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Robert ColeRobert Cole (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Bravo, maestro, bravo!

A look back at Robert Cole's long career as director of Cal Performances

| 23 April 2009

ballet dancers Audio slide show: Robert Cole's Top 10 (or so) Cal Performances events

The Shows Go On

Robert Cole announced his final season lineup on Tuesday, April 21. Due to the economic slowdown, the schedule, he says, is "somewhat reduced" for 2009-10, trimmed to 87 perform-ances (from 120 events in 2008-09). Highlights from the upcoming season include the following:

Special events

Two-time Grammy Award- winning soprano Renée Fleming will appear in recital (Dec. 6). Violinist Joshua Bell, who received the Avery Fisher Prize in 2007, returns to Zellerbach Hall (Feb. 21). And lyric tenor Ian Bostridge, one of the most admired lieder singers today, will make a rare West Coast appearance with pianist Julius Drake (March 21).


Shakespeare's Globe Theatre brings its production of Love's Labour's Lost, which features Renaissance costumes and "delightful design and jaunty music" (Times of London) to Zellerbach Hall (Nov. 4-8). Druid Ireland returns to Cal Performances with Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce (Nov. 8-22), a "galloping gothic comedy" (New York Times).


Mark Morris Dance Group kicks off Cal Performances' season with a program that includes two West Coast premieres, set to the music of Charles Ives and Beethoven (Sept. 17-20). The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performs two distinct programs, including pas de deux from nine Balanchine ballets (Oct. 25-26). Merce Cunningham returns to Berkeley with Nearly Ninety, a new work created in collaboration with and performed to a score by indie rockers Sonic Youth, former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and mixed-media sound composer Takehisa Kosugi (March 26-27).

World stage

Celtic group Altan's repertoire ranges from old Irish tunes to rowdy reels and jigs (March 19). Senegalese singer Baaba Maal returns to Berkeley after six years, bringing singers, dancers, and drummers and his special fusion of African music that blends elements of reggae, pop, R&B, soul, jazz, and blues (April 20). 

Other highlights

A House in Bali, an American premiere of a new multimedia opera by Evan Ziporyn, staged by Real Time Opera and Balinese artists, features a gamelan orchestra and the Bang On a Can All-Stars (Sept. 26). Soprano Christina Brewer makes her Bay Area recital debut (Sept. 27).  Harpsichordist and musicologist Davitt Moroney, professor of music, will perform both books of J. S Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier over two days at Hertz Hall (Oct. 24-25). Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud will share the stage with her Kronos Quartet colleagues for the first time in a decade, in a program that includes the world premiere of a new quintet by one of Russia's leading composers (Dec. 13).

For a complete listing of Cal Performances' 2009-10 season, visit

Robert Cole, the man who put Cal Performances on the global map, will step down this August after 23 years at the organization's helm.  (His successor will be named sometime this spring.) As this valedictory season draws to a close, Cole took time to reflect on his career in the arts with the Berkeleyan.

During Cole's run as director, Cal Performances has become one of the largest arts presenters in the country. Early on, Cole forged relationships with artists and scholars, commissioned and produced new works, and spotted and nurtured new talents. The roster of artists that Cole brought to Cal Performancesreads like a who's who of late-20th-century artistic greats: choreographers Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, and Pina Bausch; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli; performance artist Laurie Anderson; composer John Adams; actor/director Robert Lepage; and theatrical director Peter Sellars.

Cole has long bet that Bay Area audiences would clue in to a good thing, even while knowing such wagers are iffy. "When you produce something from scratch, as we did with I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, that's taking a risk," says Cole. Directed by Peter Sellars, the song-play was entirely new, with a score by John Adams and libretto by the late Berkeley professor and poet June Jordan. The venture "turned out better than I could have hoped — especially musically," he says.

