A friendship founded on love of music

Updated: 2012-09-28 10:59

By Zhang Qidong in San Francisco (China Daily)

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 A friendship founded on love of music

Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall at Sonoma State University opens on Sunday with a concert by pianist Lang Lang. The Weills donated $12 million to complete the complex that houses the venue. Zhang Qidong / China Daily

Philanthropy and classical music will unite with a concert this weekend by acclaimed pianist Lang Lang to open the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall at California's Sonoma State University.

For five years, construction of the $110 million concert venue had been stalled for lack of financing. Then Weill, former CEO of Citigroup Inc, and his wife bought a 362-acre estate down the road from the university.

The Weills had already donated more than $1 billion of their personal fortune to civic institutions and nonprofit enterprises, and they were ready to give $12 million to Sonoma State to complete its music space.

Weill Hall is modeled on Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The California venue can seat 1,400 concertgoers inside and, when open to the lawn outside, provide views to an additional 3,000 people.

Before donating, however, the Weills wanted an expert opinion about the acoustics and suitability of the concert hall's design. They sought out a world-class musician, and soon found one in Lang Lang. The Shenyang, China, native, now 30, had been winning international piano competitions since the age of 12.

"Sandy" Weill first met Lang Lang - his name means "brilliance of the sky" in Chinese - 11 years ago, before his globe-trotting concert career took off. Weill recognized the young man's immense talent and his potential to become classical music's answer to golf superstar Tiger Woods.

A friendship founded on love of music

"The first impression I had of Lang Lang was that he was such a fantastic piano player," Weill told China Daily. "(He has) a lot of talent, a great personality, and it was 16 days before he would play for the first time in front of the public at (New York's) Carnegie Hall.

"But most of all, I was very impressed by his understanding of the importance of giving back to society at such a young age," Weill recalled.

"Our friendship was instant when I called him 'the Tiger Woods of the classic music world'. We have the same passion for youth education, music and art, and I respect Lang Lang's value in helping bring music education to public schools."

In the decade since their introduction, Lang and Weill have worked closely on education initiatives, particularly through the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. The retired banker serves on the foundation's board of directors. In addition, Weill is chairman and Lang a member of the board that oversees Carnegie Hall.

As soon as Joan and Sandy Weill became aware of the construction delays at Sonoma State's Green Music Center, inside which Weill Hall is located, they paid a visit. The multifaceted complex on the campus, about an hour's drive north of San Francisco, consists of an acoustically superb concert hall, a recital space, a restaurant and reception hall, and a music-education wing; there are also plans for a large-scale outdoor amphitheater. A project with great local interest, the Green center was to be the home of the Santa Rosa Symphony.

"I was blown away by its beauty and sound, although there was no lobby, no chairs. The funding was dead; it was a project that was put on hold for over five years," Weill said.

"Lang Lang happened to be in the area in January 2011, playing with the San Francisco Symphony. I called him up and asked him to check it out for me and he managed a time for it."

Weill said he then phoned Sonoma State's president, Ruben Armiana, to tell him of Lang's impromptu inspection of the center including the then-unnamed concert hall. Lang planned to visit around midnight. "I was nervous about it since I wasn't sure if the university would open the Green Music Center for Lang Lang at such a late hour," Weill said. But the university administration was amenable to the request.

A group of Sonoma State employees waited at the concert hall that night for Lang. He arrived close to midnight and "spent about an hour and a half playing and putting the hall through its paces", recalled Jeff Langley, artistic director of the Green Music Center, who was there.

The next day, Weill got a call from Lang, who was en route to Washington to perform at a White House state dinner hosted by President Barack Obama for his visiting counterpart, President Hu Jintao.

"Lang Lang said the hall was 'fantastic', the sound extraordinary and he was impressed with its acoustics and overall beautiful look," Weill said. The pianist also promised to make it a regular stop on his future West Coast tours.

With the expert's vote of confidence, the Weills went through with their $12 million commitment, ensuring completion of the Green complex and its outdoor facilities.

"We are looking forward to this exciting moment," Weill said of Sunday's concert by Lang. "It's an honor to be named for the hall. In no time, the public will see this world-class performance venue with incredible sounds, located in beautiful wine country.

He said the finished project will enhance the cultural experience of Sonoma State students and the entire San Francisco Bay Area while providing a boost to the local economy.

This summer, Weill was in Berlin, where Lang celebrated his 30th birthday with 50 German children, ages 10 to 12.

"It was a very touching moment seeing those kids playing on 25 pianos with Lang Lang," he said.

 A friendship founded on love of music

Retired banker Sandy Weill (left) and renowned pianist Lang Lang have been friends since 2001. Craig Chesek

Music and age both transcend any barriers that might exist between 79-year-old American and his young friend from China.

"We meet several times a year everywhere - in New York, Europe and even China," the Brooklyn-born banker said. "We developed a very close friendship. Lang Lang is young, exciting and enthusiastic. He played at my home a couple of times in Sonoma and New York; most of the time we brought young kids to hear him play or play together with him, which is a great experience for those kids."

Sandy and Joan Weill are also planning to establish a summer camp to bring children from low-income families to Sonoma. "I would like to have them experience the music and the culture at the facility, feeling better about themselves after they return home. And Lang Lang will be part of it; we will coordinate his traveling schedule with our program."

As head of Citigroup, Weill built the New York bank into the world's biggest financial services empire before the global crisis of 2008.

Weill, who retired as CEO of Citigroup in 2003 and stepped down as chairman in 2006, said his success is due to two things: the previous economic boom and his wife.

"I was lucky to live in the good time of 1982 to 2000, when our country was a great leader, and I am lucky to have my wife, Joan, to whom I have been married for 57 years, as my life partner," he said.

Weill cites among his secrets of success "having realistic goals, listening to people, not being afraid of people who are smarter, always thinking of a goal [and] driving myself to do better." He also says that one should recognize that great things don't come easily. Learning from mistakes is crucial, he believes.

As classical-music lovers, Joan and Sandy Weill have helped raise money for the Lang Lang Music Foundation.

"Lang Lang has a whole world ahead of him," Weill said. "He has a desire to help, is willing to work hard at it, and he has the ability to relate to people.

"I believe his work will have an incredible impact on the music world and a lot of people's lives. The effort anyone can make to involve in Lang Lang's Music Foundation will help make the world a better place."

Lang, who has been selling out concert halls around the world since his mid-20s, co-wrote a book about his life (Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story) that has been published in several languages and was described by the New York Times as classical music's "hottest artist", said he is "very close" to Weill and "has a lot of respect" for his friend.

"If [German conductor] Christoph Eschenbach made Lang Lang an overnight star by giving him an opportunity to perform at Chicago's Ravinia Festival (in 1999), Sandy Weill is a great supporter of Lang Lang's pursuing his dream in youth education," said Emma Ge Yu, of Lang Lang's global management firm, CAMI Music.

The friendship between Weill and Lang, as well as their love of music and hopes to improve the world through it, will continue. As Lang says in the text introducing his foundation: "Music makes life better. It heals, unites and inspires. And it makes us better people."


 A friendship founded on love of music

Lang Lang greets young fans in Berlin at a 30th-birthday party this summer. The pianist has set up a foundation that promotes music education for underprivileged children. Provided to China Daily