Inside The Weill Hall At The Green Music Center Gala Featuring Lang Lang

Lang Lang
Lang Lang

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer Photography

The fourth season of Weill Hall at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center got off to a bang on Oct. 3 when famed pianist Lang Lang showed why the New York Times calls him “the hottest artist on the classical music planet.” The Chinese pianist, who is as much a joy to watch play as he is to listen to, put on a masterful concert—his third time performing at the venue—that garnered several standing ovations and whetted the appetite for the next day’s presentation of “101 Pianists” featuring Lang Lang and 100 local piano students. Haute Living was on the scene for the intoxicating performance that had everyone still on a high at the spectacular dinner that followed.

“I think the concert tonight was just absolutely phenomenal,” said Sandy Weill, while speaking onstage to the dinner guests while his wife Joan Weill stood beside him.

Joan Weill and Alice Chiang co-chaired the opening night gala, which was also attended by Sandy Weill, Lang Lang’s mother Sophie Zhou, Sonoma State University President Ruben ArmiñanaDavid Stull, Pamela Joyner and Fred Giuffrida, Lisa M. Grotts and John Grotts, Lorna F. Meyer, Goretti Lui and other notables. After an elegant reception at Prelude restaurant, where guests sipped wine donated by Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Hughes Family Vineyards, Iron Horse Vineyards and Lambert Bridge Winery and noshed on bites, the concertgoers filed into the beautiful Weill Hall for the recital. The program featured the Chinese musician’s signature interpretations of Bach’s Concerto Italiano, Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and Chopin’s Scherzos Nos. 1–4 for solo piano.

The pianist, known for his flair, at times displayed languid movements, playing with one hand while holding the other in mid-air before gently bringing it down and barely touching the keyboard. Other times, he sat sentry straight and played with the force of a drill sergeant, his black hair moving as ferociously as his fingers. His hands and feet captivated the audience as much as the music he played. For his final encore, Lang Lang opted for a Cuban selection since he said he will soon visit Havana.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight is such a wonderful, great pleasure for me to come back a third time,” he told the crowd. “I want to thank Sandy and Joan. Thank you. Over the last few years, from the dressing rooms, I saw every great artist performing on this wonderful stage. And truly Sonoma State University and Weill Hall (has become) a world top concert hall.”

Following the performance, gala patrons oohed and aahed when they entered a tented pavilion that had been stunningly transformed by acclaimed event designer Thierry Chantrel of La Follia and lighting designer The Lux into an elegant Asian contemporary gala setting in a nod to guest of honor Lang Lang’s proud Chinese heritage.

“We put (Chantrel) on such a tight budget, it’s amazing we have tables,” Joan joked from the stage as she thanked the host committee and all those who helped make the evening a success. “He really goes the extra mile for us.”

While a trio of Sonoma State University students played on stage, guests enjoyed the culinary talents of Trevor Kunk, the James Beard Award-winning executive chef of PRESS Napa Valley, famous for its steak, who prepared a sumptuous, three-course feast featuring premium locally-sourced California cuisine. Elaine Bell Catering provided onsite support to keep diners happy.

Sandy Weill, Joan Weill, Lang Lang
Sandy Weill, Joan Weill, Lang Lang

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer Photography

During the dinner, Sonoma State University President Ruben Armiñana told of how it was Lang Lang who convinced the Weills to make the investment that allowed for the completion of the Green Music Center. The Weills sent Lang Lang to play in the hall during construction, and the pianist arrived at 11:30 p.m. one evening.

“He played for about an hour and a half in an empty hall with no chairs,” Armiñana recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to call Sandy back in the next hour or so…I’m going to tell him, yeah, it is worth investing in.’ That was the key piece to get the ability to finish.”

The Weills then made a $12 million gift, the largest single cash gift in the University’s history. The couple, who has a home in Sonoma, first met Lang Lang when the now 33-year-old pianist was 17. The then teenager did a free concert for the large contributors of Carnegie Hall in New York and has continued giving back, which couldn’t please the über-philanthropic Weills more.

One of the things Lang Lang does is 101 Pianists. Presented at Weill Hall in association with The Lang Lang International Music Foundation, Sunday’s performance was the finale concert at the culmination of an extraordinary educational journey experienced by 100 young Bay Area pianists. In early 2015, 100 talented young pianists from throughout Sonoma, Marin, Alameda and San Francisco counties in Northern California were selected to work with their local teachers to prepare Schubert’s Marche Militaire, No. 1, and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance in F-sharp minor. After months of practice, these students experienced the exceptional opportunity to perform together on stage in Weill Hall with Lang Lang.

101 Pianists encourages young piano enthusiasts to celebrate their love of playing and allows students of the traditionally solo piano to enjoy the inherently social nature of music making as an ensemble. To date this program has inspired more than 100,000 audience members and 1,200 piano students since its inception in 2009. 101 Pianists has previously been conducted in Paris, Berlin, London, Hong Kong, Rome and Vancouver, among other international cities.

“I saw him do this in Berlin, and I still have goosebumps when I think about it,” Joan Weill told Haute Living. “”What he does as a young person, who understands giving back with his own money and his talent—and he teaches these kids.”

Lang Lang also performed at Weill Hall’s grand opening in 2012 and again in recital in 2013. “We’re lucky,” Joan Weill said about having him a third time. “We’ve become friends.”


Photo credit: Drew Altizer Photography, Vi Bottaro, Joseph Gray and Kelly E. Carter