Impresario Robert Cole, new Green Music Center consultant, is known for his ability to get top artists
By DIANE PETERSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Robert Cole has been a music performer, teacher and conductor, but until now he may have been best known as the guy who put Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley on the map.
During his 23 years there, the director transformed the hall and its booking organization, Cal Performances, ito one of the most respected performance venues in the country.
Now, two years after retiring, Cole has been called back to duty as an artistic consultant for the $120 million Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Along with GMC Artistic Director Jeff Langley, Cole is charged with booking 12 to 15 headliners at the hall during the opening season of “Green Music Center Presents” in 2012-2013.
“He’s just the thing we need,” said Langley. “We have lots of ideas about what we want to do, but none of us have the industry connections among agencies that he has.”
Cole, who took over at Cal Performances in 1986, is known for having a keen nose for talent. Over the years, he has forged relationships with such rising artists as mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. As part of his consultant’s job at SSU, Cole will also share his expertise on setting up the center’s operation, from board governance to ticketing.
“So often in this country, buildings have been built but there hasn’t been a plan to operate it and how to make it successful,” Cole said. “That’s the biggest danger.”
Last month, the university received a $12 million gift from Joan and Sandy Weill, allowing it to finish construction of the 1,400-seat concert hall, modeled after Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass.
Born in San Jose, Cole played sax and clarinet in local bars as a teen-ager and attended San Jose State University. After doing graduate work at University of Southern California, he taught music, then started conducting.
After serving as associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Cole launched his second career as an arts administrator, serving as executive director of ballet and opera companies along with performing arts centers.
Cole is married to Susan Muscarella, founder and executive director of the Jazzschool in Berkeley; they live in Berkeley.
Q: When did you first experience the Green Music Center?
A: Last April, someone called me and asked me to come to an event here. It was the singer, Ruth Ann Swenson. And I was so amazed at how great she sounded.
Q: What made you fall in love with the hall?
A: As a conductor, I’m the biggest fan of Ozawa Hall. It’s probably one of the greatest concert halls in America, but it’s 800 seats and it’s not used in the winter. This is a little larger version of that — 1,400 seats — which is a very, very good idea, because of the economics of it all. But it still maintains the pristine acoustics of Ozawa Hall.
And in this country, there’s nothing else like it. This is totally unique. It is unbelievable that it is here.
Q: How long will you be working on this project?
A: I have a two-year agreement, but it’s sort of open-ended. The idea is to get it going, and find somebody who is willing to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, because that’s what it takes.
Q: What will be the main difference between Cal Performances and The Green Music Center Presents?
A: This is a concert hall. It’s not a multi-purpose hall like Zellerbach, where you can do concerts, dance shows, theater. But you can have speakers, and all kinds of music, not just symphony orchestras. The plus is that you can do music at the highest level.
Q: What is the process of booking a season like this?
A: In this business, you’re working at least two years ahead. And so we’re working feverishly right now.
In New York, I was breaking arms and trying to get something done. You get six people lined up, and you end up with one. You don’t know what’s going to work, between their calendar and our calendar.
Q: What is the potential of this music complex?
A. This will be the home for the Santa Rosa Symphony, which will do 37 concerts. And if we have 10 to 15 concerts. … That’s going to be a pretty full schedule.
Plus the students are going to be doing things in there, the music department is going to be doing things. Then there’s going to be the lawn, which is going to be finished in the fall of 2013. We could have a huge educational program here in the winter and the summer.
Q: Is it uncommon for a hall to take so long to build?
A: The most important thing is, does it end up right? Because look at Davies Hall (in San Francisco) and Avery Fisher Hall (in New York), which they’ve been working on for 40 years and still haven’t gotten right. It’s better to take a little longer and get it right.
Q: What is the biggest challenge for the operations?
A: It’s a start-up. So it’s just that there’s a lot to do. It’s a big job, because it has to reach a high level of perfection. You can’t make mistakes when you sell tickets.
Q: Any personal goals?
A: I’d like to see the first season sold out, and make national and international news. That’s all. Why not?
You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.