By Sophie Cianfarani, SMARTACUS Creative Group
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 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.