Green Music Center executive director renews promise to educate, inspire

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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.

“The world is more and more interconnected,” Yarrow said. “Especially with the younger musicians coming up, they can authentically learn a variety of different traditions ... that’s one of the really interesting trends that’s been happening in music for decades, but is much more prevalent now.”

The Punch Brothers led by mandolinist Chris Thile, scheduled to play at Weill Hall and Lawn this summer, is another example of a multi-genre band.

“The Punch Brothers are a bluegrass band, but they cover Pavement songs, and then they do straight-up classical music,” he said. “Labels are important — those distinctions are interesting — but they certainly are not ironclad. The membranes between them are permeable.”

While Yarrow said the center will always have a core commitment to Western classical music, he points out that there’s already a lot of classical music that happens there, thanks to resident ensembles such as the Santa Rosa Symphony, Sonoma Bach and the university’s own groups.

So the open-minded presenter, who boasts a boyish charm and a downhome demeanor, is asking questions about what kinds of entertainment would have the most impact on audiences here.

“We’re trying to figure out what our presentations should look like in a multicultural world, and what’s the best way for us to play a helpful role in the local arts ecosystem as well,” he said. “Does it matter here? Can we make this work?”

Even some of the classical programs Yarrow has programmed include adventurous and edgy artists. Wild Up, a Los Angeles modern music collective, will present a program of civic dialogue in February called “We, the People — Arts as Activism.”

Yarrow is also excited about experimental programs such as Manuel Cinema’s “The End of TV,” an immersive visual story set in a Rust Belt city that questions capitalism and the validity of the American dream.

“Manual Cinema is pretty forward-looking and unique in the form that they work in,” he said. “It’s a theater company that uses a bunch of puppet techniques and live music ... and they hand-make a movie in front of you.

“It’s just beautiful storytelling that shifts perspective.”

Storytelling comes naturally to Yarrow, the oldest son of two Appalachia Volunteers who moved to West Virginia in the 1960s to do community organizing work. Music also runs in his veins, like the coal running through the veins under his native West Virginia mountains.

“I grew up around old-time music and went to fiddle and banjo contests,” said Yarrow, whose middle name is Nimrod. “I’m named for one of the great Appalachian ballad singers, the National Heritage Award-winning Nimrod Workman.”

When he was in fifth grade, his grandfather — a sax player himself — gave Yarrow an alto saxophone he picked up at a pawn shop. Inside the case was a note: “This is a great hobby because it’s like tennis — you can play it your whole life — but it’s definitely not a career.”

Yarrow ignored the advice, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1993 with a bachelor’s of music in wind instruments and minors in music theory and music history, plus a teaching certificate.

“I went to Michigan very specifically to study classical saxophone,” he said. “It’s a weird thing to be good at, so you end up doing lots of different things.”

After graduating, Yarrow went straight to the University of North Texas in Denton, TX — a pioneer in the teaching of jazz — for a master’s of music in performance.

“When bands went on the road, they would pull up and pick up a lot of players,” he said. “There are tons of famous alums.”

After graduating in 1995, Yarrow got a job in his West Virginia hometown as a substitute music teacher and band director for Beckley Junior High. The gig had its challenges, but his favorite class was a 9-week intro to music class that required him to develop his own curriculum. So he would teach Bach and then compare the structure used by the Baroque composer to the music of Jimi Hendrix and others playing on the radio.

“Bach is the greatest thing ever. Yeah, we believe in that,” he said. “But that ain’t no reason for kids in the coal fields of West Virginia to care. Why does Bach matter?”

That was the first time Yarrow had wrestled with that question — the same question he is asking himself today at the Green Music Center. And every nine weeks, he got to answer it in a different way.

“Iteration is a really powerful thing, and you get to try lots of things,” he said. “That’s the great thing about presenting performances. We put in a whole year, and from show to show, we get to try lots of different things.”

After teaching for a year, Yarrow went on the road playing lead in the Glenn Miller Orchestra, a swing dance band formed in 1937 that can still be heard today.

“I lived on a bus for a year ... it was a great experience,” he said. “We played 40 states and six different countries.”

Then he moved to Maryland to be closer to another sax player that he had met at the University of North Texas: his soon-to-be wife, Debbie. He put together a classical saxophone quartet and wrote a grant to go to a professional development conference put on by the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) based in Washington, D.C.

The national advocacy organization ended up hiring him for an entry-level position, then promoting him to work in funding and education programs and eventually, to do educational programming. He quit his career as a professional musician and never looked back.

“I was a totally competent show player, but I’m much happier helping to facilitate how brilliant artists connect with audiences,” he said. “I feel like I”m making a much bigger contribution to the world by helping to make that happen.”

After five years, Yarrow wanted to work more directly with an arts organization, so he joined the Garth Newel Music Center in Warm Springs, Virginia. The classical music organization presented chamber music in a rehabilitated horse-riding ring on the side of Warm Springs Mountain.

“It’s a really remarkable place to hear a concert,” he said. “One of the things we were able to accomplish was to become more locally connected and less exclusive.”

After six years, Yarrow and his growing family — wife, Debbie, and daughters Grace and Ella, now 16 and 14 — moved to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, one of the best university presenters in the country. He served as programming director for the university’s Hancher Auditorium, a year after the hall was destroyed in a flood. So he got creative, finding the best venue to present each artist.

Eventually, a beautiful, new 1,800-seat performing arts center was built with a proscenium stage and a black box theater. The multipurpose auditorium has an acoustical shell for acoustic music.

“It works really well, especially for string quartets,” he said. “We had the same acoustic consultants as Weill Hall. In April 2017, Yarrow was plucked out of the heartland to become the new executive director of SSU’s Green Music Center, succeeding Zarin Mehta, who had previously served as executive director of the New York Philharmonic.

Yarrow arrived at the end of June and hit the ground running. One of his biggest surprises was how busy the Green Music Center — including the 1,400-seat Weill Hall and 240-seat Schroeder Hall — stays all year round.

“For university presenters, it’s common to have a couple of months per year when things are slow,” he said. “The summer keeps us very busy with large crowds.”

Toss in all the Santa Rosa Symphony concerts, the Sonoma State student concerts, campus events and multi-day conferences, and there are not many days when the hall stays dark.

For the upcoming season, Yarrow has folded the Schroeder Hall concerts into the Mastercard Performance Series and created a third venue — The Loft at Weill Hall. For that intimate gathering, the performers will be placed downstage and spun around to face the audience seated in the choral loft, choral circle and onstage.

When he’s in town, Yarrow attends every performance and will often introduce the performers as well, using the opportunity to let the audience know what else is coming to the center and then sticking around to gauge their response to each show.

It gives him the chance to ask more questions, including the big one: Why does any of this matter to our time?

“I like the question because there ain’t no answer,” he said. “There are multiple answers, none of which are completely satisfying or finished ... so we will continue to explore.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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