California State University funds and educational bond monies earmarked for construction projects.)
 
To create a viable revenue stream for GMC, every space in the complex, with the exception of the music education facility, can be rented. “We’ve found a way to increase our revenues to offer all of these spaces to third parties who wish to rent them for weddings, parties and receptions,” explains Anderson.
 
The hospitality space includes a 3,900-square-foot lawn with seating capacity for 200 guests and views of the nearby hills. The restaurant walls are lined with leather panels and copper accents, and the floor is made of reclaimed wood. Indoors is seating for 104 diners; the patio can accommodate several dozen more. (At press time, the restaurant was scheduled to be open to the public for dinner only on performance nights.)
 
Anderson says that weddings, in particular, have been popular and frequent at Prelude’s lawn and patio. “The wedding couple gets the space, the catering and the executive chef all at an affordable price point,” she says.
 

Schroeder Hall funding needed

With Weill Hall up and running and major funding secured for the Weill Commons project, money-raising efforts have focused again on Schroeder Hall. Although the exterior of the recital space was the first structure erected in the GMC complex, ironically it’s likely to be the last one finished. In late September, donors were still being sought to finance completion of the interior, now comprised of only a concrete floor.
 
“I can’t reveal potential donors, but there are people interested in finishing Schroeder Hall,” says Anderson. “With Weill Hall now open, we think it will be pretty easy to secure funding for Schroeder and move forward. It’s where the dream started, and it’s a constant reminder of where we came from and what we need to finish.” The small, 250-seat venue will require much less money to make whole, she says, though it will be approximately one year’s work after funding is found.
 
For the time being, the centerpiece planned for Schroeder Hall’s stage-end wall, a rare Brombaugh tracker organ, is temporarily installed in a church in Rochester, New York. Anderson explains that it’s beneficial to keep the organ in use rather than packed away in storage, where it could get rusty and seize up. “The church is renting the organ for $1 per year, and they adore it,” she says. “When we have Schroeder ready, they’ll ship the organ to us.”
 
Also a year or more away from completion is the MasterCard Performing Arts Pavilion, with a combination of fixed and lawn seating for up to 10,000 people. Following an introduction by the Weills in July, the university negotiated and signed a $15 million sponsorship deal with MasterCard Worldwide to build the outdoor venue. Akin to the Hollywood Bowl or Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, it will be located east of Weill Hall in the area now dubbed Weill Commons. The amphitheater will be equipped with all the acoustic rigging necessary for a full-blown rock or pop music show. “The pavilion will be great for the type of music so many of our college students want to hear, so we could bring a true amplified group here,” she says, adding that it’s too soon to name specific artists.
 
SSU hopes Green Music Center will attract music students who hear about its reputation as a world-class venue. According to Anderson, at least one student––a gifted basketball player as well as a jazz pianist––gave up a full scholarship to another university last year so she could attend SSU and study and perform at GMC. To assist with admissions outreach, the university has produced videos showing students performing in Weill Hall.
 
To reach even more potential music students, outreach to grade school-age children will get underway next summer in an educational partnership arranged by the Weills between SSU and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute’s “Link Up National.” The program is an interactive project that provides free music education curriculum materials for use in schools. Additionally, the Santa Rosa Symphony will fund a five-year program called “Simply Strings,” aimed at underprivileged youth in Sonoma County. A local elementary school will be selected for interested students to receive after-school lessons in violin and viola, culminating in a live performance at Weill Hall with the Santa Rosa Symphony.
 
Over the years, Armiñana has remained steadfastly devoted to completion of GMC, particularly Weill Hall. “We hoped the community would embrace this project, and it has,” he stated earlier this year.
 
Anderson reiterates that Weill Hall represents the largest private fund-raising campaign in Sonoma County’s history, not to mention being the first performance hall of its kind in the state. “And you won’t find anything else like this in the California university system,” she adds.


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