When Sanford “Sandy” I. Weill learned that a university concert hall near his home in California’s wine country was short on cash he toured the unfinished building and then asked his friend Lang Lang to check out the acoustics.
The Chinese pianist squeezed in a midnight visit to the empty hall at Sonoma State University about two weeks later, filling the space with music by Beethoven and Chopin.
Lang Lang blessed the acoustics, and two months after that, Weill, ex-chairman of Citigroup Inc. and longtime board chairman of Carnegie Hall, gave $12 million to complete the 1,400-seat venue.
“That’s the way Sandy works,” said Ruben Arminana, Sonoma State’s president. “The guy has incredible contacts and a sense of urgency to get things done.”
Lang Lang returns Saturday night to open the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall in a debut season that has already “far exceeded expectations,” spokeswoman Jessica Anderson said. The Santa Rosa Symphony and country singer Alison Krauss perform on Sunday afternoon and evening, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Barbara Cook and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis slated in coming months.
Weill emphasizes that it has taken a team effort to bring the project to fruition, 17 years after Arminana first conceived of a campus facility modeled on the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Weill Hall itself is part of the university’s Donald and Maureen Green Music Center, for which the technology entrepreneur and his wife, members of a local Sonoma choir, contributed $10 million in seed money.
“Sonoma State is a great liberal-arts college that you won’t find in a lot of other places,” Weill said in a telephone interview from New York, where he and Joan, board chairman of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, maintain a primary residence. “A lot of people had ideas that helped build this vision. Things don’t just happen. It takes blood, sweat, tears, as well as money.”
Sonoma State is located in Rohnert Park, California, 50 miles north of San Francisco and within driving distance of wine regions such as Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley. Student housing “villages” are named after grape varietals: Beaujolais, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Verdot and Sauvignon.
MasterCard Inc.’s sponsorship of a 10,000-seat pavilion to be built next to Weill Hall was accelerated by Weill reaching out to the company, according to Arminana. Weill said he contacted Ajay Banga, chief executive officer of the Purchase, New York-based global payments network, among other executives.
Weill also helped facilitate a program with Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard School that will send three postgraduate arts professionals to Sonoma State for yearlong fellowships, starting in June 2013, said Arminana, president of the university since 1992.
“It’s a novel proposition that a small liberal-arts public college for California’s middle-rank high-school students now has an association with Carnegie Hall,” said Jeff Langley, a Juilliard graduate and professor of music and performing-arts director at Sonoma State. “They’ll be exposed to the finest performers, have workshops and master classes, and be shown all that the arts have to offer.”
Lang Lang, one of the world’s top classical recording stars, brought his mother and girlfriend for the acoustics test.
“He was wide awake and ready to go to work,” said Langley, who attended the sound test. “For about 90 minutes, he put that hall through its paces, like a kid stomping around with a new toy. He was very intent on measuring ring and resonance.”
Weill Hall was designed by William Rawn Associates, the Boston-based architect of Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, which fired Arminana’s imagination during a visit in the summer of 1995. The Sonoma venue has a larger capacity and stage, and features steamed beech-wood paneling and seats, said Larry Kirkegaard, the acoustician for the auditorium and for Seiji Ozawa Hall. A 50-foot-wide, 20-foot-high rear door can be opened for lawn spectators behind the hall, he said.
It will take about a year for wood, plaster and other new materials to “open up and add warmth,” said Kirkegaard, who is based in Chicago. Three microphones over the stage and three along each side of the hall will carry sound delayed by a tenth of a second to speakers on the lawn so the audience feels they are inside, he said.
Weill, who retired as Citigroup’s CEO in 2003 and as nonexecutive chairman in 2006, said that even though he and Joan were unaware of the hall project when they bought their Sonoma property, the couple knew they’d be involved in the community.
“We weren’t tired, and we didn’t want to stop being creative or stop building,” Weill said in the interview. “This was an area we loved, with incredible stimulation from entrepreneurs and social media and a lot of wonderful people we met. It turned out to be a great decision.”
Muse highlights include Greg Evans on television, Jason Harper on cars.