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Green Center: A vision delivered

Sonoma State University President Ruben Armiñana in the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall in the Green Music Center

JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 9:21 p.m.

Sonoma State University's $145 million Green Music Center, after a final boost from a banking magnate, is set to open Saturday, catching attention around the country.




• Chinese pianist Lang Lang performs in Weill Hall. The hall's southern doors will be opened, allowing viewing from the lawn. Only tickets for lawn seating still are available.

Sunday, Sept. 30:

• 7 a.m. Sunrise choral concert in Weill Hall. Free.

• 2 p.m. Santa Rosa Symphony, the Green Music Center's resident orchestra, performs in Weill Hall. Free lawn seating still available; table-seating tickets still available.

• 4:30 p.m. Bluegrass and Barbecue, a benefit reception featuring local brews, barbecue and music. Prelude restaurant.

• 7:30 p.m. Grammy Award-winning bluegrass performer Alison Krauss appears at Weill Hall, Lawn and Commons. Sold out.

The opening is a decade later than first projected. In the 15 years since the dream was launched and 12 years since ground was broken, the center has been a costly tale of aspiration and controversy, hindered by slippery economic slopes and elevated by startlingly rich support.

“It's happening,” said SSU President Ruben Armiñana, whose legacy will be marked indelibly by a project for which he has been shepherd and cheerleader from the start.

“Despite all the doubt, it's happening,” he said, pleasure and relief clear in his voice.

About $15 million still is needed to complete the 250-seat Schroeder recital hall and an outdoor pavilion for 10,000 people partially funded by a Mastercard sponsorship. But the 600,000-square-foot music center feels whole in a way it never has before.

And Armiñana — who always has characterized it in understated terms as a union of education and culture — now takes flight when articulating his vision for it.

“It will help us all think about and be challenged about what the world is and could be, through different lenses of the mind and the senses,” he said.

The center's chief private benefactor, former Citigroup CEO and Chairman Sanford “Sandy” Weill, paints it as an institution that will become a cultural gathering place with international appeal, heightening SSU's profile while serving as a resource for at-risk youth.

“It will make Sonoma State a unique campus where people from all over the world will want to come. It is ambitious, but I think it's doable,” Weill said.

“All the PR is right,” he said, referring to Sonoma County's renown as a food and wine center, its temperate climate and the concert hall's nascent but blossoming reputation.

Through the years Armiñana has absorbed steady criticism, at times sharply personal in nature, for his unwavering (detractors called it stubborn) attachment to a constantly expanding vision of a “world-class” music hall at a small public university.

“A runaway ego thing,” environmental sciences professor Steve Orlick said in 2010 when it was announced that $30 million more would be needed for the project.

What was originally planned as a $10 million choral auditorium grew in scope to the current facility, priced at almost 15 times that and containing concert and recital halls, a restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater, practice studios and classrooms.

In the interim, state education funds were being cut and tuition was on its way to doubling. Skeptics on the SSU faculty revolted.

Armiñana suffered the indignity of a 2007 faculty no-confidence vote partly driven by concerns that the center was an indulgence that the university could ill afford and was detracting from SSU's academic mission.

But for now the glow of the well-polished wood in the three-story Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall appears to have muted that history of conflict, delivering the moment fully to Armiñana and music center boosters.

While critics remain, even some of the most persistent credit the university president with a major achievement.

“Our concern was that there wouldn't be the resources — that was the big fear, that all of a sudden the academic side would find themselves paying huge bills. But those have diminished because of Ruben's ability to pull in the money,” said history professor Robert Karlsrud, dean emeritus of the school of social sciences.

“No reasonable person, in his wildest dreams, could have believed this could happen, that he could put this out there and raise this kind of money. Nobody,” Karlsrud said.

Sonoma County telecom pioneer Don Green launched the center in 1997 with a $5 million gift that he later doubled. Over the years, other local philanthropists stepped forward to push it along.

But partly because of expansion of the project, and also due to rising construction prices, the costs kept mounting: $63 million in 2005; $100 million in 2007; $120 million in 2010. At the same time, fundraising lagged, suppressed first by the dot-com crash and then the recession.

The project ground to a standstill in 2007. Privately, community leaders who had stood behind Armiñana's vision began to express frustration, even doubts.

Then, early last year, in a moment that Armiñana hardly could have orchestrated better, Weill and his deep pockets emerged from the wings onto the music center's white maple stage.

Weill gave $12 million — $4 million of it a matching gift — to complete the heart of the facility, its concert hall, which is now named for him and his wife, Joan.

The center's incomplete state, along with the hall's acoustics, figured in his decision to invest, Weill said.

“They didn't take an easy route of shortcuts but basically stopped until they could continue to do it right,” he said, recounting a midnight meeting with SSU officials in the unfinished concert hall at which the Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who will perform on Saturday, spent more than an hour vetting the 53-foot-high room.

Soon after the meeting, Weill asked how much was needed to finish the hall. The man who built Citigroup into what became the world's biggest bank arrived in Sonoma County in 2010, buying a 362-acre estate in the hills west of Sonoma for $31 million.

Longtime supporters of the project knew then that their investments — in money and in faith in Armiñana's abilities — finally had borne fruit.

“The bigger it got, the bigger the stretch was in being able to raise that kind of money in Sonoma County,” said Herb Dwight, the one-time CEO of the former Optical Coating Laboratory and an early backer of the project.

“In my mind, it was a real godsend that Sandy Weill arrived on the scene,” said Dwight, who with his wife, Jane, has given $1.2 million to SSU for the center.

“Having that clout associated with a project in a fairly modest community has given the project quite a boost,” he said.

Officials at the Santa Rosa Symphony, which will be the center's resident orchestra and which committed to fundraising for it in exchange for 25 rent-free years, also breathed a sigh of relief.

“It's a long time coming and obviously there were obstacles unexpected along the way,” said Alan Silow, executive director of the symphony. “We're elated.”

As opening night approaches, observers say the music center is poised to hit a high note, with a scheduled performance lineup that includes Lang Lang, Alison Kraus, Yo Yo Ma, Bill Maher and the Santa Rosa and San Francisco symphonies.

“This is very ambitious, and it's also got a lot of interesting, very diverse programming,” said Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and director of the Master in Arts Management Program at Claremont Graduate University.

“It's classical, but it's much more than that. It looks very cool to me,” she said.

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