Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

EnsembleNewSRQ goes back to the future with '1976'

The April 17 concert "1976" kicks off a new era for Samantha Bennett and George Nickson's ensemble.

Some of the ensembleNewSRQ artists: Clockwise from lower left: Natalie Helm, Missy Mazzoli, Bharat Chandra, Marcelina Suchocka, Mike Truesdell, Jennifer Best Takeda and Louis Andriessen
Some of the ensembleNewSRQ artists: Clockwise from lower left: Natalie Helm, Missy Mazzoli, Bharat Chandra, Marcelina Suchocka, Mike Truesdell, Jennifer Best Takeda and Louis Andriessen
Courtesy photos
  • Arts + Culture
  • Share

Back in the erstwhile romantic days, a suitor might say, "We could make beautiful music together" with a straight face. Well, that's exactly what percussionist George Nickson and violinist Samantha Bennett are doing.

The husband and wife, who met through friends at the New England Conservancy when they were both studying there, founded EnsembleNewSRQ eight years ago. The rest, as they say, is history. 

On Monday, April 17, their "baby," which has grown to encompass 40 musicians on stage, will perform at the Sarasota Opera House for the first time. 

The show is called "1976" because the two pieces that will be played that night — HK Gruber’s “Frankenstein” and Louis Andriessen’s iconic “De Staat”— were both composed in that bicentennial year.

"We're excited about this occasion. We'll be playing on a bigger stage both physically and metaphorically," Bennett said in a joint telephone interview from the couple's home in Dallas, where Nickson is principal percussionist in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at Southern Methodist University.

When many people hear the term "new music," they often think of dissonant, atonal works by Philip Glass or other avant garde composers. Nickson doesn't have a problem with that sound, but he stresses "1976" will be accessible to a wide variety of music fans.

"The April program is going to be fun and crazy," he says. "This program is inspired by minimalism, jazz and rock 'n' roll. The first half is like a cabaret. The second half is like a rock concert."

Lest anyone think "new" music are works released in the last year, the standard definition for popular music, in the orchestra and chamber music world the definition is broader.

On its website, the group Zeitgeist Music defines the genre as "an extension of the classical music tradition." According to Zeitgeist, new music "represents the cutting and creative edge of classical music. In addition, new music can incorporate elements of many different musical genres, including classical, jazz, rock, world music and others."

In their telephone interview, Bennett and Nickson said they had been planning for a big event such as "1976" well before this year, but then COVID struck. Like many arts groups, they were able to continue reaching audiences through live-streamed performances, but had to postpone a blow-out event until the pandemic receded.

It's common for musicians to juggle multiple roles and appear as guests with different groups and at festivals, but Bennett and Nickson have set the bar high in terms of their wide-ranging collaborations. "Scheduling is our biggest problem, with all the organizations that we're involved with," Bennett says. 

Winding journey

Nickson was two years ahead of Bennett at NEC, and he moved to Sarasota first to become principal percussionist of the Sarasota Orchestra from 2012 to 2019. Bennett joined the Sarasota Orchestra in 2016 and was principal second violin until recently. 

George Nickson is co-artistic director of ensembleNewSRQ along with Samantha Bennett.
Courtesy photo

Although they moved to Dallas so Nickson could join the Dallas Symphony in 2019 as well as the faculty of SMU, where he is adjunct assistant professor of percussion, the couple maintains a house in Sarasota. They are in town frequently for their roles as co-creative directors and musicians at EnsembleNewSRQ.

When Bennett and Nickson co-founded EnsembleNewSRQ eight years ago, it was just the two of them with a budget of zero. Today, their budget is $150,000, and they are getting ready to hire a director who can take some of the administrative weight off their shoulders.

Finding musicians in Sarasota who wanted to branch out and experiment with new music was the easy part of founding EnsembleNewSRQ, thanks to the pool of talented performers at the Sarasota Orchestra and the music department at New College. Since he has been in Dallas, Nickson also has found talent by teaching at SMU.

Mike Truesdell, currently assistant professor of percussion at Ithaca College, in Ithaca, N.Y., has been an important piece of the EnsembleNewSRQ puzzle from nearly the beginning. Truesdell is the group's chansonnier, a term that Merriam-Webster defines as "a writer or singer of chansons; especially a cabaret singer."

Other key artists in the group include musicians with jobs at the Sarasota Orchestra: Marcelina Suchocka, principal percussionist; Bharat Chandra, principal clarinet; Betsy Hudson Traba, principal flutist; violinist Jennifer Best Takeda, assistant concertmaster; and Natalie Helm, principal cello. 

Prominent guest artists at EnsembleNewSRQ are Conor Hanick, director of the Solo Piano Program at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., and vocalist Lucy Fitz Gibbon, who appears in musical venues around the world with her husband and collaborative partner, pianist Ryan McCullough.

Other artists whose works are in the mix are composers Missy Mazzoli and Andriessen, who died in July 2021.

From the start, Sarasota audiences were receptive to EnsembleNewSRQ's mission, Bennett and Nickson say. Formally they define that mission as "to manifest the creativity of the current generation and inspire audiences to participate in musical culture in a profound way, through high-level curated concert experiences that sustain and transform the relevance of contemporary classical music."

However, according to Nickson and Bennett, there was still work to be done to fill the seats. "When we started, it was a subset of concertgoers that was interested in the new stuff," Nickson says. "What we’ve tried to do is to tap into new audience members."

One way to reach Sarasota arts patrons was to branch out into dance. Toward that end, the group has collaborated with Sarasota Contemporary Dance.

Even though they are not ready to make a formal announcement, Bennett and Nickson are excited about hiring someone who will help develop audiences and attract funding.  

"Administratively we need to take some big steps," Nickson says. "We would love to see audience development grow." Also on the wish list is building audiences through expanded recording and touring.

Finding musicians and expanding audiences are two sides of the triangle for EnsembleNewSRQ. The third is identifying new music to perform. That involves a lot of traveling and brainstorming with fellow musicians. However, three stops are always on this tour, according to Bennett and Nickson: Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music in Massachusetts, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. 

Coworking during COVID

During COVID, a lot of couples moved work activities to their home by telecommuting and participating in Zoom meetings, but not all of them were running a "mom-and-pop" musical venture. 

Samantha Bennett
Courtesy photo

Navigating the boundaries between professional and personal activities while working from home can be a challenge, but it does have its saving graces, says Bennett. "You never know when inspiration is going to strike," she says. "I could be doing laundry when I discover the season opener."

Nickson says, "I basically have three full-time jobs. It's nice to go all in on projects and then pivot. It keeps things fresh, keeps things from getting stale."

In terms of the division of labor, Nickson executes the nuts and bolts of making things happen, Bennett says. "He's really focused and always pushing forward. I'm a little more creative and detail-oriented. We come to a great place in the middle," she says.

Handling the operational elements of EnsembleNewSRQ comes naturally to Nickson, the partners agree. 

"Percussionists have to be problem solvers," says Nickson. "Sometimes we have to create new instruments. We have to keep an eye on logistics." 

With so many balls (batons?) in the air, sometimes life can be overwhelming. When the music gets too loud, Bennett and Nickson like to take a break with long-distance bicycle rides of 60 or 70 miles.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

Latest News