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.
My parents, Drs. Presco and Vivienne Anderson, moved to Albany in 1950 from Philadelphia, where they both grew up, when I was two years old. Viv left her job as the first female and youngest Assistant Superintendent of the Philadelphia Public Schools so they could both work at the New York State Education Department. My mom was one in a billion. While some people would say that’s just a son overestimating his mother, anyone who knew or worked with Viv would enthusiastically endorse my sentiments. She was nicknamed the “White Tornado,” a phrase used in a popular TV commercial, because of her beautiful white hair and her ability to take complicated situations and clean them up so that they sparkled.
For me, as a kid growing up in the capital district in the 1950s and early 1960s, there wasn’t really that much to do. The drinking age was 18, so there were a lot of clubs with live music six nights a week, but, other than that, bowling and going to the movies were popular. Saratoga, other than the annual four weeks of thoroughbred racing, had become a pretty sleepy town after the 1951 closing of the casinos. The exception was the Harness track, which was pretty packed and was our destination, quickly reached thanks to the Northway, several nights a week. Despite Albany being the State Capitol, everyone knew that if you wanted “real culture,” you had to travel to New York or Boston.
Viv worked closely with Governor Rockefeller, coordinating the Hudson-Champlain Celebration (1958-60) and on other projects, so when SPAC began to take shape, her reputation as an arts advocate and community leader resulted in her involvement in SPAC from the ground up. The SPAC Gala was one of her most cherished projects, and, as President of the Action Council, she knew it had to be bigger and better every year. My favorite aspects of the gala have always been the different annual themes and the creative setups that patrons bring onto the lawn, including elaborate tables, chairs and even ornate candelabras. I’ve been to many galas in my life, but there is no gala like the SPAC Gala!
My mom’s mission in life was identical to SPAC’s mission: to cultivate, promote, foster, sponsor, and develop appreciation, understanding and love of the performing arts. Through her position in the State Education Department, Viv was able to enhance the role of the arts in the curriculum, knowing that involvement in the arts uniquely contributes to individual growth on emotional, creative and academic levels. She was instrumental in founding the New York State Summer School of the Arts, which Governor Rockefeller instituted in 1971. The ballet, dance, jazz and orchestral studies summer schools have always been housed at Skidmore College. Designed as an intensive pre-professional training opportunity, high school students interact with outstanding teachers including acclaimed performers from the New York City Ballet or Philadelphia Orchestra during the instructional day and attend SPAC performances at night. These students do final performances at the Empire State Plaza and SPAC.
Another of Viv’s beliefs was that the arts are for everyone and that everyone is an artist in some way. She founded the IMAGINATION CELEBRATION and Arts for the Handicapped, and ran these programs through the Kennedy Center in all fifty states and in 17 foreign countries.
In addition to the ballet and orchestra, SPAC was our first real opportunity to see the best rock bands live in concert (our region had no large venue before SPAC). There were countless legendary performances at SPAC, but my favorite was the first time I ever saw Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, in 1984. Bruce is legendary for his high-energy, lengthy performances, but when, guitar in hand, he slides across the whole width of the stage and then jumped up on top of the piano to finish “Rosalita,” I was blown away.
My friend Gary Weinlein went to see Janis there when he was 15. During the encore, he rushed down close to the stage and, when Janis took his hand, her ruby ring came off in Gary’s hand. Gary thought he was in heaven, fantasizing about returning it to her backstage, until someone older and stronger snatched it from him and disappeared. Forty years later, Gary is producing “GROOVIN,” a tribute to the great rock music of the 60s and 70s using local performers. That’s the kind of impact SPAC and the arts can have on people.
Congratulations to SPAC for turning 50! Also, a huge THANK YOU to SPAC for the annual May 5k and 10k walk/run that kicks off summer at SPAC. Many bands perform as participants run through the State Park to SPAC and then enjoy arts-related activities on the lawn. Proceeds benefit the Vivienne Anderson Children’s Program, which provides free tickets to performances and pre-show meetings with dancers and orchestra members.
Editor’s Note: You probably know Susan Farnsworth from her long tenure with the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association. Or the Saratoga County Fair. Or Hats Off / Final Stretch. Or even at SPAC – but as a planner, who was brought in as a consultant to help plan all the SPAC50 hoopla that you are enjoying this season. But what you don’t know is that Susie got a singular honor: To be asked to sit in as a performer on the SPAC stage as part of an ensemble when she was a Skidmore student in 1973! She acquired life-changing experiences at a formative age. And they happened at SPAC. I promised you when we began this series that we were going to surprise and dazzle you. Susan’s remembrances are one big way we are fulfilling this promise.
