By Lou Fancher
If not for medical science in the 1990s not having today's straightforward recognition and treatment of De Quervain's tenosynovitis, Jeremy Geffen might arrive onstage at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall as a professional musician and member of a visiting national orchestra. Instead, the repetitive stress condition affecting tendons on the thumb side of the wrist that cut short aspirations for a performing career as a violist—and determined a man's destiny—has Cal Performances introducing 45-year-old Geffen as the organization's newly minted executive and artistic director.
Effective April 1, Geffen will have departed his post as senior director and artistic adviser at Carnegie Hall to assume leadership of Cal Performances' artistic and educational programs and activities. An extensive search ultimately completed by UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ appoints the highly regarded arts leader to a position as Cal Performances' third director. He succeeds the over 20-year tenure of Robert Cole and nine years under the leadership of Matías Tarnopolsky, who departed in 2018.
Geffen is a native of Cape Town, South Africa. He moved to the United States at age 3 with his family and was raised primarily in Newport Beach. Before joining Carnegie Hall in 2007, he served in various executive roles with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival and School, and more. In addition to serving on boards and adjudicating international competitions, Geffen is recognized for expansive vision applied to multicultural festivals, new commissions from living composers, preservation, and presentation of music from the Medieval and early Baroque periods and significant exploration of crosscurrents between classical music and jazz, American roots, pop, world music, and partnerships or collaborations including dance, theater, film, and multimedia arts.
Susan Graham, board co-chair with Helen Meyer, said in an interview that input from campus administration, faculty, students, and the 13 people on the search committee chaired by Chancellor Christ provided broad input. "It was fabulous. We had well over 60 initial applicants, screened by an executive search firm to about 30 files. We held a round of interviews with about a dozen, then with fewer the second round. We needed input from people who'd actually be working with the candidate before the chancellor made the final decision."
Geffen's record at Carnegie Hall proved him more than capable in presenting world-class artists, nurturing young talent, and demonstrating "impeccable taste," according to Graham. Soft skills—Geffen's warm enthusiasm and intense curiosity obvious in radio broadcasts, videos, and pre-show curtain talks he gives, as well as in-person—pushed him into a league of his own. "He's going to be someone who's enjoyable to work with; someone who the students will like," said Graham.
Indeed, during a lengthy phone interview, Geffen leaves the impression of a man with countless ideas and interests—and no pressing obligations about to cut short a conversation.
"Curiosity has helped me in every position I've held," he said. "It has been enormously fascinating to learn more." He mentions Migrations, a festival at Carnegie he shaped around the topic of deliberate or forced migration in American history and culture. Another, the UBUNTU festival held 20 years after the first free elections in South Africa, he said was eye-opening, a thrilling window into Zulu, Cape Malay, Nelson Mandela's legacy and the country's incredibly rich culture. "That sort of discovery is professional but also personal, because of my birthplace. If you don't have that fire for learning, my job becomes harder."
Arriving on campus, Geffen intends to be on a listening tour for several months. Absorbing the local zeitgeist at live performances, meeting with nonprofessional musicians, local leaders, students, and faculty from multiple departments at the university, he said, is vital. "I don't want to exist in a hermetically sealed jar. I want the big picture, to capitalize on what's there already, to make people understand that artistic expression is not necessarily the province of the professional. On a grassroots level, they can all have relationship to the arts."
That urgency arises from Geffen's personal experience. Although he did not come from a musical home, he was eager to find expressive outlets. "I had a bad romance with a piano at age 10, so my parents were skeptical when I told them I wanted to play violin." (Which humorously wound up being the viola when the young Geffen mistakenly thought it was a smaller, easier-to-play violin.) "At that age, in a conservative area, knowing on some level that I'm gay but not able to deal with it, nonverbal, expressive communication through music gave me the strength and confidence to push ahead. The viola as a means of communication was critical in my development as a human being."
As mentioned, a misdiagnosis of De Quervain's while studying at USC clipped his ambitions as a performer. "Back then, it was career-ending. But 15 years ago I had a recurrence. An orthopedic surgeon did two little tests, two cortisone shots, and it was fine," he recalled. He has few regrets. "On some level, I always knew I enjoyed music more than I loved performing."
Asked about his earliest impressions and plans for upcoming seasons, Geffen said Bay Area audiences are "incredibly sophisticated" about the performing arts. "Cal Performances is a place where artists feel comfortable taking risks with audiences who will go along with them. The presentations are not cookie cutter. They push the envelope. But you have to have balance, something in the schedule they recognize and love as familiar and something that ignites them."
A Berkeley Radical 2.0, he hopes design will involve university departments examined through the lens of the fine arts. The intersection of man and machine, he offered as one example. "Technology has become a part of our lives for the most basic functions, but what are the tradeoffs?" he asked.
Speaking of new commissions, he insisted the work of living composers must reach the public ear. "Nobody understands the times we live in [better] than the people who breathe the same air as us. These composers are our friends, people who eat dinner with us, visit our classrooms. They'll help current and future generations to understand what was happening in 2019."
Bringing the discussion back to the vitality of an environment that makes hearing a Beethoven violin concerto for the 40th time as fresh as the first time or as mind-blowing as a new commission, Geffen plans to present programs that "fire up our imaginations and keep us up at night." If he does, according to Graham, he will extend the footsteps of his predecessors.
"As an audience member, I should always go to one thing that stretches me. I might or might not like it," said Graham. "I credit Robert Cole with having taught me that. Similarly, Matías gave the audience opportunity to attend new things, to learn. I think Jeremy will do the same: build a season that combines things the audience knows and loves and some events that are less familiar but will be truly liked."
Jeremy Geffen is Cal Perf's executive and artistic director. Photo by Fadi Kheir