Last fall, hip-hop artist Common drew a standing-room only crowd to the Sonoma State University’s Weill Hall. Among his most enthusiastic fans were 450 SSU students who attended for free, incorporating the artist’s socially progressive message into their coursework as part of the university’s Arts Integration Program.
After the concert, Green Music Center Executive Director Jacob Yarrow set up a “meet and greet” with the recording artist, actor and poet, whose lyrics touch on themes ranging from faith and fidelity to social justice and political reform. About 40 students attended.
“They all asked some pretty raw questions, and there was a really great dialogue,” Yarrow said during a recent interview at his SSU office. “It became an opportunity to have a deeper exchange ... an example of the sort of exchanges we hope to create more of.”
Now, 10 months into his new job, Yarrow has unveiled his first full season of programming at the performing arts center — the 2018-2019 Mastercard Performance Series — as well as the Summer 2018 Season, most of which he also planned.
With the 2018-2019 season, Yarrow has clearly set the performing arts center on an educational track — roughly half the performers will be incorporating residencies, master classes and other learning activities — that fulfills the university’s renewed promise under President Judy Sakaki to better integrate the performing arts center into the campus and the region.
“Our mission is to present the most compelling artists of our time, to investigate ideas and to provide access to a diverse array of artistic experiences that educate, connect and inspire Sonoma State University and surrounding communities,” Yarrow said, reciting the center’s refreshed mission statement.
“Compelling is interesting because you have to ask what matters here,” he said. “And we’ve added the concept of investigating ideas. It’s less abstract and more about what’s going on in the world ... and we intentionally use the idea of communities, because there are multiple communities.”
Most of the faculty have embraced the Arts Integration Program and other educational efforts at the center with enthusiasm.
“As faculty members, we’ve been pushing for that for a long time,” said Alex Kahn, SSU director of orchestral activities. “I’m trying to recruit students for my orchestra program, and that will help me with that.”
Although new to the North Bay, Yarrow brings with him 20 years of programming experience and has connected with long-time residents such as Henry Hansel, chair of the Green Music Center Board of Advisors, in an effort to make the center more authentically about Sonoma County. Like wine grown in a certain climate, he believes organizations are also rooted in a specific terroir.
“There’s been a desire for tourists to come here, and people from San Francisco,” he said. “That’s a challenging thing to accomplish. I think what can lead us in that direction is developing our sense of place.”
Along the way, it’s obvious that Yarrow — a teacher and professional musician before he became an arts presenter — is willing to take risks.
The 2018-2019 Mastercard Performance Season is a case in point. The mix includes less classical music and more experimental and global artists such as Banda Magda, a pop band led by a Greek singer that blends South American rhythms with jazz and world “chansons.” These bands tend to appeal to a younger demographic of Millenials who grew up in a world where borders between genres had been blurred.