Primary tabs

Robert Cole

May 19, 2009

When Robert Cole took over Cal Performances in 1986, West Coast arts presenters were pretty much booking whatever came through on tour from the East. He changed all that. Cole, who’s calling it quits this summer after a brilliant and fruitful 23-year run, made things happen here. He helped originate new works of music and dance, and he brought in a vast range of artists from abroad, many of whom had never played here. Forging friendships with and providing a hospitable home for artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Mark Morris, Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Adams, and Merce Cunningham, the genial impresario turned UC Berkeley into a vital international arts center.

Cole, 78, created a program that brought together everyone from Cecilia Bartoli – whose recital career was launched in Berkeley – to the Tuvan Throat Singers, Philip Glass, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, German choreographer Pina Bausch, Nigerian singer Youssou N’Dour, the Kirov Ballet, Keith Jarrett, Lou Harrison, the Vietnamese Water Puppets, and Bryn Terfel, who made his smashing West Coast recital debut at Cal in 1996.

A modest, elegant, and witty man, Cole grew up in San José, where as a teenager he played clarinet and alto saxophone in clubs and dance bands (the peerless Ellington alto soloist Johnny Hodges was his hero). Cole studied conducting at the University of Southern California, and with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, landing his first conducting job with a Russian ballet company in Los Angeles, where he developed a passion for Russian dance and music, and learned how to raise money. He eventually became associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, then led by fellow USC alumnus Michael Tilson Thomas.

Unexcited by the American conducting posts he was offered, Cole took a job directing the Shea Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, where he found his métier. He went on to run the Brooklyn Center for Performing Arts before Berkeley tapped him. Cole, who will continue to conduct Morris’ annual The Hard Nut performances, spoke by phone from his office beneath Zellerbach Hall about his tenure at Cal and his plans for the future, which include helping his wife, jazz pianist and educator Susan Muscarella, with the Jazzschool, the swinging nonprofit she founded in downtown Berkeley.

You’ve had a remarkable run over the last 23 years. You brought so many things to Berkeley, from Cecilia Bartoli to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Mark Morris’ production of Rameau’s “Platee,’’ and the Afro-Cuban All Stars. What was your guiding principle or idea as an arts presenter?

I book things that I know about that I’m confident are really the top of their category. What I don’t know about, I try to find out. It’s always good to think about what other people are interested in. I try to do things that are of the highest quality, and that to a certain extent, aren’t being done by others in the Bay Area. Nobody else would’ve done the Beckett plays we brought from Ireland. The same thing with the Russian dance companies, like the Kirov. Nobody else was doing that. It was an opportunity for us to be unique. I’ve always been interested in theater, music, and dance. It’s who I am. I don’t have a concept. I’m sort of an open book. I have a wide-open palette, because I’m interested in work from all over the world. I’ve booked stuff I love and think other people will love.

You’ve often spoken about the importance of building long-term relationships with artists. What grew from those friendships with Mark Morris, Baryshnikov, Peter Sellars, John Adams, and others?

Those relationships have given the audience here an opportunity to see and interact with very important, unique artists of our time. You have to get to know these people, and they have to know that you are really interested in their sometimes offbeat ideas. Shortly after I came here, John Adams’ opera Nixon in China premiered in Houston. I went down there to see it, and it was very impressive. I wanted to work with John and knew him slightly. Because of scheduling and finances, we were never able to do Nixon in China. But later we were able to do a significant operatic piece by John and [director] Peter Sellars, I Was Looking at the Ceiling, and Then I Saw the Sky, which we produced from the ground up and gave the world premiere. That was the kind of thing I wanted to do more of, but it wasn’t easy. I thoroughly treasure that experience.

What about Baryshnikov, with whom you golfed?

He liked coming here. He liked the theater, and he liked the way we worked with him here. The staff gave him what we wanted and what he needed. Over the years, we were always able to get a golf game in. 

What are some of your standout memories, the productions and performances you cherish and take pride in?

All of Cecilia’s recitals. Bryn’s recitals. The appearances of Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris over the years. The opera Platee, which was a stunning success. It’s a great piece of music, which I had never heard or seen a production of. Mark had done it at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Cecilia has appeared here eight or nine times. If you wanted to hear Cecilia in the Bay Area, you had to come to Berkeley. She’s a major artist of our time. The last recital was unique. She sang the music of Maria Malibran [the 19th-century Spanish diva], which was very unusual repertoire. It was fantastic. She does it and gets away with it. I’m very proud of what we’ve done in the vocal arts. The recital Bryn gave last year was so overwhelmingly great. The people who were there will never forget it, and for those who weren’t, too bad. These were life-changing experiences.

Cal Performances was one of the first in the country to program “world’’ music and dance in a big way. How did that develop?

There was no one else in the Bay Area bringing in that diversity of artists, in those numbers. We wanted to establish ourselves in that area. We’re not going to do La Traviata, which they do at the Opera House, or a ballet that the San Francisco Ballet does. We always try to do something different. The biggest part of our program is world music, that is, music from cultures other than Western European. We’ve brought African artists, like Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal, and we had Astor Piazzolla [the late, great Argentine bandoneon player and composer] twice. I heard him at the Great American Music Hall and went after him. He was not only a great performer but a great composer. He's the Schoenberg of tango.

Cal Performances is going to announce your successor on Wednesday (5/20). Were you involved in the selection process, and what do you think are the qualities necessary for the job?

I was asked for my advice on occasion, but I wasn’t central to the search. In general, you need a broad knowledge of the performing arts, and the ability to work in a large and complex organization. Good ideas and passion are a must. Otherwise you couldn’t do this job, because it’s pretty much seven days a week.

So what are you going to do with your time now, start playing saxophone again?

No, tennis. I’m going to do some conducting. I’ve got a few ballet gigs. I’m doing the The Hard Nut here this December, some Nutcracker's around the country with the different companies, like the Moscow Classical Ballet. I’m going to Russia to conduct a few classical ballet performances. I’m going to help my wife with the Jazzschool. We haven’t settled on an assignment yet. I admire what she’s doing. I think I can help a little bit.

These are tough times for nonprofit arts presenters. What do they need to do to stay financially and artistically solid?

It’s difficult right now, but it’s always been a difficult business, especially when you’re trying to stretch. But if you don’t stretch then you’re out of business. If the art is not of the highest quality, people won’t respond to it. The only solution is to stretch artistically, and then establish your reputation, which I think we’ve done.

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.