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The Saratoga Performing Arts Center Turns 50!

August 08, 2016

In 1961 discussions were begun for a summer venue for the New York Philharmonic at Saratoga Spa State Park. Local civic, cultural, and legislative leaders were galvanized into action. Within a week they held their first meeting; within a month they had won the support of State Conservation Commissioner, and begun discussions with both the Philharmonic and New York City Ballet. The group funded start-up costs out of their own pockets. Then came the more formidable challenge of demonstrating community-wide support to foundations and philanthropists whose backing would be critical. The community came through in record time. Money came from nickels and dimes from school kids; tens, hundreds, and thousands raised at dinners and galas; and even in donated stud fees from the area racing community. By summer 1963 generous contributions from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and New York State supplemented community support to ensure the dream would become reality.

The proposed site of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (far left), June 1962 (Courtesy SPAC).

By this time the New York Philharmonic had dropped out of consideration. But the project had a momentum of its own. New York City Ballet’s cofounders, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, helped define both SPAC’s physical form and artistic agenda. Soon The Philadelphia Orchestra came into the picture, with Music Director Eugene Ormandy also offering his input.

(L to r): Lewis Swyer, a driving force behind the creation of SPAC and chairman of SPAC’s Board from 1974 to 1988; Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Eugene Ormandy; and Richard Leach, the first executive director of SPAC, with the plans for the SPAC construction. (Courtesy SPAC)

By early 1964 The Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Ballet formalized their commitments to the center. Ground was broken by Governor Nelson Rockefeller on June 30. The SPAC Amphitheatre was created as a nurturing environment for great art. One hundred ten feet high (the equivalent of 10 stories), it is sited in a natural, curved bowl surrounded by towering pines and sweeping lawns. Inside are sheltered seats for 5,200 people; outside, the sloping lawn accommodates an additional 20,000.

Eugene Ormandy in the unfinished Amphitheatre. (Courtesy SPAC)

The stage was designed to accommodate a full symphony orchestra, with a floor especially engineered for ballet. Arnold H. Vollmer designed the floor honoring the wishes of Balanchine and Kirstein, making the original floor a design marvel. With insights from Ormandy and working with a scale model and exotic testing devices, Paul S. Veneklassen designed a series of baffles and sound-reflecting surfaces to draw out the full depth of the music, making SPAC one of the world’s most acoustically acclaimed outdoor performance venues.

 

The Philadelphia Orchestra has been in residency at SPAC since that first season in 1966. It’s a special place for the musicians of the Orchestra, many of whom feel as though the community is a second home. This year’s residency is particularly celebratory, featuring many of the works performed during that first season. Orchestra Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève, who has created his own special following since his SPAC debut in 2011 (he’s returned every year since), led three of the concerts in the opening week, the first of which saw excerpts of Hannibal’s One Land, One River, One People, which the Orchestra premiered in November 2015, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Violinist Sarah Chang joined the Orchestra the second night for Sibelius’s Concerto. And dancers from New York City Ballet were featured in excerpts from Swan Lake on the third night—the two resident companies together onstage. The first week closed out with a showing of the film Ratatouille on large screens while the Orchestra played Michael Giacchino’s score.

Hannibal joins the trumpet section of the Orchestra for excerpts from his One Land, One River, One People for the August 3 Opening Night rehearsal.

Philadelphia Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore greets the crowd at Opening Night while SPAC President and Executive Director Marcia White looks on. (Photo by Pete Checchia)

(L to r): Hannibal, tenor Rodrick Dixon, soprano Laquita Mitchell, and Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève acknowledge the audience’s standing ovation following the performance of excerpts from One Land, One River, One People. (Photo by Pete Checchia)

(Photo by Pete Checchia)

Mitchell and Dixon are joined by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, bass Morris Robinson, Albany Pro Musica, and the Morgan State University Choir for Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony. (Photo by Pete Checchia)

As he did in Philadelphia around the world premiere performances of his work, Hannibal went out into the community visiting prisons, churches, and other groups during his stay in Saratoga Springs. Here he performs for the Unitarian Universalist Church. 

The Orchestra rehearses Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 on August 4 with Denève. 

Horn players Denise Tryon, Jeffry Kirschen, and Daniel Williams during the Brahms rehearsal.

Sarah Chang wows the audience with her performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. This was her 15th appearance with the Orchestra at SPAC—her first was at age 10.

Geyser Creek runs through Saratoga Springs State Park, directly behind the Amphitheatre.

Composer Michael Torke sits onstage during the August 5 rehearsal of his Unconquered, which was commissioned by Charles and Candace Wait and the Adirondack Trust Co. for SPAC’s 50th anniversary.

New York City Ballet dancers Ashley Hod and Andrew Veyette rehearse the White Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake.

Cellist Robert Cafaro was the special guest for the Children’s Workshop on the Lawn. Here he performs a Fantasy on “Danny Boy” for the crowd.

Torke used the 1777 Battles of Saratoga as inspiration for Unconquered. Prior to the performance, reenactors from the Saratoga National Historical Park present the colors.

Denève and the Orchestra perform Torke’s work.

Denève congratulates Torke at the conclusion of the premiere.

New York City Ballet Dancers Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar perform the Russian Dance from Swan Lake.

Hod and Veyette return for the Black Swan Pas de Deux.

The Orchestra was moved back to accommodate the dancers, affording a great view of the timpani and percussionists from backstage.

The lawn was packed for the showing of Ratatouille on August 6.

There were a lot of Ratatouille fans in the Amphitheatre as well.

Portions of the opening narrative are courtesy SPAC.