SoNA E.D. Nicholson performs July 6 prior to departure for West Coast

SoNA E.D. Nicholson performs July 6 prior to departure for West Coast

It wasn’t intended as a going away party, but Riley Nicholson’s “Mindful Minimal” performance July 6 — part of the Trillium Salon Series at Crystal Bridges Museum — gives him an opportunity to bid a fond farewell to friends and fans. His last day with the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas will be July 28, just after the rollout of the 2023-24 SoNA season.

Nicholson came to SoNA as executive director in August 2020, shortly after the covid-19 pandemic shut down performing arts around the globe. His first task was “the process of exploring ways to stay connected to our audiences safely,” he said then. Through those efforts, SoNA musicians played outdoors, were showcased in an online series titled “Solos From Home,” and played together in a virtual performance of Ravel’s “Bolero.”

“From the beginning of this process, we asked ourselves, ‘How do we want to grow and what changes are needed?’ and then allowed those answers to inform our decisions,” Nicholson said at the time. “So our plans were not just a stopgap but rather something that will help us grow in deliberate ways.”

One legacy of that innovation is “SoNA Beyond,” which Nicholson proudly says “really fills many voids in what the symphony is able to do with mainstage concerts alone.”

“Through those concerts ‘beyond the mainstage’ we’ve really been able to show up in places that people might not expect, and more importantly, start to break up some damaging historical narratives about what a symphony is, who it serves, and what kind of voices we uplift,” he says. “I’m also incredibly proud of the team we’ve built, with several new positions that didn’t exist before my time; we now have the capacity to do more and serve our artists and the community in more meaningful and thoughtful ways. With this added people power firmly established, I’m thrilled to see what the next executive director can do in collaboration with [music director] Paul Haas and our superb orchestra.”

Nicholson started his musical career playing the same family piano he still uses for practice.

“I would tinker and create little songs, so I was composing before I knew what that meant,” he remembers. “Eventually, I asked for piano lessons and joined band in school, then pursued a performance degree in college. I was somewhat unsatisfied with always playing what others told me. Perhaps with a bit of hubris, I thought, ‘I could write something more interesting.’ So I did! Though some of those student compositions need to stay buried…

“Eventually, I decided to focus on composing and went to San Francisco Conservatory for graduate school and have been lucky enough to continue composing for all sorts of performers, ensembles, and arts organizations, even while my primary ‘day job’ is in arts management.

“As you can hopefully tell by now, I’m incredibly passionate about the arts; what I love about arts administration/management is that I get to influence, support, and be involved in projects larger than just me as one artist.”

Nicholson will move to Santa Cruz, Calif., to lead the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which is “unmatched in terms of their commitment to voices of today,” he says. “My heart beats for the contemporary arts, so I couldn’t say no to an organization that solely focuses on contemporary music, and that has had that unwavering focus for over 60 years. There is no other festival orchestra with its mission, and its reputation is immense in our world of contemporary orchestral music. … It’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up!”

But first, Nicholson will say goodbye with a free program of “meditative, minimalist works from the 20th and 21st centuries – contemporary classical/ avant-garde music that zealous fans will know, as well as some lesser-known works as well, including two works by me,” he says. “The style stays within the introspective, austere architecture of minimalism and ranges from consonantly beautiful and sonorous to dissonant and contemplative. While that might all sound rather heady and niche … the spirit of minimalism strips away the unessential and doesn’t hide process, allowing listeners to engage with the music deeply.”


Riley Nicholson:

‘Mindful Minimal’

WHEN — 6 p.m. July 6

WHERE — Inside the Early American Galleries at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville

COST — Free


Categories: In The News