Jeremy Geffen on Cal Performances' vibrant programs

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Tuesday September 26, 2023
Share this Post:
(left) Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Jeremy Geffen (photo: Kristen Loken). <br>(clockwise from upper right:) Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (photo: Dario Calmese), Kristin Chenoweth (photo: John Russo), Taylor Mac (photo: Willa Folmar)
(left) Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Jeremy Geffen (photo: Kristen Loken).
(clockwise from upper right:) Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (photo: Dario Calmese), Kristin Chenoweth (photo: John Russo), Taylor Mac (photo: Willa Folmar)

As Executive and Artistic Director at Cal Performances since 2019, Jeremy Geffen brings over two decades of experience to the Bay Area's foremost performing arts presenting organization. Prior to joining Cal Performances, Geffen, who identifies as a gay man, served as senior director and artistic adviser at Carnegie Hall for 12 years, where he planned and presented over 150 programs per season.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa and raised in Newport Beach, California, Geffen's resume includes stints at St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the Aspen Music Festival and School. At age 26, he was the Aspen Institute's youngest-ever seminar moderator.

Cal Performances' expansive new season features ten company debuts, a robust recital series showcasing local debuts by rising-star performers, and six world premieres spanning dance and music. The company also continues to present and invest in long-term relationships with some of the world's most revered dance troupes, including The Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American American Dance Theater, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

Geffen recently spoke with the Bay Area Reporter about Cal Performances' ambitious 2023—24 season and his life's journey.

Amber Martin and John Cameron Mitchell's 'Cassette Roulette' (photo: Betty Can Snap)  

Philip Mayard: Tell me about your life growing up in southern California. Did you come from an arts family?
Jeremy Geffen: Some of my family members were interested in the arts, but there were no professional artists. When my twin brother and I were eight, our parents thought we should learn piano. We had a piano in the house, but neither of us were enthused by it. I really wanted to play violin.

My parents thought if I wasn't interested in an instrument we actually had in the house, how could I be interested in something we didn't even have? But in junior high school I picked up viola as part of a beginners music program. I'm so grateful for public education, because it provided me with the opportunity to do something I really wanted and needed.

The Joffrey Ballet (photo: Cheryl Mann)  

Was there a particular moment or experience that made you want to pursue a life in the arts?
It was sort of cumulative, but when I first made a sound on viola — and when you're starting, those sounds are not exactly great — that instrument gave me such a powerful outlet for all the things that were going on behind my eyes.

I was growing up in Orange County and we didn't have any gay friends. I know this is sadly a common experience for gay people, but I had that shame and the feeling that something was desperately wrong with me. The viola became a channel for self-expression for things I couldn't articulate. I don't think it's an understatement to say that that music saved me and gave me a direction.

You were pursuing a career as a viola performer, but there was some kind of injury?
Yes, I had an overuse injury, which was misdiagnosed at the time, but is now very common and treatable. During my sophomore year at USC, I had "De Quervain's tenosynovitis," which these days happens to people doing too much texting. The pain was intense, but I tried to play through it. At first if I took a day off, I could play for a couple of weeks. But gradually that ratio changed; if I took two weeks off, I could barely play for a day. So my performing days came to an abrupt end.

It was a huge identity crisis. So much of how I defined myself was wrapped up in the viola. My social life, academic life, and my professional life revolved around the instrument. To have that taken away was devastating.

Luckily, I connected with Gail Samuel, who was orchestra manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She took me on as a production intern at the LA Phil, doing anything that needed done. It was a great window into what happens behind the scenes, and a whole world opened up to me. I was most drawn to programming because it was the most creative outlet and a different manner of expression.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (photo: courtesy: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo)  

You must have had many incredible experiences at Carnegie Hall. Is there any particular performance or artist that stands out?
What I remember most are the incredible acts of generosity of countless performers. I got to see these artists who I grew up with, whom I felt I knew, in their most vulnerable state. More often than not, that was a beautiful experience.

No one needs to be reminded backstage what's at stake when you walk out on that stage. The amount of strength it takes to say to the world, "I have something worth your attention and your time." An audience sees a performer for two hours, but that is the result of so many years, and decades, and decisions that have led to that one ephemeral moment.

As a gay man, does your orientation influence your choices as a performing arts curator?
I think being gay influences my decisions in ways I'm not even conscious of. One of our major themes this season is "Individual and Community." There is something about belonging and community that I've learned from my gay life. What I try to find in our programming are things that I know I need and what I hope our audiences need. Someone can tell you about themselves or they can show you.

The performing arts are one of the few opportunities we have to experience the world through someone else's eyes. It could be a story that is so drastically different and unfamiliar from our own lived experience. But we are getting that message directly from the stage in the most direct and compelling way.

Urban Bush Women (photo: Roesing Ape)  

Let's talk about Cal Performances 2023-24 Season. Do you have any recommendations for LGBTQ audiences?
There are so many, but the Taylor Mac/Matt Ray's "Bark of Millions" project is going to be incredible. To have the Trockaderos back is always great. They've been an important part of our history at Cal Performances for a long time. John Cameron Mitchell and his new project, and also Kristin Chenoweth in concert; they are both wonderful.

I'm excited about Urban Bush Women's "Hair & Other Stories." Just the idea of that project is so beautiful. When you talk about community, there's the community that forms in a hair salon. When you have time to kill, what are you talking about? Sometimes the most mundane details of our life are the ones that bind us.

I'm excited about [new music group] Wild Up performing [the late] Julius Eastman's "Femenine." The revival of Julius' work is something we should all be proud of. His works are extraordinary and Wild Up has devoted so much time and research to create versions of these works that are compelling and musically gripping.

I also take a lot of pride in presenting artists in the early stages of their career, because most of the time if they have that chance, they will knock it out of the park. These are the Yo Yo Ma's and the Mark Morris's of the future. It's important to Cal Performances and it's important to me to give these young artists the opportunity to create that bond with audiences early on, so that down the road, we can experience the totality of what makes them great.

Cal Performances 2023-24 season runs through May 2024 at Zellerbach Hall, Hertz Hall and other UC Berkeley campus venues.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.