The surplus capital of the indefatigable 1990s economy may be a memory, but its effects are still being felt in the ongoing expansion of many of New York’s cultural centers, from Jazz at Lincoln Center to the Brooklyn Museum.
Now this trend has reached all the way to West 95th Street. Symphony Space, once housed in an intimate but sticky-floored former skating rink, has recently completed a $12 million renovation. After a nearly two-year closure, the beloved performing arts group officially reopens April 8.
“We were told by consultants that, for an organization of our size, age and history, we couldn’t do it,” said co-founder and artistic director Isaiah Sheffer. They defied expectations thanks to the $10 million sale of air rights, plus major grants of $5 million from Peter Norton and $1.5 million from Leonard Nimoy.
Behind the gleaming, angular aluminum façade and below the cantilevered apartment complex will be the familiar adventurous array of high-quality performing arts, film, and music. “I don’t want to lose our community spirit of the last 24 years, which is a real danger to arts organizations that achieve their real estate dreams,” Sheffer said.
Ticket prices will remain affordable. About half of all events are produced by local groups like the World Music Institute that rent the space for rates “as low as we can make them,” said Sheffer.
It should come as no surprise that an Upper West Side arts venue lead by a former child actor in the Yiddish theater would possess a social conscience while offering a broad spectrum of Jewish culture.
A quick glace at the March/April program guide reveals upcoming appearances by Michael Chabon, author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” on April 9 and 10, a discussion of New York film with director Sidney Lumet and writer Thane Rosenbaum on April 18, and a concert of Judeo-Andalusian music from Morocco with cantor Emil Zrihan on April 28. And there’s more.
“It just comes along naturally,” said Sheffer. He will co-host a three-part series next season of readings from the National Yiddish Book Center’s list of 100 great Jewish books. The partnership was spawned from the collaboration on the center’s upcoming April 23 reading from the list with Daphne Merkin, Jonathan Rosen and Thane Rosenbaum.
These literary programs will be in the newly revived, but gutted, Thalia theater, renamed the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, which will also have film screenings on weekends.
With all these changes, Sheffer hopes that audiences find the complex to be “the same old place they love.”