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Robert Cole to Hand Over Berkeley Festival Reins

May 8, 2018

This year’s Berkeley Festival and Exhibition (BFX) begins with a regrettable subtraction: Robert Cole, the festival’s founder and director of almost 30 years, announced this week that he is at last stepping down.

It had to happen, although Cole has defied age and suspicions of his impending retirement for the last six to eight years. For the man who led Cal Performances for 23 years, the BFX is still his baby and the thing he is closing his impresario career with.

For almost three decades now, Berkeley Festival & Exhibition has remained exceedingly close to my heart. It gives me enormous pride to have been a part of this exceptional organization, to work closely with so many talented artists, devoted volunteers, and staff, and to have spent these many rewarding years with an organization that feels very much like home to me."

Not only did Cole inaugurate the festival, but with the resources of Cal Performances at hand, he made it noteworthy: Musica Antiqua Köln, Il Giardino Armonico, Jordi Savall, Vox Luminis, and Gustav Leonhardt all performed at the festival. (Giardino Armonico was a new discovery when they played the festival.) And no one who saw it will ever forget the French equine ballet Le Carrousel du Roi at the 2000 and 2002 Festivals, or the American debut of Mark Morris’s production of Lully’s Platée in 1998, although many may have forgotten the modern-day premiere of Alessandro Scarlatti’s opera L’Aldimiro in 1996.

Even after his departure from Cal Performances, he has remained a great talent scout and a superior artistic administrator, something, he once told SFCV’s Mark MacNamara, that he wishes were more valued:

“This business I’m in is very deceptive, in part because people don’t realize what it takes to do this. The body of knowledge that’s involved….my theory is that running a theater, or any business, is developing a brand that people recognize.”

This year’s BFX season, which Cole planned, is no exception to the rule, with 19 mainstage productions, including the return of Vox Luminis, the festival debut of Benjamin Bagby’s Sequentia in a pair of programs, and the inauguration of a historical performance piano competition. Not to mention the overflowing Fringe events.

The Festival announced that the search for Cole’s successor would begin after the 2018 Festival concludes.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.