Arts Manager Sheldon Soffer Dies at 93
Manager and mentor to generations of performers and arts professionals, Sheldon Soffer passed away peacefully on June 23, 2021, at age 93 in Fort Myers, Florida. By his side was his aide of three years, Ron Wendell, and his cherished puppy.
Soffer was born August 20, 1927, to immigrants Bertha Weiss Soffer and Samuel Soffer. Raised in the Bronx, he was the youngest of six siblings, in a family that valued education, Jewish traditions and the arts. A graduate of the High School of Music & Art and Queens College, he was awarded a fellowship to teach music appreciation at University of California, Berkeley, where he studied composition with Roger Sessions, graduating in 1950 with a master’s degree in conducting. He subsequently studied conducting with Fritz Stiedry at the Metropolitan Opera.
After a short, and ultimately unsatisfying, career conducting performances on the road, a Broadway debut conducting The Teahouse of the August Moon, and a stint as music director for the Lemonade Opera and assistant conductor of the Provincetown Symphony Orchestra, he transitioned off the stage to artist management, founding Sheldon Soffer Management in 1960, which he ran until his retirement in 1999. The first artist on his roster was Lotte Goslar’s Pantomime Circus.
Over his career, Soffer led the careers of artists including singers Elly Ameling, whom he brought to the U.S. in 1968, Gérard Souzay, Robert Holl, Sarah Walker, Carolyn Watkinson and Lucy Shelton; conductors including Robert Spano, Michael Morgan, Michael Gielen, JoAnn Falletta, Margaret Hillis and David Alan Miller; musicians including the Empire Brass, and dance companies and choreographers including Pilobolus, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Parsons Dance, MOMIX, the Bat-Dor Dance Company, The Jamison Project, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Boston Ballet, Ballet West and Molissa Fenley.
When Ravi Shankar asked him to manage him in 1984, Soffer told him he didn’t know anything about Indian music, but Shankar said “I’ll teach you” convincingly, and the two worked together for many years.
In a June 2021 PBS American Masters feature on Les Ballets Trockadero, the all-male comedic ballet company, founder Peter Anastos describes the company being approached by agents in the early 1970s who wanted to book the Trocks, as they are affectionately known, but who were hesitant to put the company in brochures for fear that the agents’ reputations might be damaged by the “drag ballet.” After meeting with the company, Soffer not only put them in his brochure, he put them on the cover. “He did what no other manager would do,” says Anastos in the documentary. “He honored us for who we were.”
At the request of a representative from the Japanese Consulate, Soffer met with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who had revolutionized music education in Japan with his Suzuki Method of teaching. Working with the Eastman School of Music and the community in Rochester, New York, Soffer brought the Suzuki Method to the U.S., first to the Rochester area in the mid-1960s, and then nationwide. For the next 30 years, Soffer would present a tour of the U.S. for the top Suzuki Method students from the Shinichi Suzuki School in Matsumoto, Japan, each fall.
A passionate advocate for Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the 1980s, Soffer worked with then–Carnegie Hall executive and artistic director Judith Arron to create the 1993 AIDS benefit concert “Music for Life,” featuring classical music luminaries including Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Pinchas Zukerman and Kurt Masur.
Soffer was named a distinguished graduate of Queens College, Division of Arts and Humanities; was the recipient of a Distinguished Service Award from the Western Arts Alliance; and served on the advisory board of Professional Children’s School and the national advisory council for the Chopin Foundation. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance. He was a long-time board member of Young Concert Artists and endowed the Sheldon Soffer Fund for New Music to support young composers.
Beloved for his colorful, gregarious and eccentric nature, Soffer was a lover of tennis, golden retrievers, travel, fresh fish, sunshine, classical music, making new friends and a good laugh. He was generous, with mentorship, time, money, support and good advice, which he gently offered after asking, “May I give you a bit of advice?” He reveled in a good tan and wearing a Mexican serape, shorts and sandals from Memorial Day to Yom Kippur.
Soffer was preceded in death by his parents, five older siblings and his devoted partner of 28 years, Stanley J. Segal, PhD. He is survived by dozens of adoring nieces and nephews, including the extended Davison, Roth, Elspas and Soffer families, many artists he nurtured, friends around the world, and an arts community made better and more vibrant because of his efforts. —Barbara Elspas and Ellyn Kusmin