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Symphonie Fantastique

The Green Music Center is Ruben Armiñana's most improbable milestone yet—a dazzling jewel with a long road to realization



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This main hall is only one piece of the Green Music Center, which currently includes a music education wing and top-tier restaurant. When finally completed, it will also boast a 10,000-seat outdoor concert venue and an intimate, 250-seat student recital hall with a full pipe organ.

When conceived, the Green Music Center was, in Armiñana's own words, "a crazy idea." Even from the start, detractors pointed out its high cost and questioned how it would benefit the university—criticism that continues to this day.

But against all odds, the 65-year-old's dogged persistence, carried to America along with the dime and a change of underwear, prevailed. "The toughest time," he says, "is when it's just an idea."


"I know that we started fundraising before the tech bubble crashed," remembers Chris Fritzche, a former voice instructor at Sonoma State who later toured with the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer. With only small spaces for music at the time, large performances were relegated to places like the gymnasium, which sounded like—well, a gymnasium. "I don't know what was in their minds," Fritzche recalls, "but the impression I got was for SSU to have a choral hall for the choral program to have a place to perform with a good acoustics."

Indeed, this was the vision of Don and Maureen Green, who were members of Bob Worth's Bach Choir in the mid 1990s. Recalled Armiñana in a recent email, Don Green "mentioned that he was planning to take his company, Advance Fibre Communications, public, and if that was successful [he] hoped to make a contribution, about $1 million, to build a choral room for the choir to rehearse and perform on campus. We did not have such a facility."

At the same time, Armiñana visited Massachusetts with his wife for a concert at Tanglewood's Seiji Ozawa Hall, which had been finished in 1994. "I came back from that visit with the idea of creating an inspired facility like Ozawa Hall at SSU which would combine education, music and performance," he says. After their company went public, the Greens had dinner with Armiñana and decided to give $5 million toward the project. The next summer, the Greens themselves visited Tanglewood, and committed another $5 million.

THE BEGINNING The SSU Wind Ensemble performs at the 2001 groundbreaking in the spot where the Green Music Center now stands.
  • THE BEGINNING The SSU Wind Ensemble performs at the 2001 groundbreaking in the spot where the Green Music Center now stands.

That landmark $10 million donation all but assured the $22 million acoustic masterpiece would be open by the early 2000s. But costs began to rise like the sound of a Prius accelerating onto the freeway. Estimates hit $29 million in 2003. Then $39 million in 2004. It was $60 million in 2005, and by 2007 it had cracked triple digits with a $100 million price tag.

But Armiñana never gave up his dream, even after a vote of "no confidence" by the university's faculty in 2007, tied in part to concerns that the GMC was sucking sorely needed funds away from other areas of academia.

"I thought [the vote] was unfair," responds Armiñana, somberly. "But it clearly pointed out that we needed to be better communicators about the role of the university," adding that "it was part of the politics at that time of very strained relations with the faculty union."


Armiñana says his lowest point, personally, came in 2008 when construction bids began to skyrocket. The price of steel was rising by 5 to 10 percent each month. Estimates were coming in higher than expected. Then, the economy suddenly took a nosedive. The university seemed to be chasing a rainbow.

HE ACTUALLY DID IT Ruben Armiñana: 'By nature, I'm not a quitter.' - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • HE ACTUALLY DID IT Ruben Armiñana: 'By nature, I'm not a quitter.'

But still, "Cabeza Dura," or "Hard Head," as his mother called him, persisted. After $47 million in state bonds helped complete the music education hall, it was decided the rest of the Green Music Center would be funded privately. In nearly every public appearance over the next four years, Armiñana pled his case and asked for money. Thousands of individuals came forward with small amounts, but it was the large donors that propelled the project forward when fundraising efforts stalled.

Notable donations included $5 million from Jean Schulz, wife of cartoonist Charles Schulz; just over $3 million from telecom pioneers John and Jennifer Webley; $3 million from former Press Democrat publisher Evert Person and wife, Norma; $1.4 million from the GK Hardt Foundation; $1.2 million from former OCLI CEO Herb Dwight and wife, Jane; $1 million from the Henry Trione Foundation and $1 million from winery owners Jacques and Barbara Schlumberger.

The most notable donation, after the initial $10 million given by the Greens, came from former Citigroup chairman and CEO Sandy Weill and wife, Joan. Weill heard about the project from a neighbor after the couple moved from New York into a $31 million estate on Sonoma Mountain. "I knew we had horses, lambs, sheep, and a lot of land," he said at a press conference in March, "but nothing about a music center." Weill's musical background was limited to playing bass drum in a military band, but his curiosity was piqued. "It really looked like a gem," he said. "I spoke to Lang Lang, and said, 'You gotta do me a favor.'"

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