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Renee Fleming sparkles at opening of new season at Weill Hall


American soprano Renee Fleming opened the second season of Sonoma State University's Weill Hall on a high note Sunday afternoon with a sparkling vocal recital that ranged from Handel to the all-American songbook of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

The opening concert of the Green Music Center's second season was reminiscent of last year's gala opening concert featuring Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang, minus the chilly evening temperatures and the fireworks.

On Sunday afternoon, a light breeze and temperatures in the high 70s provided ideal conditions. For those who had endured the long, difficult years of fundraising and campus controversy to build the center, the sun was shining at last.

"Today we've reached the epitome of why we built this place," said Jeff Langley, outgoing chair of SSU's School of Performing Arts. "You're not a first-tier hall until Ren? has opened it."

Sandy Weill, chairman of the Green Music Center board of advisors, addressed the audience before the recital, thanking SSU President Ruben Arminana and his wife, Marne, for their original vision to build the hall.

"They had the tenacity to see it through a very difficult time," Weill said. "It really has the ability to transform this campus in a very big way."

Weill is a partner in Sonoma Media Investments, whose holdings include The Press Democrat.

While last year's opening concert attracted about 3,400, organizers estimated there were just 1,642 at Sunday's afternoon recital.

For the next two weeks, however, Weill Hall will resound with four more top talents, starting with pianist Lang Lang on Tuesday and violinist Itzak Perlman on Saturday. The season-opening celebration continues Sept. 28 with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and Sept. 29 with Bay Area soprano Ruth Ann Swenson.

The crowd at Sunday's concert was eclectic. Some arrived in limos wearing tuxes and black gowns, while others wore linen and carried lounge chairs for the lawn. The hall's back door was opened for the concert.

Accompanied by Gerald Martin Moore, Fleming flexed her vocal chords during a balanced program of German, French, Italian and American music. The singer chatted up the audience at regular intervals, entertaining them with her well-known wit.

"It's such a pleasure to be here," she said. "I'm so excited when I can still have a debut."

Elegant yet approachable, Fleming wore a silver gown by Vivienne Westwood during the first half of the program, then changed into a golden gown by designer Angel Sanchez for the second half.

The high points of the first half included three songs from Richard Strauss — her "desert island composer" — and an arrangement of the traditional songs "Shenandoah" and "The Water is Wide."

The second half culminated with music from the musicals "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music" and "South Pacific," as well as the beloved Puccini aria, "O mio babbino caro." Along the way, Fleming also performed works from her new CD, "Guilty Pleasures," due out next week.

"It's glorious to see her here at the beginning of a great, second season," said Tom Birdsall, son-in-law of arts philanthropists Don and Maureen Green, who kicked off the fundraising drive for the hall back in 1996. "Don is really enjoying it, and he comes to almost every concert."

After the concert, about 300 guests enjoyed a dinner of Regional American cuisine — smoked salmon with cheddar biscuits, short ribs and a chocolate dessert — designed by Sonoma County chef/restaurateur Charlie Palmer, who attended the concert with his wife, Lisa.