Displaying items by tag: elizabeth sobol
SARATOGA SPRINGS — “Nothing bears any resemblance to past seasons,” says Elizabeth Sobol, president and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The SPAC campus first opened on a July night in 1966 when it welcomed to the stage the New York City Ballet. A few hours downstate, Mickey Mantle hit a home run in each game of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium, and all across America, The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” dueled with Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” for a spot at the top of the charts.
In ballparks, across broadcast networks and atop performance stages, last summer was like no other, preceded by a distress of unpredictability over what could happen. Looking ahead to the upcoming summer, that still unpredictable aura has seemingly transformed into what can possibly be.
“This time last year – March, April, May – when it was clear what was going to end up happening – we started asking ourselves the question: Who and What is SPAC when you can’t use the amphitheater?” Sobol says.
Currently, there have been “regular and very fruitful conversations with all our resident companies,” she explains, referring to the New York City Ballet, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “There is a huge effort going across many different organizations, because we all know how important it is to have some presence by these companies up here. We’re committed to having all of them in Saratoga and they’re committed to being here in some way, shape or form.”
SPAC also plays host to the annual Saratoga Jazz Festival, Opera Saratoga, and a summerlong staging of pop concerts presented by Live Nation, as well as the annual Saratoga Wine and Food Festival and an additional slate of imaginative programming. Right now, what form they will take: “Nobody knows yet,” Sobol says. Still, preparations are underway. And there have been a multitude of things learned.
“We learned so much about so many things. It gave us time and quiet to contemplate things we normally don’t have time to contemplate. The last year has honed our skills living with the jaws of uncertainty wide open, 24/7, and it’s forced us to not take anything for granted.”
Showing its merits beyond an oft-misplaced public perception as being solely a site for an amphitheater, SPAC exhibited its mettle as a holistic organization with a series of community collaborations alongside cultural agencies and the business community, as well as continuing its outreach in the world of education – where in 2019 alone it served 50,000 students around the Capital Region and worked with more than 120 local schools and non-profit organizations to present more than 400 unique classes, events, performances, and presentations.
“We started asking ourselves: How can we provide experiences that bring people together around beauty, rather than pushing them apart. That kind of informed everything we did: let’s look at our campus like a blank canvas and all the opportunities and possibilities we have here. So along with that question of who and what is SPAC when the amphitheater stage is dark, is also the question of how we can best serve art, artists and the community.”
On campus meanwhile, the organization last summer unveiled The Pines at SPAC. The new 4,000 square foot indoor/outdoor, year-round education and community events space features a pavilion and a terrace where some small gathering events may take place. While it is a structure much of the public has not yet seen, The Pines has been used to host more than 200 events since late last summer, 50 people maximum capacity at a time, and the grounds have also featured things such as dance classes, wellness classes, a teaching space for healing arts practitioners, and the launching of Culinary Arts at SPAC events.
A “Soundwalk” project was also initiated, merging performance and programming that takes audiences more into nature. “An embracing of our place in the natural world in a much more direct and celebratory way is going to be a big piece for us moving forward,” Sobol says. “Anything we could do using our rigorous COVID protocols and procedures to create a safe space for people to gather outdoors and do the things they needed to do for their soul. So, we now have a blueprint for doing things on a very small scale, for being flexible and agile. It honed a lot of skills for us.”
SPAC’s summer ballet gala will be re-imagined in 2021. “It’s not going to be a massive event with hundreds of people at the Hall of Springs on the lawn, but now that we know we can replicate these events – let’s say it’s for 50 people - maybe we’ll do 5 or 10 of them. We now have that blueprint, and we can execute that pretty nimbly,” she says. A culinary concept that has to do with ballet history is also being put together for a limited capacity gathering in 2021, and possibilities of having “rolling audiences” – that is, a few hundred people being rotated into the grounds at any one time – are being considered as a way to stage the summer Jazz Fest.
“We’re looking at every possible option so that if things are still very restrictive, we can accommodate that, and if they are looser we can accommodate that too,” Sobol says.
“‘All of these things are things we’re all working on together – how to bring companies to Saratoga, finding ways to perform that are safe for the audience and the performers and the crew, and also models that are financially viable for us and for them.”
Promoter Live Nation will have its own decisions to make regarding the summer pop season. More than one dozen scheduled shows are slated to take place from mid-July through September, featuring artists such as Rod Stewart, Hall & Oates, Maroon 5, Backstreet Boys, and Alanis Morissette, among others. A phone call to Live Nation seeking comment for this story was not returned.
