Berkeley's Bridge Builder | Brunswick Group

esperanza spalding appeared in Cal Performance’s recent production of her new opera, “Iphigenia,” written in collaboration with Wayne Shorter.

Berkeley's Bridge Builder

Jeremy Geffen started his job as Director of UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances only months prior to the pandemic. He talks to Brunswick’s Carlton Wilkinson about the pressures of planning the world-leading university’s culture seasons.

The University of California at Berkeley is one of the most prestigious colleges in the world, officially ranked by Forbes the No. 1 public university and one of the top five universities overall, along with MIT, Oxford and Harvard. Like any great campus, it is, on the one hand, a sheltered community; but on the other, it must also be always demonstrating relevance beyond its gates, reaching out to the surrounding city and to the world stage.

Jeremy Geffen, a former senior director and artistic adviser for Carnegie Hall, is now Executive and Artistic Director of UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, based at the university’s Zellerbach Hall. His work serves as an important bridge between the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, a path that ultimately reaches a global audience. All forms of the performing arts are included, both groundbreaking and traditional. Seasoned professionals and young artists and ensembles just starting their careers are put before his audiences. Aspiring performers are also cultivated through his involvement in UC Berkeley’s Student Musical Activities.

Geffen took over at Cal Performances in 2019, just months before the onset of the pandemic. Since then a set of extreme pressures presented themselves, determining not only on what Cal Performances could do but what the global culture needs, what the world at large wants to talk about: isolation, polarization, LGBT and gender equality, racial violence and protest, the threat of nuclear war. Geffen knows that in addressing the needs of the campus and the local community he is giving voice to those concerns and also setting a benchmark for institutions elsewhere, participating in a global conversation that is currently feeling their own variations on those same pressures.

Planning his seasons involves solving that complex equation for all of those variables and he has received accolades for innovative programming that meets the moment. In particular, his “Illuminations” series, which builds a season of events around a central theme that changes each year, has provided a vehicle for campus intellectuals and working class attendees to come together on issues of current concern.

Jeremy Geffen Web

Jeremy Geffen, Director of UC Berkeley's Cal Performances.

Geffen was first and foremost a musician. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, he grew up in California, and studied viola at the University of Southern California. A hand condition forced him to put the instrument aside, but left him with a burning desire to contribute. An internship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic introduced him to artistic programming and within a few years he found himself helping organize seasons at Carnegie Hall. A love of the arts percolates through his decisions and a deeply musical sense allows him to structure coherent, compelling seasons out of the raw materials of schedules, PR packages and cultural and audience pressures.

We spoke to Geffen recently about his approach, about how Cal Performances handled the pandemic, and about the current challenges to his work and to the art of cultural presentation generally.

Broadly speaking, what is the role of the performing arts in society?
What underlies the performing arts is a fundamental belief in empathy. There are very few ways in which you actually get to view the world through somebody else’s eyes. I could tell you about my life, and it could interesting or it could be a totally didactic conversation. Or I could show you something of my life. I can illustrate a moment through sound, through movement that reaches you on a visceral, emotional level in a way that promotes an understanding that would otherwise take hundreds of hours of conversation. I see that as the secret weapon of the performing arts, that we can promote understanding. 

What do you see as the biggest problems confronting cultural presenting organizations?
I think perceptions of elitism and irrelevance. If one thinks of the interiors of most performing arts venues, most were constructed to invoke a sense of grandeur. I don’t think that’s bad. But, does one naturally associate such grand spaces as homes for  cutting-edge performance art? Probably not. So I think part of it is actually just a perception issue. Once you get people through the door, you haven’t won the battle but you’re one step closer to it.

There’s no silver bullet. Part of dealing with the perceptions of elitism is addressing what you put on the stage, and part of it is how you market and where you market. How do we get past the lack of exposure to classical music or concert music for instance? Honestly, that was one of the reasons why “Illuminations” was born. Because organizing pieces around a theme offers another way in. You can encounter a piece of music because you’re interested in it on purely musical terms. Or you can be brought into it through a thematic element.

