Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Beethoven, Schroeder and Vince

As I've observed many times, one's fame isn't merely a function of popularity in the moment, or even during a lifetime, but also the degree to which one's art becomes ubiquitous enough to be included as a relevant part of important events years — even decades — after passing on.

Thus, I was delighted by the significant role Guaraldi played during last weekend's public unveiling of the Green Music Center's new Schroeder Hall, all part of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. The intimate, 250-seat venue was named after Charlie Brown's Beethoven-loving friend, Schroeder, at the suggestion of Charles M. Schulz's widow, philanthropist Jeannie Schulz. Aside from that nod to the resolutely focused Peanuts character who never lets lovestruck Lucy Van Pelt distract him from pounding out complicated symphonies on a toy keyboard — with painted black keys! — the designation also acknowledges Charles "Sparky" Schulz's lifelong fondness for classical music.

Additionally, the name brings renewed focus to a longstanding debate among Peanuts fans: Is Schroeder the young lad's first name ... or his last?

"People ask if there's a Mr. Schroeder," laughed Laurence Furukawa-Schlereth, co-executive director of the Green Music Center, when he was interviewed in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Schroeder Hall's debut weekend was marked by close to a dozen concerts and special events, the first of which — dubbed the "Schroeder Overture" — took place Friday evening, August 22. The cheerful, invitation-only crowd was an engaging blend of donors, Sonoma State University and Green Music Center personnel, staff members from both the Charles M. Schulz Museum and neighboring Creative Associates, and honored guests.

I had to wear a coat and tie, which conflicted with my long-established "Northern California casual" rep. Folks who know me would have fainted at the sight.

But it was a Snoopy tie, so maybe it would have been only a brief swoon.

The cocktail reception began at 6 p.m. in the Schroeder Hall lobby and adjacent outdoor patio. My wife and I arrived promptly, not wanting to miss a moment — actually, we were 20 minutes early — and were lucky enough to enjoy a lengthy chat with Erik Greeny, Sonoma State's Interim Vice President of University Development. He answered all my nosy questions with grace and good humor, explaining that the new facility would double as a lecture hall by day, and performance venue by night. An initial "Sundays at Schroeder" series will feature jazz vocalist Mary Stallings, organist Charles Rus, Café Music, bagpiper Cristina Pato and Pink Martini singer Storm Large with Le Bonheur.

The venue doors opened at 7:15, at which point we all filed inside, many of us immediately awestruck by the hall's dominant feature: a luxurious Brombaugh Opus 9 organ, housed in its own music bay above the stage. Because the organ purchase was arranged during the venue's design phase, Schroeder Hall was acoustically configured to that instrument. No kidding: We got a brief sample of the organ's auditory magnificence, when it led the audience in the National Anthem. (Additional details about the organ can be found in this article from the North Bay Bohemian.)

Jeannie Schulz shared ribbon-cutting duties with Ruben Armiñana, president of Sonoma State University: a massive sky-blue ribbon that was sliced by a laughably huge pair of scissors. (They needed two swipes of those scissors.)

Okay, okay, I hear you cry, with impatience; where does Guaraldi figure into this high-society celebration of the arts?

The cocktail reception, organ debut and ribbon-cutting were warm-up for the evening's main event: a concert by jazz pianist David Benoit, with able support from bassist David Hughes and drummer Jeff Olson. And rest assured: Given the venue name, not to mention the presence of Jeannie Schulz and so many Peanuts-affiliated guests, Benoit's set list was dominated by Guaraldiana.

The 75-minute performance opened with a lively Guaraldi medley that focused on songs suggested by specific Peanuts characters: "The Charlie Brown Theme," "Frieda (With the Naturally Curly Hair)," "Red Baron," "Peppermint Patty" and, of course, "Linus and Lucy." The medley also included a few bars of Beethoven's "Fur Elise," in a nod to Schroeder himself, and an up-tempo cover of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind."

Benoit then performed one of his own Peanuts-themed compositions: "Wild Kids," written for the "Great Inventors" episode of 1988's eight-part miniseries, This Is America, Charlie Brown. Next up was another Guaraldi medley, this time blending two holiday-themed waltzes: "Skating," from A Charlie Brown Christmas; and "The Great Pumpkin Waltz," from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Benoit then introduced the next song, another of his original compositions, by explaining that Sparky Schulz had enjoyed it and requested a personal performance, when the two men met. The tune, "Snow Dancing," comes from Benoit's 1989 album, Urban Daydreams.

Photo by Alvin Jornada/The Santa Rosa Press Democrat
The subsequent tune, another Benoit original, also came with an anecdote. ("Every one of my songs has a story," the pianist admitted.) When his Japanese fans were given the opportunity to help select the set list for stops along one of Benoit's recent Asian tours, he was surprised when another of his own Peanuts compositions made the cut: a charming little tune titled "Linus Tells Charlie," which can be heard on his 2000 album, Here's to You, Charlie Brown: 50 Great Years!

Wanting to share some of his more recent work, Benoit and his band segued into "Feelin' It" and "Napa Crossroads Overture," both from his 2012 album, Conversation. He then paid tribute to some of his other musical heroes, by performing Oscar Peterson's signature arrangement of Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell," Bill Evans' "Letter to Evan" and two Dave Brubeck classics: "Strange Meadowlark" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk."

At this point in Benoit's long and successful career, he's firmly associated with several of his own compositions, although one probably resonates more than most: No surprise, then, that he chose to close the concert with a ferocious arrangement of "Freedom at Midnight," from his 1987 album of the same title. The lengthy jam allowed plenty of space for Hughes and Olson to shine, and Benoit even interrupted his own melody midway through, in order to insert a brief quote from Beethoven's iconic Piano Sonata No. 14 (the "Moonlight Sonata"), glancing toward the audience and gently saying, "That's for you, Jeannie."

Enthusiastic applause concluded this final selection ... not really concert's end, because of course the trio returned for an encore. Given the occasion, that encore was what Benoit has dubbed his funkified version of "Linus and Lucy," sounding very much like his contribution to the Dave Grusin-produced 1990 anthology album, Happy Anniversary, Charlie Brown.

Needless to say, a very good time was had by all. And I'm sure that Guaraldi, twirling his mustache on some celestial cloud, would have been delighted.

(A full review of the weekend's various performances can be found in this Press Democrat article. Be sure to check out the adjacent photo galleries, notably Alvin Jornada's extensive coverage of the Friday night activities.)

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