As far as capacity in the amphitheater, a 10% max limit recently imposed on large venues by Gov. Cuomo would keep the audience inside the pavilion to 500 people, although those percentage numbers could fluctuate depending on vaccine roll-out and COVID-19 infection rates. SPAC being an amphitheater – a somewhat open building with an attached outdoor lawn – the stipulations specific to the venue are not clear.
“We are working on a regular basis with the governor’s office to talk about what amphitheaters look like, what that’s going to be, but imagine if we’re still at 10%,” Sobol says. “Even if we do use the lawn, we’re still limited to 500 people in the amphitheater. If they don’t give us a percentage but say we have to limit according to the six-foot rule, then that would limit us to about 1,200 people. It has enormous financial implications. And none of us knows right now. Trying to plan for July and August when we don’t even know when vaccinations are going to be widely available is tough,” she added.
SPAC is a 501(c)3 charitable organization with an annual operating budget of about $10 million. To normally meet that budget, about $5 million in revenue is generated from ticket sales, rent paid by promoter Live Nation which stages the summer pop concerts, and other miscellaneous sources. The other $5 million must largely be raised through SPAC memberships, charitable donations and corporate underwriting.
When programs were first cancelled last May and June, SPAC projected a $1.3 million shortfall, “but the community really rose up and was so generous that we ended up able to end the year in the black, so there’s tremendous gratitude around the generosity of the community,” Sobol says. “But at the same time, 2021 is going to be a lot more perilous for us, because we didn’t have the (high) costs last year. We are committed to major resident companies, so support at SPAC for this year is going to be even more important than it was last year.
“Most of our planning is done years in advance and right now what we have is about 50 plates juggling in the air waiting for a moment – which will probably be sometime in early April - to say this is our best bet of what three months is going to look like, because we’ve got to basically have 90 days between the time we pull the trigger on something, and we have our first performances. That’s an absolute minimum,” Sobol says.
“It’s also about the perception. There are more and more studies out there that ask, ‘Do I dare go out into an environment where there are hundreds or thousands of people?’ That’s the big quotient we can’t predict: behavior.”
Ultimately, SPAC is planning to actively showcase all its resident companies in 2021. “We just don’t know what that’s going to look like,” Sobol says. “Is it in the amphitheater at vastly reduced capacities? Is it in some other performance space – because if we’re seriously limited then we may have to look at some other spaces. But, we are committed to having the musicians and the dancers here in some capacity.”
CEO of Saratoga Performing Arts Center Reflects on Her Role
Elizabeth Sobol, President and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, has a secret weapon: silence. Running the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), a summer venue that hosts world-renowned talent and attracts more than 500,000 audience members per year, is a formidable challenge, but Sobol leads operations with a remarkable calm.
Unfazed by the demands on her attention that come with the position, Sobol finds her focus through stillness. “In order to discover where you are on a particular topic or what’s important to you,” said Sobol, “you need to get rid of distraction.”
Early in her career, Sobol began a meditation practice and found it to be one of the most mind-blowing experiences of her life helping her to understand the subconscious voices that were guiding her behavior, giving her the space to block out distractions, and allowing her to appreciate the beauty around her. “If you don’t cultivate that quiet, and you don’t cultivate that sense of presence in the moment,” Sobol said, “you miss a lot of what’s important in life.”
Sobol is committed to bettering herself, to learning from others, and to bringing light and beauty into the world. With refreshing openness, she said that she tries every day to be a better person. “I want to learn more about the world, to appreciate its complexities and beauties…and to be kind to people.”
A Lifelong Commitment to the Arts
Elizabeth Sobol grew up studying classical piano and, from the age of 13, attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts Conservatory. Realizing that she’d never become a top professional pianist, Sobol focused, instead, on a career in arts management. She began her professional life at IMG Artists, where she represented performers across a variety of genres, working with talent as diverse as Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Bill T. Jones, and Kodo Drummers. She stayed with IMG for nearly 30 years, working her way up to Managing Director.
After IMG, Sobol became President of Universal Music Classics in NYC, where the label released albums by artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Sting, Tori Amos and Renee Fleming. She joined Saratoga Performing Arts Center as its President and CEO, in 2016, overseeing operations from a light-filled office in the heart of SPAC’s state-park locale.
Throughout her career, Sobol has strived to balance commercial vs. non-commercial interests. “My biggest challenge has always been that I’m often drawn to more artistic enterprise than strictly commercial enterprise. I personally prefer jazz and classical and world music to Pop and Rock; and literature and poetry to ‘entertainment.’ But it’s a challenge that I love taking on” she said. “How do we get people excited in artists and genres that they’ve never heard of before, that they’re not going to hear on the radio, that they probably won’t see in a movie?”
