Beethoven and Bernstein—as in Ludwig van and Leonard—aren’t a bad place to start for an aspiring young classical musician who wants to study conducting. Those two musical giants were Cynthia Elliott’s idols as a Stanford freshman and prospective music major.
There was also Seiji Ozawa, who headed the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra just 30 miles to the north. Elliott had the privilege of performing under maestro Ozawa’s direction with the Stanford Choir. After a summer at Tanglewood, when she rubbed elbows with a coterie of high-powered international prospects, she reflected on her own ambitions and decided to go into arts management.
“I realized I had neither the talent nor the fire in the belly required to pursue a peripatetic career as a conductor,” she said. “Plus, I also had the third strike against me—my gender. Unfortunately, that is still true to a large extent in the business.”
Fast forward about a quarter century, and we find Elliott, now mature and at mid-career, a VP for new media and editorial services at Sony Classical at a time when the record industry was imploding. “I said to myself, I’d really like to get back to the stage, where the art is being created, and to the nonprofit world, which seemed more stable [ironic chuckle].”
The Upper West Side and Symphony Space have these twists of fate to thank for sending Elliott their way and roping in a passionate, driven and extremely capable director for the tantalizing and eclectic program at this distinguished neighborhood performing arts center. Elliott, 59, has been with the organization for nine years, as executive director until 2010 and now as president and CEO, ultimately responsible for putting on 350 original shows per year.
The satisfaction of tackling the job and her joy at its thrills remain unabated: “I love all the arts so it’s ideal for me because I can go from music to theater to dance to film to literature,” she said. “And the music itself encompasses everything from classical to jazz to Broadway to rock ’n’ roll and world music.
“I found out that what I wasn’t so good at as an artist, I was quite good at from a business standpoint, which is to approach problem-solving from a strategic point of view. I enjoy that kind of chess game.
“What I like most about my job is being able to go downstairs and attend any performance or any rehearsal and hang out with the artists. The most challenging part is putting the finances together because there’s never enough money, and there’s always increasing demand.”
Elliott grew up on the Upper East Side, attended the Chapin School and then Ethel Walker in Connecticut. She currently lives in Soho with her husband Douglas Rice, a painter whose day job is running his own high-end residential construction firm; Rice is also chairman of the board of the Bronx Museum. “In my personal life, I’m actually in a very fortunate position right now in that my kids are grown up and I don’t have to worry anymore about getting home every night for dinner,” said Elliott. “I have a husband who likes to go out at night.”
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