No offense to Julie Andrews and the producers of the blockbuster musical The Sound of Music, but the Austrian Alps have nothing on the Sonoma Mountains and Mayacamas Mountains when it comes to filling the air with song.
Summer is synonymous with music in Sonoma County. From June through Labor Day, multiple venues, including performing arts centers, parks, wineries, and restaurants, vie for your attention and attendance with a wide range of offerings. Be it jazz or rock, standards of the American songbook or Broadway showstoppers, folk or classical, the tunes reverberate from valley to hilltop. The performers also run the gamut, from the lesser knowns to the legendary.
During our stay in Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley, Bill and I wasted no time sampling the world of wine country music.
Our first foray, the evening after we arrived, was at Landmark Vineyards, just a short drive north on Highway 12, for a concert by singer/songwriters Carrie Manolakos and Morgan Karr as part of the Transcendence Artist Series by Transcendence Theatre Company. They performed their haunting and dramatic original music, both separately and together, in the relaxed atmosphere of the winery’s inner courtyard. Before the show started, we treated ourselves to the award-winning, handcrafted chocolate chip cookies sold at the Cookie…take a bite! table.
Next we went with our friends Penny and Gil to Weill Hall, renowned for its acoustics, in the Green Music Center on the campus of Sonoma State University to hear the one-and-only Tony Bennett. Weill Hall offers three seating options, thanks to the back wall that opens fully onto a gently sloping and beautifully landscaped lawn. A large hi-def video screen offered those seated outside a close-up view of the stage.
The inside of the hall is striking, with three tiers of seating. The chairs are made of steamed beach wood, and their open backs provide acoustic neutrality whether or not they’re occupied. Penny calls it the popsicle sticks hall because it looks like it’s made of, well, giant popsicle sticks. Just outside is terraced table seating with white chairs and white tablecloths. Behind that is lawn seating on an expansive field of lush grass. This was our option so we could spread out a blanket and enjoy a picnic dinner while watching the sun set and the stars appear.
The concert began with the traditional striking of a gong, followed by a few numbers from Bennett’s daughter, Antonia Bennett, as the opening act. Then an old recording of Frank Sinatra praising Tony Bennett as the best singer he knows played as the introduction, and out strode Bennett, dapper in in a pale yellow sport coat and dark pants.
Forever young at 88, Bennett still sings, swings, and tells stories like no other. He sang some of the standouts from his repertoire, including my favorite, “Just in Time.” He has a duet album with Lady Gaga called Cheek to Cheek coming out, which the day before had received the number one ranking. He urged us to buy it because “she needs the money.” For his last of two encores, he turned off the mike, dedicated the number to those of us on the lawn, and belted out a song that we could hear pretty clearly, thanks to the incredible acoustics and his gift of vocal projection.
Also at Green Music Center is the just-opened Schroeder Hall. Local philanthropist Jean Schulz named the stunning, gently curving hall in honor of her late husband, cartoonist Charles Schulz, known for his piano-playing Peanuts character, Schroeder. (Click here to read my interview with Jeannie reflecting on Charles, aka Sparky, in a previous blog post.)
The grand opening weekend included a free community concert starring jazz musician David Benoit – appropriate, given he’d written the music for several Charlie Brown TV projects. We attended with our friend Ter. The evening began with a complimentary reception on the terrace of the adjacent Prelude restaurant.
Benoit simply let her rip, playing A Tribute to Charlie Brown along with some of his own compositions and those of other jazz greats. “I identified with Charlie Brown,” he said, “in that I, too, was a bit of a loser. Thank God for the piano because it rescued me from oblivion.”
With his silver mop of hair, Benoit radiated an almost boyish exuberance. When he hunched intently over the keyboard, I had a momentary vision of him being the older adult version of Schroeder come to life, which added all the more to the magic of the evening.
Lastly, Bill, Ter, and I ventured over to Clos Pegase Winery in neighboring Napa Valley to attend the season finale of the nationally acclaimed Music in the Vineyards series of the Napa Valley Chamber Music Festival. Given the name, we anticipated the concert would be held outside. Instead, the setting was inside their wine cave. We met up with Monique, who owns our rental cottage, and her partner, Glenn. We walked down a darkened, candle-lit hallway, past stacked barrels of wine and statuary tucked into small recesses, ending in an intimate alcove with a temporary stage and chairs arranged in theater style.
The chamber orchestra juxtaposed the rousing The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, a Venetian of the 18th century, with The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Astor Piazolla, an Argentinian of the the 20th century. All three violin soloists were stellar. During intermission we adjourned to the courtyard for complimentary wine tastings. The five of us concluded the evening with dinner at the Michelin-starred Solbar, the restaurant for the luxury Solage Resort in Calistoga.
The Sound of Music‘s songwriters could have penned this lyric for us – our hearts certainly were “blessed with the sound of music.”