Sobol is convinced that collaboration and cross-genre experiments are the key to growing audiences. Throughout her career, Sobol has always gravitated toward artists who wanted to step outside their lanes. With collaboration, she explained, “now all of a sudden, you’ve got the world of classical and the world of jazz, or the world of classical and the world of bluegrass, or whatever it is…and now you have one plus one equaling much more than two.”
To build interest in SPAC’s offerings, Sobol started the SPAC-on-Stage program, a series that seats audiences on stage for intimate, visceral performances that go way beyond the genres SPAC has been traditionally known for. With SPAC-on-Stage “we’re combining that cross-genre take on classical music, for instance, and trying to create experiences that don’t feel like what people think of when they think classical music.”
The Importance of Live Performance
Technology has long been feared as a threat to live performances. With the arrival of each new communications medium -- radio, film, recorded music, and television -- people have worried that the demand for live performances would decline. “Yet,” said Sobol, “that’s never happened.”
“People crave that communal experience,” Sobol said, “and I believe that when you’re having those communal experiences the barriers between people disappear.”
That, she said, makes SPAC more than a performing arts center; it “becomes the heart of the community, a place where human beings can connect, share, and experience beauty together.”
Sobol also noted that engaging in the arts--whether as a performer or as an audience member--cultivates “compassion and empathy,” and “there’s nothing that we need more in today’s society than compassion and empathy.”
A Home for All Cultures
While SPAC has always drawn international talent, Sobol aims to bring in performances from a wide range of cultures. “Making sure that we’re bringing in new cultures and sharing cultures among the community is really important to me,” Sobol said.
When the Sachal Ensemble, a Pakistani music group whom she recorded an album with at Universal, performed at SPAC in 2017, Sobol reached out to the Pakistani community via an Albany-based Pakistani filmmaker, drawing many local Pakistanis to the performance.
“The intent is to broaden the audience,” Sobol said on bringing in international talent, “and for SPAC to be a place for people of all cultures to feel like they have a home here because of what we’re presenting.”
In terms of her management style, Sobol favors a flat organization, encouraging cooperation and tolerance. Sobol appreciates open minds, too. When she toured SPAC during her interview, for instance, she fell in love with the Jazz Bar and was surprised the spot wasn’t used for live music. Apparently, a live music program had been tried at that location years previously, and it wasn’t popular, so it wasn’t tried again. Sobol, who believes in the Zen Buddhism concept of the Beginner’s Mind, came into the situation without preconceived notions and made launching a live music program at the Jazz Bar one of her first initiatives at SPAC. The Jazz Bar, featuring such performers as the Chuck Lamb Quartet, Annie & the Hedonists, Alta Havana, and Hot Club of Saratoga, has been a huge success with an average of 350 people in attendance each night.
Also important to Sobol is reading, voraciously; she reads three or four books per week on topics ranging from new literary fiction, to botany, to physics. “The more you read,” she stated, “the more you see, feel and sense how everything is connected.”
A curious world citizen, Sobol has traveled widely, can dance salsa, and learned Spanish in her 40s. She is married to Cuban jazz pianist Jorge Gomez, and thanks the influence of the Cuban culture for reminding her to take joy in each moment.
As for the advice she’d give to young people, Sobol, the woman whose livelihood depends on sounds and music, didn’t hesitate: “Learn to love silence and stillness,” she said. “Disconnect from your devices. Be curious. Be brave. Be kind.”
A student-driven communications agency, the SMARTACUS Creative Group is dedicated to the economic and cultural development of Upstate New York.
A senior in Jill Cowburn’s journalism class at Saratoga Springs High School, Sophie Cianfarani aspires to be a professor of psychology or a clinical psychologist. She enjoys doing volunteer work, visiting a local elementary school weekly to teach Latin to grade school children. She also enjoys playing violin and rowing.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Four months into her new job, SPAC President Elizabeth Sobol says she is learning the Saratoga Performing Arts Center has a uniqueness all its own.
One factor is the location of the venue - nestled among 2,200 acres in the state park sitting on the cusp of a culturally vibrant city, she says. Another is the relationship forged with other performing arts organizations during the venue’s 50-year existence which continue to deliver everything from the whirring pirouette of the ballet dancer, to the delicate air strike of the conductor’s baton and the amplified clamor of an electric guitar.
“Having traveled all over the world, all over the United States, all over North America and having seen festivals of all kinds, I’m here to tell you there is nothing like this anywhere in the world,” says Sobol, a classically trained pianist. She relocated to Saratoga Springs from Miami Beach last fall and will mark her first season at SPAC this year.