I want our themes to have integrity, but if you can get people through the door to engage with something because they are interested in, for instance, the effects of gentrification, and in the process introduce them to new music, I think that's a win-win.

What underlies the performing arts is a fundamental belief in empathy. There are very few ways in which you actually get to view the world through somebody else’s eyes.

The “Illuminations” theme for 2021-2022, “Place and Displacement,” seems particularly relevant given the prominence of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and issues of US immigration. Was that deliberate?
Absolutely. I wanted to be certain that if we’re going to create a theme, it’s something that has relevance to the campus, to many disciplines of study, and where we as a presenter can offer a level of visibility to research that is otherwise taking place behind closed doors.

What differentiates Cal Performances from any other presenter is that we are on the campus of the greatest public university in the world. The intellectual resources that are at our disposal, the people who make up our community, bring depth of thinking that can provide greater context for the works we present and hopefully our presentations can provide that thinking with greater context for the general public.

A university is a place where refined thought that is unencumbered by practicality is encouraged to take place because it will move on to real world application. So there’s this incredible spirit of discovery. I’ve never needed to be the smartest person in the room, and I’m so glad I haven’t because, in Berkeley, I know I’m not—in any room. I’ll have dinner with a very unassuming person who happens to be working on the Mars Rover. It’s such a luxury to be part of a community that is that advanced in its thinking and is also willing to be experimental.

The level of campus involvement in “Place and Displacement” has been really heartening. You start to realize that everybody has their own story that relates, whether it’s an immigration story, a story about family ancestry. One of the performers in the series was part of a panel discussion, he was saying that as an African American, he is unable to trace his country of origin. And talking about the feeling of placelessness that comes with that. We all have a feeling of not belonging. Often it’s the fear of not belonging that informs our decisions to not take risk. So this has been a really rich theme.

We recently did a big revamp of our education offerings because we were offering too many programs. “Illuminations” is actually now going to serve as the organizing principle behind the university and lifelong learners and also, where it's appropriate, for K-12.

How do you go about planning a season?
I’m not sure that there’s any one answer to that except the metaphor of a sculptor and a block of marble: You eventually you have to make the first cut, and then it starts to reveal itself. Our planning cycle is such that our budget is formed in December. It’s usually approved in February or March. What you expect the season is going to be in November is almost never what you get. There are many elements of it that are the same. But what you go to press with is always different.

You also have to keep in mind who you’re programming for. There’s a core group. And ideally, you always want to broaden the circle. But you don’t want to go too far away from where you think your core audience will go with you. The Berkeley audience will go pretty far.

We were one of the few institutions to commission and produce the revival of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s experimental opera Einstein on the Beach, for instance. We have a much bigger canvas on which to paint than most organizations. Our world isn’t just dance, isn’t just music. It isn’t just theatrical types of presentations. It’s all of the above.

Iphigenias By Jon Fine Web

The West Coast premiere of Iphigenia sold out and was one of Cal Performance's strongest selling events of their season.

A lot of presenters went into hibernation in response to the pandemic. How did you handle it?
The first thing that I started was essentially a blog, “Now More Than Ever.” By now there are 60-something installments on our website, with a series of videos that I curated for each installment. It was a way of connecting us at the time when we weren’t able to be next to each other. So much of the performing arts experience is the experience of sharing with others. It’s what I find most humanizing. But in this case we couldn’t be together, so the sharing was asynchronous.

We also built a platform, Cal Performances at Home, that had several different levels to it, the most visible of which was our mainstage presentations. We produced 26 or so performances recorded around the world, wherever artists were sheltering. Through that series, we reached audiences in 36 countries on six continents. And that was with the reduced budget for the organization.

Each of the productions was different. We would have a local camera crew for each artist, usually by recommendation. We had a director based in Germany who handled a lot of our European recordings, and an executive producer, Jeremy Robins, who lives in Brooklyn, provided standards for the productions for the whole series. We got to know artists much more deeply than we do normally. In order to determine how someone wants to be represented on the screen, you have to get to a deeper level of understanding of who that artist is and how they want to be seen, because this is something that is not ephemeral; it is built for posterity.

