Green Music Center
At Sonoma State University
Once Maureen and I joined the choir, choral music became our creative outlet, my escape from the pressure-cooker world of telecommunications.
Soon after we moved to Santa Rosa in 1987, we found a new community choir, the Sonoma State University Concert Choir. Director Bob Worth once asked me why I invested so much time and effort in the choir. “Because it’s so different from what I do for a living,” I said. “Here I don't have to be the leader.”
Still, leadership pursued me. When some members of the group and I founded a Bach Choir, I served as its president. I soon recognized that the choir needed a hall with better acoustics than Sonoma State could provide.
In 1997, Maureen and I offered $10 million toward a world-class music venue.
A building site was chosen and purchased, a parcel at the northeast corner of campus. The project gained momentum when the Santa Rosa Symphony agreed to leave Wells Fargo Center and move to the new hall at SSU. Corrick Brown, the orchestra’s former director, Ruben Armiñana, SSU president, and I launched a campaign to raise the rest of the money.
At the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Donald and Maureen Green Music Center in 2000, Armiñana predicted the center would cost $41 million and open in 2003. But steel prices soared, as did other costs, and by 2003 the building site was still bare. SSU put construction on hold, and failure loomed.
Then, in 2004, Armiñana announced that a new private-public funding strategy was in place. The strategy included paying for the center’s academic wing with state education-facility bonds.
Construction began in 2006, with no shortage of critics. Many, including dozens of faculty members, objected to the relentlessly rising cost of the project. The faculty even voted “no-confidence” in Armiñana. I was sympathetic. The military employs the phrase mission creep to describe unintended growth in the scope of a mission; this was a case of mission gallop.
Yet my support for the project did not flag. One of my biggest contributions was a belief that it could happen, but at times even I had doubts. In 2010, when SSU music students presented their first performances in the hall, it was still unfinished. Where would we get the millions needed to complete it?
That year, Sanford Weill, former chairman of Citigroup, bought an estate in the Sonoma Valley. After touring the unfinished music center, the Weills donated $12 million. Weill then recruited world-acclaimed pianist Lang Lang to perform at the grand opening of Weill Hall, centerpiece of the Donald and Maureen Green Music Center.
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The Green Music Center cost $128 million to complete. The Grand Opening took place on September 29, 2012. Local glitterati were in attendance. Columnist Chris Smith, in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, called it “one of the largest and most widely noticed social-cultural events ever in Sonoma County.”
A champagne reception preceded the performance by Lang Lang, followed by dinner and fireworks. More than 3,000 people attended the concert, 600 the reception and dinner. I was asked to say a few words, and said more than a few.
What a wonderful thing we have created. All of us from Sonoma and the North Bay should feel very proud of what we have accomplished.
For me this project started fifteen years ago. I was having lunch with Bob Worth. Bob, was a professor and the Director of Choral Music at SSU, and I was a member of his community choir. During lunch we agreed it was a pity that SSU did not have a suitable venue on campus to perform choral music. Without a great deal of thought, I said that one of the companies I had founded was going public in a few weeks and, if it was successful, Maureen and I would contribute to a fund to build an on-campus choral hall.
A short time later, and after my company went public in the fall of 1996, Dr. and Mrs. Armiñana invited us to dinner to discuss and refine our choral hall proposal. As it happened Ruben already had a clear idea of what he wanted, and that was a replica of the Ozawa concert hall at Tanglewood, in Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He had been there and fallen in love with it.
We concluded our dinner with Maureen and me making a donation of $5 million and also committing to visit Tanglewood the following spring, 1997.
Tanglewood lived up to its reputation; the acoustics were superb, the ambiance pleasant and elegant. The impact of Tanglewood on the local community was also very positive— hotels and restaurants were plentiful and flourishing; other performing arts venues and cultural activities, including dance, theatre and museums, were thriving; and the sound of music was all around. The cost of constructing the concert hall was relatively modest at about $10 million.
We were so impressed that we committed an additional $5 million in a matching grant towards the construction of a similar venue in Sonoma. We came home from Tanglewood energized. Architects were chosen, the site was selected, we partnered with the Santa Rosa Symphony to build their new performance home, and fundraising began in earnest.
Ruben Armiñana, Corrick Brown, and I became known as the three accents—Cuban, American, and English. We were welcomed into many homes to communicate the project’s vision and to raise funds. We lost track of how many presentations we made, probably more than a hundred. Many friendships were formed, many commitments were made, and more than 1,600 donors responded. The capital campaign became the largest ever in Sonoma and Napa wine country.