- Arthur Gonick
What I remember most about playing on the main stage at SPAC was that it took a long time to get over the amazing feeling of playing for thousands of people and I was too innocent to be scared. I was asked for my autograph. If I had been aware of the caliber of the local musicians with whom I was playing, I also should have been in awe. The band’s leader was from Ohio. I believe he was discovered in Chautauqua - by the wife of Craig Hankenson (the President of SPAC at the time). She brought him to Saratoga Springs. He wrote all the music and the lyrics to the songs we were rehearsing, and he had some musicians he brought with him from Ohio.
He put a sign up at Skidmore looking for a flute player, and I answered it; I auditioned and was accepted, I played flute and sang backup. I was happy because I was self-taught on the flute, and didn’t read music for this particular instrument. I started on clarinet in fourth grade and played it until about 10th grade. When my sister started on the flute, I picked that up and never looked back.
We rehearsed in a local farmhouse he rented from a dentist; there was an alleged deal with Columbia Records and we would be his studio musicians. We rehearsed 5 days a week, from 10 p.m. to about 2 a.m., then I would get up and go to classes. It was exhausting. I never once thought about money for this gig, as any musician who loves to play can tell you, this is the natural, default position. We didn’t play at local bars or music festivals, we only rehearsed for the album. So when we were asked to open at SPAC for Maria Muldaur (Midnight at the Oasis) and the Headliner, America (Horse with No Name), we said yes. I believe that is when we got some local musicians to join us (including Peter Davis and Butch Walkanowski).
The curtain went up, I remember looking out and being very happy that I couldn’t really make out the audience…thousands of faces. The original music was nothing to write home about, but the band was tight, the arrangements were great and we got applause. The adrenaline was ridiculous. The Columbia Record deal fell through, I doubt that I would have seriously considered leaving Skidmore for the road tour that would have been necessary, (I remember my father being extremely anxious about this possibility) but it was a moot point. That fall, the bandleader composed a song for me, for flute and guitar. We performed it together at the Spa Little Theater: me on flute, him on guitar, no vocals. I remember it was a haunting and beautiful piece. I played it from my soul. It was very different from his other music.
We got a standing ovation. That was the end of my musical performing career, I left on top. I have been friends with the local musicians that were on stage with me that night ever since. I remember that the bandleader and I were also hired to bring food and drinks specified in the performers’ riders backstage to the Green Room for a whole summer.
Two memories stand out to me from that; John Denver was furious that the string instruments kept going out of tune during his first set because it was not a climate controlled environment, and he threatened to leave at intermission. The other was Linda Ronstadt was on the stage, and I was in the wings about 15 feet from her. She is a tiny little thing. She opened her mouth and belted out a song with a fullness and volume that astonished me. I couldn’t believe that it could be coming out of her tiny frame. SPAC was an important part of my life the whole 40+ years that I lived in Saratoga Springs, from the Jazz Festival to the Ballet, Orchestra and special rock concerts.
I was thrilled to be asked to help plan the 50th Anniversary season celebration, and spent 3 ½ years working with Marcia White and the SPAC team. I left the country in January 2016, the parts of the celebration planning I did were finished, and I am watching everything unfold -one after another -from afar.
Congratulations to everyone.
Susan Farnsworth now resides in Israel with her husband and his family.
My first concert, my high school graduation stage, and my first “big girl” job all have one thing in common – SPAC.
So for a place that fulfilled so many of my milestones, it feels only fair that I pay homage to its special milestone, the 50th Anniversary.
As a Saratoga Springs native - you know that it’s a special place.
As a little girl, I was mesmerized – twirling in a little pink ballet tutu – the first time my mom took me to a New York City Ballet matinee. As a tween, ecstatic, when I scored balcony tickets to Britney Spears. My big brother, who previously was way too cool for “Baby One More Time”, quickly volunteered to take me. And earlier this month, as an adult-in-training, I admittedly attended the Phish show, and of course it’s legendary “Shakedown Street.”
However, despite growing up at SPAC, it took working behind the scenes to be able to fully appreciate what makes it tick. The dedication of the small staff to present a full season to the public is astounding. You need to give up your life – and sleep -- for about 4 months of the year. Seriously.
The phrase “the show must go on,” while likely overused, rang true quite literally.