I don’t think the digital performance is going away. We’ve yet to work out a formula that is completely cost effective, but there are people who, for various reasons, won’t come back to in-person performance even though they love it. To do it full time at that pace, I think you actually need a video team and currently we don’t have one. So we’re piecing that together.

We’re producing a number of Cal Performances at Home this season that we're recording from our home, from Zellerbach Hall. A number have already come out. There are about three more that are going to come out before the start of our next season.

Pandemic aside, how can an arts presenter respond to sudden changes in the culture? The situation in Ukraine is an obvious example right now, the entire world is focused on it.
No arts organization can solve that. The only thing we can do is provide an intellectual foundation through which to better understand the situation. As part of UC Berkeley, we are well positioned to do that. And we can provide consolation and distraction. I know I need that right now; I’m probably as guilty as anyone of not being able to turn it off. There’s obviously the trauma of the Ukrainian people, but there's also a collective trauma for anyone who’s aware in this moment.

To help facilitate conversation here, we’ve been working with campus units so that we can speak directly to the fact that there are so many millions of people who are refugees. Right now, there’s so much goodwill toward them. That is wonderful for now, but this could drag on for years.

What differentiates Cal Performances from any other presenter is that we are on the campus of the greatest public university in the world. The intellectual resources that are at our disposal, the people who make up our community, bring depth of thinking that can provide greater context for the works we present and hopefully our presentations can provide that thinking with greater context for the general public.

In pulling together a season, are you conscious of leading the culture, helping to define it well beyond the Berkeley campus?
I wouldn’t say I’m thinking about how it will be received in London or Paris, because what ultimately matters is how it’s received in the Bay area. But, yes, the season has to have a compelling identity. And you know it when you have it. It should resonate beyond our community—we have a responsibility to lead the art form.

Part of that is through commissioning. If you invest in new artists, if you introduce them to your public early enough, they will be part of your public’s concert-going life for many years to come. And the artists will enjoy coming back more because the public has a context for understanding what they do.

One of my greatest joys has been giving young artists that opportunity, that first chance. More often than not, they hit the ball out of the park. Someone like [star classical pianist and MacArthur Fellow] Jeremy Denk, who was a young artist when I first met him in in the early 2000s. Twenty years ago, most audience members did not know him by name or by reputation. Now people know who he is. But for a long time, it was, “Jeremy who?” As his reputation was growing, he’s been a regular part of the seasons at the New York Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, Carnegie Hall and now, Cal Performances. Those audiences have known him for a long time and know what to expect from him. And, in his case, they know to expect the unexpected because he’s such a curious artist, and he’s always going down fascinating and unique paths.

There are definitely people who come to our performances who aren’t particularly interested in the university; we just happen to be the local presenter. Fifty percent of our attendees have no relationship with the university at all, which is an incredible advantage. If there is a subliminal intention behind “Illuminations,” it’s to help further bridge that divide between the campus and the local community. As we’re building these “Illuminations” themes, and building programming, we can actually provide the units of campus greater exposure beyond the university community.

Is there a sweet spot between programming for larger audiences on the one hand and elevating the culture on the other?
There is a sweet spot and it keeps moving. You build on that over a decade or more. Things that might start out as being peripheral—things you think are more for the adventurous listener— may, over time, become those things that you come to rely on as strong audience draws. But that requires investment early on.

We just had the West Coast premiere of Wayne Shorter and esperanza spalding’s new opera Iphigenia. That performance was sold out. Esperanza is becoming a big name and Wayne Shorter certainly has his following, but I would have never expected that that would be one of the strongest-selling events in our season.

Our readership is C-suite executives around the world. Do you have anything to say to them in particular?
Support your local arts organizations. The word “community” comes up constantly. If they want to meet their community, and especially if they want to meet thought leaders in their community, those cultural audiences are important. And they’re also important for creating the next generation. People who are curious about the performing arts tend to be curious about a lot of things.


Carlton Wilkinson is Managing Editor of the Brunswick Review based in New York and an award-winning journalist. He holds a Ph.D. in music.