From the TU’s Op-Ed pages: Classical programming at SPAC

A summer evening at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center may be a respite and idyll for many. But for those of us concerned about the arts in our region, it also can be a troubling experience as the venue wrestles with rising budgets and shrinking audiences.

Any conversation at the end of the night almost invariably includes remarks not just about the quality of what was presented onstage, but also the size of the crowd.

SPAC’s recent release of attendance figures for its classical events — audience levels were basically stable for the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra — sparks some observations and suggestions, mostly focusing on programming and priorities.

With the New York City Ballet’s residency next year being reduced from two weeks to one (it was once four weeks), let’s hope that every performance features different ballets. I attended twice this past summer and might have been there more, but I didn’t want to sit through repeats of things I’d already seen just one or two nights prior.

For example, the program on opening night, Tuesday, July 10, ended with Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” The new costumes with Swarovski crystals looked great, by the way.

I wanted to go two days later to catch the revival of “The Waltz Project” by Peter Martins, but among the three works on that program was, again, “Symphony in C.” Precious few summer evenings and expensive gasoline contributed to my decision to stay home.

Martins and Marcia White need to remember that some ballet fans may relish comparing different ballerinas in repeated works. But most of us cherry-pick what to see. So keep the repertoire fresh, please.

It’s hard to argue with the ever-rising cost of presenting the ballet, which is the reason for the ever-reduced seasons. And it’s admirable that next year two other companies, National Ballet of Canada and the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, will be brought in for seven performances.

Yet one still has to wonder about setting priorities and allocating resources among the existing components of the classical season. There’s an increasing and obvious imbalance between the orchestra, whose residency remains three weeks in duration, and the continued cutbacks for the New York City Ballet, SPAC’s whipping boy.

SPAC should make a priority of what it has that’s unique. That is only the New York City Ballet, the largest and most important dance company in the nation. It’s great to have so many opportunities to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra, and my fingers are crossed that its dynamic new music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, returns every summer. But there are lots of summer orchestra festivals, including Tanglewood, just 70 miles away in the Berkshires.

Another part of the SPAC classical season is the Chamber Music Festival, which is often overlooked. It wasn’t even mentioned in the year-end news release. Frankly, I don’t see why it should be continued.

That’s quiet a statement coming from a music critic. I consider part of my duties to be an advocate for the field, not just a reporter and critical observer.

This summer I only made it to one of the chamber music concerts, when the Spa Little Theater was maybe half full. Similar, and even smaller, audiences were reported by friends at the other five concerts. But poor attendance isn’t my biggest reason to question the festival’s viability.

There are tons of chamber music throughout our region all year long, especially at the Union College Concert Series, which runs October through April.

As for chamber music in the summer, on the weekend of Aug. 3 to 5, when I heard cellist Johannes Moser in Saratoga Springs, there were 10 other chamber music concerts spread across our region, from Woodstock to Hudson, Cooperstown to Cambridge.

The audience for chamber music is probably even more rarefied than that for the ballet. Yet unlike ballet fans, music lovers have plenty of options to choose from — too many, in my opinion. SPAC must stop wasting resources on programs that are redundant and instead focus on what can’t be found anywhere else — and that is the New York City Ballet.

Joseph Dalton is a Troy writer. His email address is

2 Responses to “From the TU’s Op-Ed pages: Classical programming at SPAC”

  1. avatar
    Helen Bayly
    October 9, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    Well said, Joe Dalton, on the subject of the New York City Ballet, its brilliance and uniqueness in the USA (and the world) – and on Saratoga Performing Arts Centre’s damaging actions as it tries to shelve the NYC Ballet’s presence in future summers at SPAC.

    Today’s SPAC, in letting the nation’s greatest dance company disappear from our region, betrays what Balanchine and SPAC’s creators presented to us their audiences….the world’s best in dance, nothing less.

    Mr Dalton, noted arts critic, describes perfectly how decisions by SPAC today seem to be misplaced by ignorance, apathy or both. Good luck to the local arts lovers who are trying to “Save The NYC Ballet” – by educating the SPAC board in how to cherish and nurture the best of our national and global performing arts companies…..Including and especially the NYC Ballet, in Saratoga.

    Thanks Joe Dalton for your clear view on what’s happening in our arts scenes, and on why the NYC Ballet deserves far more from the SPAC board. Apparently un-moved, un-impassioned, by the potential of nurturing greatness, this board needs to learn far more about its duty to keep the NYC Ballet in Saratoga at SPAC….

    Try a little gutsy imagination, SPAC, and think BIG, as your predecessors did in supporting the NYCB!

  2. avatar
    Lisa Mehigan
    October 9, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    Thank you for keeping this discussion alive. I have been alarmed by the apathy displayed in response to many of SPAC’s announcements, particularly, of course, the one recently dealing with the abbreviated season for NYCB. Your article is refreshingly perceptive and candid in its assessment of SPAC’s efforts. In general, I think your observations are very accurate.

    The answer to the question you are asking, “Are music and ballet at SPAC being programmed, marketed and supported an for maximum effect?” is obvious. When SPAC proclaims success because its bottom line is in the black, but when their programs are in decline, it is deceptive and disingenuous. Success, in this case, can only be measured by growth and stability gained through the varied skills of top-notch arts administration. SPAC should be trying to attract larger audiences with creative and well-thought-out programs. Fundraising should be spread beyond this local geographic area and SPAC’s identity should be synonymous with the best that both the classical arts and popular culture have to offer. “Pushing fundraising to the limits…” as has been so often repeated by SPAC management is certainly not the case.

    Where is the professional fundraiser who could potentially raise millions of dollars toward supplementing SPAC’s budget and endowment? Grant applications? Where is the acknowledgement that NYCB is not the villain that SPAC claims but has been lowering their performance fees for years in order to appear here and losing money themselves, due to it? And, most importantly, I guess, whatever happened to the idea that you look at your budget and if it isn’t large enough to support your presentations, you find ways to meet that challenge?

    We were given a gift by people of great vision nearly 50 years ago. It is disappearing through negligence, dwindling each year by bits.

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