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On Nimrod’s Knee: The Activist Roots of the Green Center’s Jacob Yarrow

October 8, 2018

Jacob Nimrod Yarrow, executive director of the Green Music Center, got his middle name from the great Appalachian balladeer, Nimrod Workman (1895–1994), who mined coal for 42 years and then, lungs rotted with soot, turned to other blues. Workman was a singer, composer, and life-long union activist. He worked with Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, and fought in the five-day battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the largest labor uprising in American history.

Yarrow, 46, grew up in West Virginia, and has a childhood photo of himself sitting on Nimrod Workman’s knee. Yarrow is the son of a photojournalist and a public school counselor. In the late 1960s, his parents, both dedicated activists, joined the Appalachian Volunteers, a community-organizing group that took off after Lyndon Johnson launched the “War on Poverty.”

The other day, Yarrow told us he feels that Workman’s legacy, as both musician and activist, strongly resonates with what he’s trying to do at the Green Center. “There’s a certain responsibility that comes with being ...” Yarrow began and then paused “... I don’t know if that’s overstating it. But I feel a certain connection to someone who was a community organizer, a really generous person, and an incredible artist.”

Yarrow, who lives in Petaluma, took his position at Sonoma State University in April 2017 after several years as the programming director at the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium. Before that he served as the executive director of the Garth Newel Music Center in Hot Springs, Virginia — in the heart of Appalachia. At the Green Center, Yarrow succeeded Zarin Mehta, brother of conductor Zubin. Zarin served from 2013 to 2017.

Awaiting critical mass

Asked the difference between the artistic communities in Iowa City and Sonoma, Yarrow pointed out that the performing arts center in Iowa City is actually built on a larger “critical mass” of performing arts center attendance. “Interestingly,” he said, “the Green Center, being a newer pursuit, is not as established and doesn’t seem to have as long a running relationship with artists. I found that surprising.”

The Green Music Center, located on the Sonoma State campus, opened in 2012 and is focused on the 1,400-seat Weill Hall and the 250-seat Schroeder Recital Hall. The Green Center stands toward the back of that cluster of university-affiliated centers in the Bay Area, including the Mondavi Center (at UC Davis), Stanford Live, and the “big daddy” of local presentation, Cal Performances.  

Yarrow’s charter is to find ways to benefit from this ecosystem and leverage his program as best he can. Clearly, artists coming great distances to the Bay Area are looking for as many gigs as possible, which benefits everyone. But Yarrow’s charter is also to tune programs to the academic needs of the university as well as the cultural desires of a community that mixes dairy farmers and commuters. And a community badly disfigured by the October 2017 “Northern California Firestorm,” which destroyed 9,800 homes and disrupted thousands of families. The problem is determining an identity in flux.

Add to that geography: It takes just one hour to drive from Santa Rosa to Davies Hall, or for that matter, one hour to drive to Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. And so the question, how do you cultivate loyal audiences, which enjoy many, and one might argue, sometimes better choices? In sum, how do you get an audience to drive the other way?

“We’re still forging our relationships with audiences in the region,” said Yarrow, adding that his real quest coming from afar is “knowing what matters here.”

The 2018–2019 Program

The new season began on September 28, with Las Cafeteras, an Afro-Mexican group from Los Angeles, and ends in May with the Kronos Quartet. The programming is largely Yarrow’s and appears, at first glance, both cool and edgy. He’s also taking some risks. The list includes several of his personal favorites, including a folk-based multimedia performance by Kurbasy, a Ukrainian trio of actress-singers. “It’s a kind of cultural diplomacy,” as Yarrow put it. Also, pianist Peter Serkin will perform. He’d been scheduled to play just a year ago, but the event was canceled because of the fires. Serkin is best known for his take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  In mid-November, Joan Baez performs as part of her Fare Thee Well tour.          

In March, Monica Bill Barnes & Company present their thoroughly engaging dance show, Happy Hour, which is transformed into an after-work party and a setting to explore generational relationships. Two girls play two guys. Everything is over the top. 

If there were just one performance Mr. Yarrow would bring to the Green Center, it’s the hip-hop group Roots, which was formed in 1987 and serves as the house band on NBC’s The Tonight Show, with Jimmy Fallon. “The Roots are a super contemporary band. They’re older and reflect deep and varied influences. If you’re a music fan they’re definitely a cultural force.

Big Ideas

During the 2018–2019 season, roughly half the performers will participate in residencies, workshops, and master classes — which are all part of Sonoma State University president Judy Sakaki’s promise to “better integrate the performing arts center into the campus and the region.”

To that end, Yarrow is working with various departments, including the Business department, to explore “big ideas” and to draw students away from the small screen culture of their devices. One example in this season’s program is “Manual Cinema — the End of TV,” a multimedia study of how commercial images relate to capitalism.

Part of Yarrow’s strategy is to show links between the arts and other disciplines; and encourage students to explore the nature of the performing arts and how performances are produced.

“One of the great things of having assignments built around performance,” he told us, “is that it becomes a way for students to talk about how they could build their own careers.”

Obviously, this also becomes a way to recruit and train new audiences, and at the same time encourage the artistic to explore their talents.

It’s a timely challenge because millennials are sometimes accused of being attracted more to ideas than emotions and prone to mistake complexity for depth. “If that’s true,” said Yarrow, “you can see why. As a 19-year-old coming out of California public schools, few have had much of a chance to interact with art that’s not in the mainstream, and so may not have had a lot of exposure to a range of emotions.”

“I try to meet students where they are and help both of us to push the dialogue toward what matters. I do worry about how much impact we have, but in the end, I think that has to be the goal; to help build a sense of community and empathy for experiences that may not be familiar. In other words, to build meaning in the world.”

Corrections: In the original version of this article,  the opening of the Green Center was misstated as 2008 (it was 2012), the band Kurbasy's name was mispelled, and the reason for Zarin Mehta leaving the directorship was incorrect.

Mark MacNamara, a San Francisco-based journalist, has written for such publications as Nautilus, Salon, The Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast, an essay on classical music in the age of Ultra-Nationalism and a profile of sound composer Pamela Z. MacNamara recently won first place in digital features, in the 2017 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website: macnamband.com.