While we were fundraising, the outside world did not stay constant. The cost of materials rose dramatically due to construction in China, and we rode the dotcom bubble up and down. With all of this financial turmoil, I was reminded of this quote by Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when everyone around you is losing theirs, you probably don’t know what’s going on.”
I personally would like to congratulate Ruben and SSU for maintaining its commitment to building a world-class, acoustically marvelous concert hall with uncompromising standards.
So here we are today. Why did I support this project and work on it for more than fifteen years? From the beginning, I have cited three reasons:
First, as a choral singer, I know it's important to hear clearly the voices surrounding you, to blend and harmonize, to provide maximum pleasure from the performance for both the performers and the audiences. The acoustical perfection that our new Weill Hall has achieved will enable musical magic to take place.
Second, as an entrepreneur and employer, and having founded three companies and funded many more in the North Bay, I have always needed to recruit highly skilled and highly paid employees in a variety of technical areas. To do so I have had to compete with places like Silicon Valley for talent. The Green Music Center is a significant cultural enhancement to the North Bay, which will make it easier to recruit and retain these highly skilled people. A number of people that I recruited to Sonoma County are now leading companies that are employing hundreds of people.
Third, as a philanthropist, I wanted to help with a project that would benefit generations to come. We take for granted what our forefathers have built for us in the form of great libraries, concert halls, cathedrals, and museums. This was our turn to make such a contribution. The Green Music Center, and the now open Weill Hall, by any standards, have met the challenge of creating a transformative place. We have succeeded in creating an incredible asset for many generations to come.
As I was sitting in the hall this evening, I had two thoughts. One, we were hearing musical perfection—thank you, Lang Lang. As the beer commercial puts it, it doesn’t get any better than this. And two, I felt pleased with myself for having played an instrumental role in creating such a beautiful place.
Not too bad for a kid from the Liverpool docks.
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I regularly attend concerts at the center. Every time I enter the hall, I shake my head and wonder how we did it, how we got it built. And not just a building, but a world-class music venue.
Sir Clive Gillinson, artistic and executive director of Carnegie Hall, has attended several concerts at the Green Music Center and declared the acoustics at Weill Hall “definitely as good” as those at Tanglewood.
Bay Area classical music critic Robert Commanday praised the aesthetic appeal of its design and its acoustics. “When an orchestra is playing, you can put your hand on the floor and feel the vibrations. The entire hall is responding as an instrument. There is nothing in New York City of that quality.”
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By 2012, the only missing piece of the Green Music Center was Schroeder Hall. As the website describes it, it was to be “a 240-seat cathedral-like recital hall, designed specifically to accentuate instruments, organ, and voice in an intimate setting.” It was named after the Beethoven-loving, piano-playing character in the Peanuts comic strip, created by local resident Charles Schulz.
Once again the Weills made a generous donation, a matching gift of $1 million, and Schroeder Hall opened in August 2014.
That left only the pipe organ to acquire. An organ committee had been formed back in 1998. Members included Maureen and Bob Worth. The committee was charged with scouring the globe for the right instrument. Over the next eighteen months, Bob Worth and others made ten trips to look at pipe organs.
One day Worth was clearing his desk of unwanted papers when a flyer caught his eye. It was a tracker organ for sale. In a tracker organ, the organist presses keys and pulls stops which control the organ's pipes through a complex matrix of levers and valves. The valve, which admits air to the pipe in order to produce the sound, is controlled by the force of the organist's finger on the key. Tracker organs date back to the 17th century, when Bach was a child.
Trackers had almost died out, but recently organ builders had rediscovered the old techniques, and tracker organs endure today.
The audience that filled Schroeder Hall on Opening Night was treated to the unique sound of a tracker pipe organ, a sound that echoes back more than 400 years.
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Though my appreciation of the center's acoustics and beauty remains undiminished, I sometimes worry that its reputation as a world-class facility will overshadow, perhaps subvert, what I believe is its true purpose: education.
As I told Chris Smith, “The main objective of the building is to increase educational opportunities. It’s important that we maintain and increase student access.”
I would like to see the Sonoma State music department play a greater role. We need more programs to fund music scholarships. And we need to remember what the center is in business for, what it aspires to be: a superb college choral hall.
VISIT THE GREEN MUSIC CENTER
1801 East Cotati Avenue
Rohnert Park, CA 94928