‘A Golden Age For SoNA’

‘A Golden Age For SoNA’

Multi-talented Riley Nicholson new executive director


A Hot Springs native educated in Memphis and San Francisco, D. Riley Nicholson has joined the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas as its new executive director. Music director Paul Haas says, “We’re looking at a new golden age for SoNA.”
(Courtesy Photo)

Riley Nicholson says new friends in Fayetteville will no doubt be unsurprised by what he does in his spare time.

“I love the arts! Outside of music, I enjoy going to art openings, dance performances, theater and more. I am a very noncompetitive runner, and I’m (très lentement) learning French and have friends in Europe that I try to visit once a year — not this year, sadly.”

Instead, as summer winds down toward autumn, Nicholson is settling in, having moved from San Francisco back to his home state of Arkansas. Beginning Aug. 18, he is the new executive director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas. He replaces Matthew Herren, who returned to his home state to become executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony in Pennsylvania.

Nicholson, 29, grew up in the Lake Hamilton School District of Hot Springs, where he says he “benefited from having access to instruments and high-level musical experiences through band.” But it wasn’t long after he started percussion that he knew he wanted to play the piano, too, and started to study with a local teacher he calls “fantastic,” Grace Ann Kuntz.

“I also had a considerable amount of exposure through my family,” he adds. “My dad’s side of the family is peppered with music professionals. We would often see them play and would occasionally drive to Little Rock to hear the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. I’m grateful that my family introduced me to the arts and supported me so fiercely.”

When it came time to choose a path into the future, Nicholson says, “I knew I wanted to pursue endeavors with real purpose, and to me, that meant better understanding and helping people through psychology and meaningful artistic expression through music.

“For a long time, I pursued both fervently and even combined them by doing a research study on music performance anxiety — my one and only scientific article, published in the Psychology of Music! However, while I am still fascinated by psychology, my calling was music. Perhaps in an alternate universe somewhere, I’m a therapist.”

After earning a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and a Bachelor of Music in Percussion Performance at the University of Memphis, Nicholson went on receive a Master of Music in composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“The rich arts ecosystem in the Bay Area and the fantastic faculty at the conservatory were the two biggest draws for me, and both proved to be invaluable,” he says. “I learned so much from the faculty both about arts entrepreneurship and about artistry.

“I quickly realized that arts entrepreneurship and business savvy are key to being able to launch an artistic career; successful artists usually know how fund raise and produce their own projects,” he goes on. “So I worked hard to develop these skills. With those skills, I was able to support other artists and could help them produce their performances, which I found to be very fulfilling. Thus, a career in arts administration was a natural fit.

“I also learned that to me, some of the most artistically interesting projects are collaborations between musicians and artists outside of music, like in dance or film. Artists collaborating with diverse mediums can be powerful because this experience can push artists to grow in unexpected ways,” he adds. “Because of this, I enjoy working with artists outside of music as well as within.”

Leaving San Francisco was “bittersweet,” he admits.

“I have made connections there that I know will last a lifetime. However, I was there for over six years and felt it was time to move on for professional and personal growth. In San Francisco, there is a beautiful kaleidoscope of artistic output, but the cost of living is astronomical, and the market is very saturated. I’m excited about the possibility of having a larger impact and a chance to reconnect with my home state and be closer to family. Northwest Arkansas is growing exponentially and is impressively engaged in the arts; I think there is a fantastic opportunity to build on that momentum.”

Nicholson brings with him experiences with organizations such as the Center for New Music, Post:Ballet, Dance Film SF and Berkeley Ballet Theater and says they will influence his work at SoNA as he begins “thinking creatively about engaging audiences, garnering support and pushing the envelope with artistic excellence and innovation. On a more concrete level, before I left San Francisco, I launched digital seasons for Center for New Music (C4NM) and Dance Film SF and will draw on that experience as we make alternative programming plans for SoNA.”

Right now, Nicholson says, SoNA is “deep into the process of exploring ways to stay connected to our audiences safely. So far, we are definitely planning on new digital programming [and] we’re also exploring the possibility of outdoor and/or socially distant alternative concert experiences. Stay tuned!”

“Riley is an impressive person who has achieved incredible things at an early age,” SoNA Music Director Paul Haas says. “The fact that he’s forward-thinking, and that we share similar ideas about how to bring classical orchestral music into the 21st century makes me think we’re looking at a new golden age for SoNA, as well as for the arts in Northwest Arkansas.”

“Collaboration is paramount to the success of the organization, our jobs are incredibly interwoven, and our visions for the symphony must be aligned,” Nicholson agrees. “A big reason I accepted the position was because of Paul Haas; I believe we will have great synergy, as we are both passionate about community building, honoring the classical repertoire, and moving classical music into the 21st century.

“An executive director’s role is to build and maintain a solid structure through which the artistic director’s vision can blossom.”

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D. Riley Nicholson


Categories: Music