A world-renowned leader of the arts is settling down at Sonoma State to bring its students and community a taste of global culture, and is ready to address the issue of students’ disinterest and unwillingness to pay for the culture already being offered to them.
Zarin Mehta, most recently president of the New York Philharmonic from 2000 to 2012, has been named the new co-executive director of the Green Music Center. He will work alongside Co-Executive Director Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, who is also the chief financial officer of Sonoma State University.
Mehta will be responsible for booking talent, consulting the GMC and marketing performances - with the challenge of filling the 1,400-seat, multimillion dollar Weill Hall as a major priority.
“Students should be proud that this extraordinary building is there,” said Mehta. “There’s only 1,400 seats. There’s 9,000 students. I don’t expect to see any empty seats.”
The Green Music Center’s season line-ups have been somewhat paradoxical; world class artists such as Audra McDonald, Mariza and Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt are regularly booked, but have notoriously low student turnout. Many criticize the GMC for its lack of appeal to the student demographic, but Mehta says that’s the wrong way to approach the problem.
“You have to think of this as an education; exposure is education,” said Mehta. “Students should also open their minds a little...and just as I would open my mind to things, I think all [students] should open [their] minds to everything that’s around.”
Not only has the GMC been criticized for its lack of student appeal, but the prices for certain tickets are often beyond the range of an average college student’s budget.
“Price is something that is essentially driven by the market. And if [SSU students] are the market then the price will be driven by that too,” said Mehta.
With talent from all over the world and carefully designed acoustics, Mehta said he is working to achieve global recognition for the Green Music Center.
“I hope this is going to become a destination for major artists to come here, who want to perform here,” he said. “It’s not exactly on the beaten path but it’s not that far either.”
Mehta has also served as president and CEO of Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, and as managing director of the Montreal Symphony.
He will receive a salary of $300,000 a year; 80 percent of which will be paid by Sandy and Joan Weill, two of the GMC’s major donors and the namesake for its biggest hall. The remaining 20 percent, amounting to $60,000, will be paid by the university.
President Ruben Armiñana could not be reached for comment as to how the university will pay for Mehta’s salary.
The Green Music Center had previously appointed Emmanuel Morlet, director of the music office for the cultural services of the French Embassy, as the artistic director in February. However, Morlet left the position over the summer due to undisclosed reasons.
Mehta’s appointment to the position was reportedly suggested to Sandy Weill by Lang Lang, a world-famous concert pianist who has performed in Weill Hall twice since its opening. Mehta said he initially responded with “no,” but after visiting Sonoma County and learning more about the opportunity, he said he “fell in love with it.”
“I felt there’s a job to be done,” said Mehta. “And there was a challenge, and that’s a challenge I look forward to. I met a lot of people that Mr. Weill has put together on his board, and I was very impressed with their dedication, with the faculty, with the provost, and everyone was feeling behind it all. And that’s why I’m turning to [the students]; you all have to be behind it too.”
Mehta will have a large say in the upcoming season for the GMC, as it is still only a third of the way completed.
As of now, Mehta has no specific plans for a headlining artist this season.
“One [artist] doesn’t make a season,” he said. “It has to be constant.”
Mehta will not move to Sonoma County; though he will have a home nearby for commuting purposes, he plans on living primarily at home in Chicago.
Having just completed his first day on the job last Friday, Mehta is still new to the community and plans to stay in Sonoma County more often to get a feel for the university. Though he said specific goals and projects for his employment are still too early to tell, he did say that he will be working closely with the GMC’s board of advisors and music faculty.
Students are already feeling his impact at the GMC, however; last week, Mehta sent an email to every student informing them of an 85 percent discount for Saturday’s show with Mariza, a Portuguese fado singer. For student Patrick Maloney, the reduced price of $5 was one factor in his decision to go, but not the only one.
“[The Mariza show] was one of many that I have been to since [the GMC] opened,” said Maloney. “Students already get half-priced tickets at every event, and if you sit behind the orchestra it is really cheap for an amazing performance. Weill Hall wasn’t built with student money so we shouldn’t expect to have everything we want in there.”