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Music Center at Sonoma State Still A-Greening

February 13, 2010

Santa Rosa Symphony

While California and its constituent parts sit in a blue mood, Sonoma County on Friday night was celebrating the future and its hopes. At least, 350 of its movers and shakers were doing that, the donors who had raised much of the $96 million toward building the Green Music Center on the Rohnert Park campus of Sonoma State University. In their presence that night, the Santa Rosa Symphony gave the first real test to the auditorium that bids to be the prime symphony hall in Northern California.

Sonoma State Green Music Center <br/> Photo by Jean WaspFrom this initial hearing, the sound of Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony indicated that the hall will be a success. That’s allowing that the room has not yet had its tuning and some acoustical elements (velour panels) added by the master acoustician, Lawrence Kirkegaard, and his staff. Also on Friday, only one-fourth of the eventual 1,400 audience members were in place, bodies that will absorb some of the edge off the sound.

The music, in all clarity, could be heard equally well at the back of the long box interior and in the rows down front. The crucial reverberation time — how long it takes for the sound to decay — to my unscientific ears seems to be about right (a bit on the long side but easily modifiable to the desired goal). It’s now a bright hall. An important and unusual quality, establishing that this hall will be itself a musical instrument, is the resonance. That’s not just the warmth that mollifies brightness but the exciting fact that the wood in the hall, just about all the surfaces, vibrates, resonates to the music. Especially when the basses and cellos are playing, a listener can feel it through the soles of the feet and clearly when the hand is placed on the floor. That’s both in front and in the rear of the hall.

The hall did not seem to cause imbalances in the orchestra. The Santa Rosa Symphony, having been playing for most of its life in the acoustically blanketing Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, will obviously need time to hear itself in this hall. (The musicians and soloist contributed their services for this event.) There was presence in the sound of the string sections of Music Director Bruno Ferrandis’ orchestra, up to the higher vibrancy of the violins. The flute, the oboe, and even the bassoon spoke out. Only the clarinet sound was obscured, due, I think, to its placement at too low a position on the stage. There was no reason to blame the loudness of the horns and brass on the hall.

The piano’s balance with the orchestra was fine. Although its sonority ideally might want a hall slightly less bright, the brilliant passagework in the Chopin, keenly mastered by the soloist, Berenika, was crystal clear, glistening in fact. It was a very impressive, poised and stylish performance. (Berenika Zakrzewski is Canadian-born, trained and educated in America, and chooses to use only her first name professionally.)

The big and rich sonorities of the Schumann Fourth Symphony filled the hall; the fine, lyrical moments were nicely sustained, supported in a well-paced performance. This was nominally a rehearsal — the dress, actually — for the orchestra’s performances Saturday, Sunday, and last night. Bruno Ferrandis touched up only a few points in the Chopin and did no rehearsing of the Schumann.

A Most Becoming Appearance Visually, the hall, lacking only its permanent seating, has not been altered in the more than two years since I visited it. The walls are of light-toned European beech above white maple flooring, sealed but unvarnished. Appropriately for California the upper, balcony walls of the long “shoe-box” shell has a parade of window panels, more than are in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, on which this was modeled. As I wrote in 2008, “the effect is of a bright, well-lit, open, airy, cheery, and welcoming space. This is continued in the fine horizontal slats of the balustrades that course the interior circumference of the hall, setting off the orchestra-level boxes. They front shallow side balconies on two levels and one above and behind the stage for audience or chorus.

“A Japanese aesthetic is suggested by the dominance of fine-crafted thin wood elements, the window panels recalling shoji. That theme is to be carried out in the yet-to-be-ordered separate armchairs of beech-slats, ergonomically designed and cushioned.”

In remarks before the rehearsal/demonstration began, Sonoma State University’s president, Ruben Armiñana, explained that the request for bids for the chairs was about to go out and if another $6.7 million can be raised by this summer to cover that and the finishing of the lobby and the public restrooms (there are none now), the hall will open in fall 2011.

The total cost will be $110 million, of which $96 million has been raised privately and through state bond issues, leaving $14 million to be produced, including the $6.7 million that Armiñana mentioned. Several questions come up. Why the decision to complete and fully equip the facility’s large catering kitchen before installing bathrooms and finishing the lobby? Why only now is the bid for chairs being sent out, and why does it take an entire year to finish the job? Many more delays and after a while, the fine Green Music Center may begin to look like Miss Havisham’s mansion in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Great expectations, indeed. Even the Santa Rosa Press Democrat seems to have lost interest. A short article in the Sunday edition about Friday’s night event was its first mention of the Green Music Center since last August.

It’s reported that the San Francisco Symphony is considering the Green Music Center for as many as four of the eight run-out performances it has been giving in the Flint Center, Cupertino. With this long hold on opening and still nothing definite, the Green Center management is wholly handicapped, unable to book events the two and three years in advance that are necessary, much less ensure a fully active first season. Something’s gotta give.

Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.