‘After six months, I really feel like I’ve come home’

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New SPAC president Elizabeth Sobol has a grand plan for revitalizing the institution.
Photo by Lawrence White

ELIZABETH SOBOL TALKS WITH SARATOGA LIVING’S KIRSTEN FERGUSON

As the new president and CEO of SPAC, Elizabeth Sobol is dreaming big. A veteran of the recording industry and manager of high-profile artists like violinist Joshua Bell, Sobol has lots of ideas for expanding SPAC’s reach—from new partnerships with area arts institutions like Caffè Lena and Universal Preservation Hall to educational initiatives for young people. Saratoga Living sat down with Sobol to talk about her vision for the historic arts venue and what she loves best about Saratoga Springs—her new home.

Your signature initiative this year is “SPAC on Stage,” which takes the audience out of the amphitheater for a close-up view of performances by four artists on the verge: The Hot Sardines, Time for Three, Black Violin and Tiempo Libre. How did the series come about?

SPAC on Stage is my baby. I dreamed of doing it when I got here. It seemed like there were two opposing pillars at SPAC: Live Nation concerts and classical. But that’s not how the world is. Most people have very broad tastes—they want to hear Sting, Kendrick Lamar, great orchestral music. There’s also a wide swath of music in the middle that people weren’t hearing. I wondered, ‘How do we start exposing people to artists who aren’t big names?’ That’s when I thought we could do a whole series of events with seats only on the stage. I didn’t want to take a group like [string trio] Time for Three and have the audience way out in the amphitheater. The SPAC production team found a way to comfortably seat 300 people onstage. These are extremely different bands, but what they have in common is some connection to classical music. And they are powerful, talented and will put on a great show.

You also have some new ideas for how SPAC can take better advantage of its location within Saratoga Spa State Park. Tell us about them.

Because I’ve worked in the music business for so many years, I’ve been to all the major festivals of this sort in the United States—from the Hollywood Bowl to Tanglewood. SPAC is the largest of all of them. And what none of them have is a setting on 2,200 acres of parkland, adjacent to a vibrant downtown. Not only are we trying to fill that space between classics and popular music, but you’re going to see us fill up more of our grounds. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with NYS Parks folks about how to bring what we do out into the park—holding events by the reflecting pool or in the woods—so people have experiences with arts away from the stage. We’re going to have more free music. We’re going to have a new gazebo stage. My definition of arts is a very broad one—it includes healing arts, living arts and culinary arts. Everything you do can be turned into a kind of art. I’m always looking for a sense of wonder in things. If you look at the world that way, there are so many things that belong here at SPAC.

How do you reawaken an interest among audiences in classical dance and music?

There’s not one answer. Education is a huge component. We’ve expanded our educational program three-fold. Part of it is marketing. People who are true classical music connoisseurs don’t need to be sold. But there’s also a big group of people who are more casual goers. We really need to appeal to them. If you’re not that knowledgeable about classical music, you can get inhibited by the foreign words and formality. I’m trying to demystify it by presenting information in a way that people can easily understand. And there are a lot of people who love the experience of bringing a picnic to SPAC. For them, we’re emphasizing the role of nature and the outdoor experience—having hang spots where people can congregate. People really crave that community experience around music. Another big issue was pricing. Ticket prices have gone up. We’ll see more flexible pricing options. Older people who live alone but love classical music frequently won’t come because they don’t want to come alone. So we’re trying to facilitate transportation to senior centers and for students and give them deals on prices.

What was it like working with celebrated violinist Joshua Bell?

I was at IMG Artists for 30 years. I started booking Josh and then I was his manager for many years. I loved working with him. He’s so smart, curious and open to everything in life. He’s always looking for connections between things. He’s quite an extraordinary person. He loves to collaborate. He’s constantly curious and ravenous for new things to chew on.

You played piano growing up, and your husband is Cuban jazz pianist Jorge Gomez. What are your favorite piano pieces?

I started playing when I was six, but I haven’t practiced in years. I’m a huge Bach-obsessed person. The Bach Goldberg Variations and the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 are my two favorite piano pieces in the world. My husband grew up studying classical piano—we share that. Long before meeting him I became obsessed with Cuban music. A strong love for jazz and Cuban music are things we share. We also love to dance. In New York City, I started taking group dance classes and got obsessed with it. I would sometimes go out four, five times a week to salsa parties and dance until two in the morning. One of the things I want to do at SPAC is have an outdoor dance floor. I’m going to test out the idea of Latin dance night and swing night.

After living in Miami Beach for 14 years, was it a difficult transition to move north?

I love this community. After six months, I really feel like I’ve come home. It’s such a great place to hang out. If I had known about this place when I was living in Manhattan, this would have been my constant vacation destination. People here are so generous and community spirited.

Where are your favorite places to go in Saratoga?

One of my go-tos is the bar at 15 Church. I’m a Southerner so I’m a bourbon drinker. I love to have a Manhattan and crispy oysters sitting at the bar. Also I love Hamlet and Ghost and the vibe of the bar at Salt & Char. I also love to go to the Saratoga Battlefield and walk with my dog, Lana. I’m a massive book fanatic and I love the Northshire Bookstore and Lyrical Ballad. One of my missions this summer is to take artists and press who come up here and give them an immersion in how spectacular Saratoga is. I want them to go for a walk in the park or the North Woods, go to the Roosevelt Baths, go downtown and have pastries at Mrs. London’s. Many people do not realize you can get here on the train. If I had known that when I lived in New York City, this would have been my stomping grounds.  

Kirsten Ferguson is Arts Editor of Saratoga Living.