SARATOGA SPRINGS – It was a year of new things for the most part at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Elizabeth Sobol’s first at the helm of the organization, initiating partnerships with arts-based collaborators in the region, introducing a series of inaugural concert events, and reviving long-dormant pieces of the organization’s past. And more changes are on the way.
At its Oct. 12 meeting, SPAC’s Board of Directors voted to condense the New York City Ballet season to seven performances, down from its 11-day residency in each of the past three seasons - which featured 12 to 14 performances during that period. The 2018 NYCB season will more closely align with 2013 and 2014 models.
Mathematically, 80 percent of New York City Ballet ticket buyers purchase tickets to only one performance, and 11 percent buy tickets to two performances, Sobol said. Only the remaining 9 percent purchase tickets to 3-plus NYCB shows.
“The Board felt that taking on another $1 million-plus shortfall on the New York City Ballet residency, was not prudent,” explained SPAC’s president and CEO.
“A big thrust of our efforts will be towards converting one-time buyers to multiple-performance buyers. Consolidating the audiences into one week will help with that,” Sobol said. “Historically, when we reduce the number of performances, nightly attendance numbers go up. Having fuller houses and the increased energy and excitement which accompanies that helps create more demand for tickets.”
Much as was done in prior years – the National Ballet of China visited the venue in 2015 and the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Bolshoi Ballet staged shows the previous summer - the NYCB dance season will be augmented by additional performances by an international dance company, not yet revealed. Discussions are currently being held with the National Ballet of Cuba for multiple performances in the summer of 2018.
“SPAC certainly remains committed to the residency and our long-term partnership with NYCB,” Sobol said. “Looking ahead to 2018, we will be working to harness that new energy and focus marketing on driving these new audiences to our resident companies. I am hopeful that with this renewed emphasis, we will be able to return to the extended New York City Ballet season in the future.”
SPAC is projected to finish the 2017 fiscal year operationally breaking even. Audience attendance at 2017 classical season performances reached projected levels. The Philadelphia Orchestra is scheduled to return for 12 performances, from Aug. 1 – 18, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will perform at the Spa Little Theatre Aug. 5- 21.
The 2017 Season featured a partnership with Caffè Lena that presented a monthly series of free concerts atop SPAC’s new Charles R. Wood Gazebo stage, as well as a trio of sold-out SPAC at Caffè Lena shows during the spring.
The inaugural “SPAC on Stage” series resulted in three sold-out performances, with nearly one-third of all attendees being first-time SPAC ticket buyers, Sobol said.
A “Live at the Jazz Bar” series was initiated in the Hall of Springs – and brought 300 to 400 people to each of the seven events to hear live jazz following performances by the ballet and orchestra.
SPAC on Stage, Live at the Jazz Bar and the Caffè Lena at SPAC series will all be back for the 2018 season.
In 2017, SPAC’s free education programs reached more than 15,000 young individuals, offered more than 125 classes, presentations, performances, and events, and partnered with more than 70 schools and non-profit organizations across the greater Capital Region.
In the near future, the organization anticipates launching a new user-friendly website, and in December will initiate a pilot program with the Decoda Chamber Ensemble. The group, the first affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall, will include a weeklong artist-in-residency for students at the Saratoga Independent School (SIS). A full chamber program will be staged Dec. 15 at the Bethesda Church in downtown Saratoga Springs.
Upcoming SPAC events include a lecture luncheon featuring a discussion titled the “Fascinating Life of Katrina Trask,” at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 26 at SPAC’s Spa Little Theatre; The Sachal Ensemble musicians - known for their extraordinary journey from Lahore to Lincoln Center featured in the “Song of Lahore” film - live and on stage at the Little Theater 7 p.m. Oct. 30, (preceded by two screenings of the film at 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. ay Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas a day earlier), and a pair of Nutcracker Teas in the Hall of Springs on Nov. 19 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. For ticket information, go to: spac.org.
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.