By CAROLINE CRAWFORD
Bay City News Service
When Lang Lang sat down at the Steinway concert grand last Saturday night to perform a program of Mozart sonatas and Chopin ballades, it was to launch a new concert hall in Northern California's wine country. It didn't take Lang Lang long to prove beyond doubt that the sound in Sonoma's new Weill Hall is as good as it can get.
The 1,400-seat Weill Hall, with its A-plus acoustics, is part of the Green Music Center on the campus of Sonoma State University. The project started out with the humble objective of building a chorus recital space, the dream of University president Ruben Arminana and philanthropist Donald Green.
That was nearly 20 years ago. With the help of a state bond issue and contributions from private donors (including the estate of cartoonist Charles Schulz and former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill -- the hall is named after him and his wife), the dream soared.
The $140 million Green Center is now a reality for the most part, a huge complex of practice rooms, classrooms and performance spaces. Still to come is 250-seat Schroeder Hall and an outdoor amphitheater.
Weill Hall has been closely modeled after Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony's summer home. Tanglewood architect William Rawn and acoustician Lawrence Kirkegaard, with help from local theater designer Len Auerbach, have considered California in their creation: the hall's golden beechwood interior tracks the beautiful Sonoma hills, which are visible through east-facing windows.
The project has had its controversies, including a vote of no-confidence by university faculty, who feared the funding emphasis would weaken other university departments.
As Lang Lang took generous tempos with Mozart and powered through Chopin's tough ballades on Saturday, the sound was warm and immediate inside the hall, projecting with slight amplification through the open back wall of the rectangle to the 3,000 people seated at small tables and on a great lawn.
Sunday's program by the Santa Rosa Symphony confirmed first impressions. This was not opening night's tuxedo-gala audience as much as local loyals who will make up the hall's core support. On Sunday they voted "yea" overwhelmingly, granting standing ovations to former music directors Corrick Brown, who was a prime fundraiser for Green Center, and Jeffrey Kahane.
Kahane gave a stirring performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 led by current music director Bruno Ferrandis, and there was a short commissioned work by local composer Nolan Gasser, who is working on a commission for San Francisco Opera.
The large symphony chorus shone in Aaron Copland's plaintive Canticle of Freedom. Alison Krauss and Union Station performed for a sold-out crowd later in the evening.
The maiden season, which has been programmed by former Cal Performances impresario Robert Cole and Green Center Director Jeff Langley, has a starry roster, including top mezzo sopranos Elina Garanca, Stephanie Blythe and Joyce DiDonato; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes; and appearances by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with Kahane at the helm; Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; John Adams conducting some of his work with New York's International Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; and several performances by the San Francisco Symphony.
"We went for the best,'' said Cole, who sees Sonoma as having the same festival allure as Santa Fe Opera and Bayreuth. Lang Lang has promised Sonoma will be on his annual tour schedule.
Weill Hall will also be home to the Santa Rosa Symphony. An orchestra player leaving after the concert on Sunday gave it a verbal thumbs up, saying, "It's heaven.''