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Soon, Lang Lang, the globally acclaimed concert pianist who opens the Green Music Center this Saturday, visited Sonoma State at midnight to be silently ushered into the main hall for a trial run. At 1:30am, after an hour and a half at the piano, the pianist gave the hall his blessing. Subsequently, Weill gave the hall $12 million.
The thing that was once just an idea was becoming more and more tangible. As Armiñana is fond of saying, the tires on the car were finally able to be kicked. "If we had not built it to the point we had," says Armiñana, "I don't think the Weills would have come in, visited one time and then called back saying, 'How much do you need?'"
The reverberations of Weill's involvement were wide. Weill's financial connections led to a $15 million donation from Mastercard to name the as-yet-unfinished 10,000-seat outdoor performance space. But it also led to some activists vowing to speak the newly christened words "Weill Hall" in the original German pronunciation.
Weill, who did not respond to a request for an interview for this story, is a board member for Carnegie Hall and a noted philanthropist with a history of donating to the arts and to universities. Yet many assert his responsibility in the financial meltdown of 2008, beginning with his flouting of regulatory laws in merging Citicorp and Travelers Group in 1998. Weill then lobbied successfully to repeal the Glass-Steagall act, which opened the doors for other banks to follow his lead and grow too-big-to-fail. He was named one of the "25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis" by Time magazine, and there was even a minor protest at 2012's commencement ceremony at SSU, at which Weill and his wife, Joan, were presented with honorary degrees from the university.
Armiñana understands why people felt the need to demonstrate. "There is not a great deal of love at this moment, nationally, toward big banking," he says. But he feels that Weill is not to blame. Citing the House's passage and President Clinton's signing of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, Armiñana says laying blame solely on Weill for the repeal of Glass-Steagall "shows a great deal of lack of knowledge of how the legislative executive process works in the United States."
For his part, Weill has since reexamined his position, stating this July that government regulations are necessary to prevent economic collapse. ("I have found him very nimble in his mind," notes Armiñana.)
Weill's history aside, some faculty believe the GMC has diverted funds and attention away from other areas of the university. In a study released this year by SSU sociology professor Peter Phillips, 14 of 16 department heads interviewed under condition of anonymity said they felt "GMC development efforts directed funds away from the quality of education throughout Sonoma State." Overall, those interviewed felt that the GMC "might not have been the best venture," the study says.
"The university has no business being in the concert business; we're in the education business," says Phillips. "All these resources are being put into this music hall, which is essentially for the Sonoma County upper crust."
Armiñana has not read the report, but allows that he is familiar with it. "I have had encounters in the past that Peter's methodologies have been very biased," he says, choosing not to comment further.