The 76-year-old Cole, a conductor and instrumentalist who began his tenure with the organization in 1986, turned Berkeley into a destination for internationally celebrated artists and an admired center for classical music and dance, theater, jazz and world music.
When Cole took over, Cal Performances was a respected regional performing arts presenter offering about 45 events annually on a budget of $4 million; it now presents some 80 events in 130 performances on a budget of $14 million and is considered easily the equal of presenters across the bay in San Francisco. Ticket sales have increased more than ten-fold since Cole's arrival, according to the organization.
"I had the idea to make [Berkeley] more like a London, New York or Paris where the greatest artists come from all over the world," stated Cole in a 2005 KQED interview. "That was my goal when I came here and that's what we've been working on ever since."
He has certainly been successful in that aim. One longstanding partnership has been with Mark Morris, whom Cole first invited to Berkeley in 1987; Cal Performances has since presented a string of Mark Morris premieres and commissions. Cole was a co-commissioner of John Adams's musical theater piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky; he also commissioned or co-commissioned new works from theater/opera director Peter Sellars; choreographers Twyla Tharp, Bill T. Jones and Pascal Rioult; the Kronos Quartet; and actor/director Robert Lepage. Other important collaborations have been with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
In 1990, Cole founded the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition of early music and in 2003 the Berkeley Edge Fest, a biennial showcase for new and contemporary performing arts. He was also responsible for the San Francisco Bay Area debuts of such artists as mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel and tenor Ian Bostridge.
Cole is a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Music and studied conducting with Richard Lert and Ingolf Dahl in California, with Leonard Bernstein and Leon Barzin at the Tanglewood Music Center and with Hans Swarowsky in Europe. He was associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (when Michael Tilson Thomas was music director) and music director and executive director of the Ballet Society of Los Angeles.
He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he has no specific plans for life after Cal Performances, but said, "I can't imagine not working. I have always worked, ever since I was 15 years old and played clarinet and saxophone in a dance band six nights a week. And since the only things I know about are music and dance, I'm sure it's going to be something in that area."