“Thinking about the programming, I listened to community voices about what they wanted to see this summer.”
The spectrum of responses offered an array of varied opinions. “Part of my job has been listening to those voices and creating something cohesive that would speak to different aesthetic desires and visions,” Sobol says.
This year, the New York City Ballet will stage 18 ballets by six different choreographers during their residency, from July 5 to 15. The Philadelphia Orchestra season, from Aug. 2 to Aug. 19, will feature a balance between the new and the traditional and include one piece not performed at SPAC since the 1960s. And the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will return to the Spa Little Theater with six concerts, from Aug. 6 to Aug. 22. The schedule of performers and performance pieces will be publicly released Sunday.
“One thing I wanted to do was also create mini-festivals within a festival. It immerses you in a sound, a narrative and a concept. In dialogue with the Philadelphia Orchestra, we created a mini-Russian festival, a mini-American festival and a mini-French festival. So, if you look across all our programming – the New York City Ballet, the Chamber Music Society and the Philadelphia Orchestra - you’ll see some of the same themes arising.”
Sobol also noted a new series titled “SPAC on Stage” to target young, musical genre-crossing fans and featuring several hundred audience members seated onstage. “What we’re envisioning is an experience that is intimate and extremely visceral and will feature artists unique and different than anything else that has appeared on the SPAC stage."
With pop concert promoter Live Nation, Sobol says there is an ongoing dialogue to maintain the delicate balancing act of scheduling dates at the venue between the pop and classical worlds. A variety of pop concerts have already been announced: Dave Matthews (two solo shows in June, sans band), Train, Nickelback, Dead & Company, and classic rock bills such as Foreigner/Cheap Trick, Rod Stewart/Cyndi Lauper, and Chicago/Doobie Brothers, among them. Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival will be staged June 24-25 and will feature headliners Chaka Khan and the Gipsy Kings, returning artists Jean-Luc Ponty, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, a musical tribute to Ray Charles and more than one dozen other artists.
Responding to recent reports that President Donald Trump may severely cut or altogether eliminate cultural programs that receive federal funding such as the National Endowment for the Arts, Sobol says while concerned about potential cuts to NEA funding for the national well-being, it’s not something that will greatly affect SPAC. “We are being much more strategic about arts funding, but it’s not something that, if it goes away, it’s going to put us in a compromising position.”
*Note, an initial version of this story misstated the number of acres in the Saratoga Spa State Park. The correct number of acres is 2,200.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Elizabeth Sobol leaned against a marble column outside the Hall of Springs. She glanced up at the architecture - detailed more than three-quarters of a century ago by Russian iron-workers, Italian plasterers and Austrian stone cutters - and searched for the words to best express the thoughts inside her head.
“It’s only been a month since my husband and I moved from Miami Beach to Saratoga. And it’s only been eight days since I walked into my office, but the overwhelming sense of magic, the cultural vibrancy I first felt in the city has only deepened,” said the newly minted president and CEO of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “I want to make sure more people experience the epiphany that I’ve had coming here.”
Moments later, the self-described “newcomer with fresh eyes” was formally introduced by SPAC Board chairman Ron Riggi to about two dozen board members and department heads gathered inside the hall’s Gold Room for their annual fall meeting. Sobol told them that she didn’t foresee radical changes taking place in the near future, but wanted to enhance what already exists by both deepening SPAC’s roots in the local community and extending the venue’s presence and visibility beyond the borders of the Capital Region.
“I feel fortunate coming in at this auspicious moment,” Sobol said in succeeding Marcia White, who earlier this year announced she would be retiring after 11 years at SPAC. “It has been a privilege to begin my new role at SPAC fresh off the heels of the 50th anniversary celebration.”
“2016 was very successful with the 50th anniversary and some beautiful weather,” treasurer Tony Ianniello added. No less than 35 special events were staged in conjunction with the venue’s golden anniversary, and audience attendance during the classical season of performances increased 3.4 percent, compared to the previous year. SPAC received more than $5.22 million in capital campaign gifts in honor of the anniversary. The funds will be used to support programming, capital improvements, and SPAC’s endowment fund, according to the organization. “Now we want to dig down and drill deep on how we can improve the numbers – raise more money and decrease expenses,” Ianniello said.
The Board announced membership rates in 2017 will remain at 2016 levels, and next year’s classical season ticket pricing will include a $30 amphitheater ticket, a $10 reduction in select seating from previous seasons. “As we move into the future, we hope to engage new and younger audiences in order to fulfill our mission of sharing world-class performances with the Capital Region community,” Sobol said.