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The maestro's greatest feat
Robert Cole put Cal Performances on the international map

| 29 September 2005

When Cecilia Bartoli made her West Coast debut 14 years ago, her performance in 700-seat Hertz Hall was far from sold out. Next week the renowned mezzo-soprano makes her eighth appearance at Berkeley, and it's certain she will fill all 2,000 seats in Zellerbach Hall.


From Kirov to Cleese, Cal Performances' Robert Cole schedules artists who matter. (Wendy Edelstein photo)
Booking Bartoli before she became one of the world's most-sought-after opera singers was "a lucky break," says Cal Performances Director Robert Cole with characteristic humility. The 2005-06 season marks Cole's 20th year with the organization, as well as the 100th anniversary of the campus performing-arts program generally. While he's reluctant to paint a picture of Cal Performances as it was 20 years ago ("I don't want to diminish what it was - that would sound self-serving"), he will say that the presenting organization had yet "to achieve international status in the performing arts."

For an example of what he wished to accomplish, Cole needed to look no further than UC Berkeley itself. "This university is recognized internationally - it's not just a regional or national center. I felt that we should be something similar, so I modeled Cal Performances after entities that present artists in London, Paris, and New York," says Cole.

To put Cal Performances on the global map, Cole wanted "to bring artists here who would become world-famous" as well as established performers who had yet to grace a West Coast stage, such as choreographers Pina Bausch and William Forsythe.

Before he assumed the directorship at Cal Performances, Cole, a trained classical musician, served as associate conductor at the Buffalo Philharmonic. In 1985, before moving to Berkeley, Cole, who says he was "always scouting talent," attended the PepsiCo Festival in Westchester, N.Y., where he saw a young dancer named Mark Morris perform. Morris was "really gifted," says Cole, who went backstage and introduced himself to the dancer/choreographer.

"When I first brought Mark here in '87, he was totally unknown in the Bay Area," says Cole. "Now his is the only modern-dance company outside of Alvin Ailey's that has its own studio and regularly is invited to perform at Lincoln Center and the Tanglewood Festival." In the latest of its numerous Cal Performances appearances, the Morris group is performing at Zellerbach Hall this week. Cole himself will conduct members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra for the company's performance of Cargo.

Anniversaries galore

The campus performing-arts presenter has had many previous incarnations and names, starting with the Musical and Dramatic Committee that was formed in 1906 to oversee the recently completed Greek Theatre. Restructuring and name changes over the next 53 years gave birth to both the Committee for Arts and Lectures in 1959 and the more streamlined Cal Performances in 1980.

In attempting to create a special centennial season, Cole ran into a familiar problem. "It's hard to outdo what you did before," he acknowledges. "I tried to make a statement with the programming about what Cal Performances is in the broadest possible sense, but if you didn't know it was the centenary season, you might not recognize that."

Nevertheless, Cole and Hollis Ashby, associate director of Cal Performances, have assembled a stellar roster of more than 70 performers for the 2005-06 centennial season. Highlights include the Kirov Ballet's Sleeping Beauty, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Beijing People's Art Theatre, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, pianist András Schiff, jazz legends Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, actor/comedian John Cleese, New York Times columnist Randy Cohen, Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, Ravi Shankar with his daughter and protégé Anoushka Shankar, Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, and Arlo Guthrie celebrating the 40th anniversary of Alice's Restaurant.

The sheer breadth of that list (which omits the season's offerings of music before 1850, chamber music, and three programs dedicated to contemporary classical composers; visit calperfs.berkeley.edu for the complete schedule) makes one wonder: How does Cole manage to know about all the different art forms he brings to campus? "I don't," he says. "You have to find and rely upon people in the know - not commercial agents who call you up and want to sell you on a performer."

While Cole does depend on other people for guidance, he also boasts a distinct advantage over other university presenters: his background as a performer. Cole studied violin and clarinet at San Jose State University and privately with a member of the San Francisco Symphony, and then attended graduate school in music at the University of Southern California. "You have to have some basis of judging what you're evaluating," he says.

Early in his career, Cole conducted and ran a dance company. "There was this little ballet company in Los Angeles that needed a conductor very occasionally, so I tried to build up the company so that they would need a conductor more often," he says.

The maestro has taken frequent opportunities to employ his baton since those formative days. Last year, conducting duties took Cole twice to Russia for a total of four weeks and to London for a three-week stint with Mark Morris' Hard Nut. "I'm taking more vacations now than I ever did since I've been here," he insists, "but they all involve work, because that's what I like to do."

Cole, an admitted "workaholic," logs seven days a week during Cal Performances' season: attending concerts, receptions, and post-performance dinners and, intertwined with much of the above, fundraising. "We're just on the edge and struggling all the time - just like the university," he says, "except that the academic part of Berkeley is funded by the state and we're not." The dotcom bust, the subsequent recession, and the economic fallout from September 11 made the going "very, very difficult. At least now we're on the upswing," he says, noting that ticket sales this season have increased a few percentage points - amounting to "a lot of money."

A symbiotic relationship

While Cole may envy the university's steady trickle of state funding, he's proud to work with the "brilliant faculty" who participate in Cal Performances' educational programming. Last year, Professor of Music Richard Taruskin, a renowned Russian-music expert, offered students and patrons at Hertz Hall insight into the Kirov Orchestra's concert. For the recent appearance of the National Ballet of China, Cal Performances and the Institute of East Asian Studies organized a colloquium of scholars and dancers to discuss the political and social ramifications of the group's production of Raise the Red Lantern, a controversial work in the company's homeland.

Beyond its ticketed programs, Cal Performances serves the campus in ways that go largely unnoticed. "If Bill Gates or Bill Clinton comes to talk, we manage the event," says Cole. "We held more than 30 graduations in Zellerbach Hall and Playhouse last spring in three weeks. That's incredible."

Cole, who is in his 70s, admits that he may be nearing the end of his run as director: "Obviously, I can't do this forever. I'd like to, but I can't." While most men his age might look forward to retirement, for Cole, who is "way over-committed" to future conducting engagements, the future holds more work.

Though purposely noncommittal about when he'll step down, Cole also ridicules the notion that he is Cal Performances. "We've built a very strong institution with a board of directors and a very good staff," he says. "It's going to be fine."