From an intern dressing up as “Dorothy” to promote the upcoming Wizard of Oz presentation with The Philadelphia Orchestra (and getting caught in a rain storm while staging promotional photos) to handing out American Girl doll raffle tickets to anxious moms to quickly tidying my notoriously messy car before picking up The Philadelphia Orchestra President – each was a once in a lifetime experience.
Meet and greet hundreds of Russians from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Price Chopper parking lot on a Sunday night? No problem. Smile and welcome them to Saratoga while they groggily exit their Upstate buses and navigate the foreign aisles containing 50 brands of cereal? Sure.
The New York City Ballet Gala and Lawn Party, always one of my favorite events, was subject to many near crises. At “The British Invasion,” we counted 32 tent rentals set-up. There was supposed to be 33. Can we get another tent installed ASAP all while not disrupting the current matinee performance? We must. Where are the eight missing high-top tables? And why don’t the linens fit?
And then the curtain rises to Balanchine’s Union Jack – and you remember what it’s for. Wait – where is the male arm bouquet Marcia is presenting on stage after the first Act? It’s not backstage with production?
Ah, yes, it’s in the wrong office. Roger. And the second act continues.
To borrow from Bill Dake who coined a popular SPAC motto (printed as a required desk adornment): instead of admiring the problem, look for the solution. And don’t answer the phone – “can I help you?” It’s “I can help.”
This philosophy has followed me to New York City where I now work at a public relations firm. Sometimes when I speak, my former bosses come out. And I’m proud of that.
The amazing thing about SPAC is that it has always had the most loyal “fans” – rivaling that of even Phishheads, and classical aficionados – who care about the venue, its history and its future.
And while we all know the show must go on, it’s nice to reflect on the place that we natives are lucky to have in our backyard.
Kristy Godette is a Saratoga Springs native. She served as Executive Assistant to the President and Public Relations Associate at SPAC and now does public relations for DKC Public Relations in New York City.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was a completely different time. The early 1960s - prior to the summer of love, prior to the turmoil the country would experience due to the Vietnam War. It was a time that saw the construction of great public sector projects – sometimes in conjunction with the private sector, but clearly led by our elected officials. In 1960s New York State, the Governor was Nelson Rockefeller. A Republican – surprising, perhaps in that these were nothing like today’s Republicans – or today’s Democrats for that matter. Rockefeller, and the leaders of his day, used great public projects as the cornerstone of their economic programs. Whether you agree with his agenda or not in retrospect, Gov. Rockefeller’s economic model for upstate involved giving nearly town a public sector anchor – usually a branch of SUNY or, in some cases, a prison. But for Saratoga, he had something else in mind – a jewel. An artistic wonder that was to become what we fondly call SPAC. Perhaps his wife –Margaretta – known popularly as “Happy” spurred this on. “Happy” would later serve as Chair of the Board for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1971, and was named Honorary Chair of SPAC’s 50th Anniversary, before her passing on May 19, 2015. But regardless, this wasn’t going to be an easy case of Nelson spending money just to please his wife. Ask someone who was there. “‘Rocky’ wasn’t going to move on this without seeing evidence of a strong civic commitment from the local community,” said William P. “Bill” Dake. The Dake family, as well as others with names like Lewis Swyer, Richard Leach and Marylou Whitney, among others, provided the cornerstone local foundations for the performing arts mecca to come– and one which has stood the test of time – as evidenced in 2015 being named the Best Outdoor Music Venue in the United States by a USA Today Reader’s Poll. Brick and mortar and steel are one thing, but the civic commitment that made SPAC what it is goes way beyond that. “From a programming standpoint.” Bill Dake recalled, “we recognized that we were coming into an age where live entertainment was being severely challenged by new forms of electronic entertainment.” In the 1960s, this would be primarily television, yet this is even truer today –with live performance being challenged by a myriad of digital entertainment delivery options. “Our response was to offer ‘the best of breed’ in every category,” Bill Dake said. “This not only included a spectacular setting, but also world class resident companies – New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra – and also the best of everything in opera, theatre and every other performance genre.” That commitment to excellence later extended further – to Jazz, Rock, and even multi-media performances. Whatever the state-of-the-art was at the time, SPAC embraced it. Because of that philosophical cornerstone, SPAC not only survived – it thrived. “What SPAC offered then, and continues to today,” Bill Dake concluded, “is more than a lovely setting, more than a performance – it’s a superior experience.” Some things don’t change – even after 50 years. When you attend SPAC this summer, take a moment to celebrate that the cornerstones, laid over five decades ago, are as strong as ever. Coming June 24: “All that Jazz,” the “Greatest Musical Day of My Life! And other surprises.