Among the many works Cal Performances has commissioned is Biped (1999) by modern-dance innovator Merce Cunningham. The relationship between Cole and Cunningham reaches back four decades, when the former first presented the choreographer's work in 1978 at Shea's Performing Arts Center, an old theater in Buffalo, N.Y. "Merce was just a young guy then," says Cole of his friend, who turned 90 this spring. "I was a young guy," adds Cole, who's 78.

As a very young man, Cole studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein, among others, and served as associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic in the early 1970s. Knowing how to conduct an orchestra came in handy in 1996 when the conductor for Mark Morris Dance Group's The Hard Nut canceled just a week before the show's run was to begin. Morris asked Cole if he was up to the task. "It was a real struggle, because I didn't have enough rehearsal time, but I did it," says Cole. He has been conducting The Hard Nut'sperformances worldwideever since.

That trial-by-fire earned Cole plaudits from an unexpected corner. "When the stage crew saw that I actually could do something in the theater, it changed our relationship entirely," he says. The crew, he says, functions like a "little club" and doesn't think much of "civilians. Nobody else knows how to run the stage, and they consider the rest of us to be suits," Cole says with a laugh. When the crew saw the suit could conduct, they started treating him like "a real guy," says Cole proudly.

Cal Performances audiences, on the other hand, have long realized that Cole pulls his weight. At every performance this season, patrons Cole doesn't know have stopped him as he's crossing the lobby to say they will miss him. "My inclination is to get their name to see if they're donors," chuckles Cole. He says that, until this final season, the realization didn't hit full-bore that "You can actually have an impact and make a difference."

Two kinds of music

One way Cole has tried to make a difference is by exposing audiences to a variety of artists. His own tastes are eclectic and a bit edgier than Cal Performances audiences might suspect. "Music is music, whether it's Afro pop or Latin jazz or Purcell," says Cole, who then quotes Duke Ellington: "There are only two kinds of music, good and bad."

Cole's musical tastes and training began early — he started playing violin at age 6, and later the clarinet and saxophone. As a teenager visiting his grandparents in El Paso, he used to go to Juarez, Mexico, where he hung out in nightclubs and "got totally knocked out by Latin music." The Mexican musicians he heard played similarly to the Afro-Cuban All Stars, a multi-generational 14-piece ensemble from Cuba that's a particular favorite of Cole's — "with lots of percussion and brass," he smiles.

His love of early music and modern music led to the founding of two biennial music showcases: the Berkeley Edge Festival (in 2003), for new and contemporary works of art, such as those by composers John Adams, John Zorn, Lou Harrison, and Terry Riley, and the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music (in 1990).

Cole draws parallels between early music and jazz, both of which require improvisational skills of their practitioners. For example, says Cole, much of the music viola da gamba player and early-music scholar Jordi Savall performs was not written down precisely, so he pieces the scores together from old notations and improvises.

And early music, like jazz, pushes against sonic boundaries. "Some old music is very dissonant, considering the fact that it was written 400 years ago," observes Cole. The 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell, for example, was "way ahead of his time. It's well-known among musicians that Purcell's scores were often corrected for mistakes" that weren't mistakes — they were what the composer intended. 

"Some of the best new music is jazz," Cole says, remarking upon the fact that "the hard harmonic stuff" played by Chick Corea and John McLaughlin's Five Peace Band filled Zellerbach Hall in March, while the Brentano String Quartet and pianist Peter Serkin's program that included Schoenberg and 20th-century composer Charles Wuorinen drew a modest-size crowd. "Because it's modern music, nobody comes," says Cole of the latter performance. Both performances were "similarly modern and harmonically complicated, but the jazz has this beat, so therefore people will come and listen. That's why I say that jazz is important to the future of modern music."

Or, in some cases, the audience turns out, but the majority of them are of advanced age. "The arts have always attracted an older crowd, and that's the way it will always be," says Cole, who then launches into a recollection of being on tour in the 1970s with the Buffalo Philharmonic and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Before the concert, the theater manager noted a lot of "blue hairs" in the seats, and fretted that that meant the audience for classical music would soon disappear. MTT's response? "Don't worry. There will be more."