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EnsembleNewSRQ goes 'Beyond the Veil' in its season opener

The contemporary classical music group's season opener features an exploration of electronic music.


George Nickson and Samantha Bennett are co-artistic directors of contemporary classical music group ensembleNewSRQ.
George Nickson and Samantha Bennett are co-artistic directors of contemporary classical music group ensembleNewSRQ.
Image courtesy of Matthew Holler
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Halloween and the Day of the Dead are approaching, so you can’t blame ensembleNewSRQ’s Samantha Bennett and George Nickson for feeling a little spooky.

The husband-and-wife team are co-artistic directors of the contemporary classical music group, which is opening its season with a haunting program called “Beyond the Veil.”

“It’s the time of year when it’s said that the veil between the material world and the spirit world is the most porous,” said Bennett. 

What better way to honor that occasion than with a concert that evokes the changing colors of leaves that eventually must die, and other losses? 

The first two performances of their Oct. 23 concert do exactly that: One is called “Burgundy in Autumn,” while the other is named “Veil of Leaves.”  “Burgundy” was written by Nia Imani Franklin while Julia Adolphe wrote “Veil of Leaves.”

Bennett and Jennifer Best Takeda perform on violins on both pieces. They are joined by Stephanie Block on viola and Natalie Helm on cello.

The third performance of the concert, which takes place at First Congregational Church and will stream online at ensrq.org, is “Afterword,” a piece with Bennett and Takeda on violins, joined by Hannah Sun Ripert on piano.

Composed by Chris Rogerson, “Afterword” doesn’t skirt around loss. It addresses the issue of death directly. Bennett calls the piece “noble, sweeping and grand,” noting it was inspired by the last four songs of Richard Strauss and was written by Rogerson shortly after the death of the great soprano Jessye Norman in 2019.

The closing piece of “Beyond the Veil” is the spookiest part and the clearest proof of ensembleNewSRQ’s dedication to “new” classical music. Like the other three pieces in the program, “Tensio,” by Philippe Manoury, was composed in this century. 

What’s got Bennett and Nickson really jazzed is the “live processing” that will be done by Tina Tallon on “Tensio” to create an electronic sound that Bennett likens to the soundtrack of a horror film. 

Nickson notes that “Tensio” is rarely performed because of the electronic equipment requirements and the specifications to achieve the composer’s vision, a document he likened to an architectural blueprint. 

In the old days, a room full of computers would have been necessary to achieve the kind of sound that can be accomplished on a laptop controlled by Tallon, who worked with Manoury during her graduate studies at the University of California at San Diego.

As Bennett and Nickson talk about ensembleNewSRQ’s upcoming performances, one can’t help but be carried along on their wave of enthusiasm. 

Both note with pleasure that “Beyond the Veil” reflects the network of composers and musicians that they’ve  put together during their individual and combined careers. “This highlights the network of relationships that we’ve built. These are friends of ours,” Nickson says.

Bennett, the former principal second violin of the Sarasota Orchestra, and Nickson, the former principal percussionist of the Sarasota Orchestra, founded ensembleNewSRQ in 2015 to highlight contemporary composers of classical music. 

The two now divide their time between Sarasota and Dallas, where Nickson is principal percussionist in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at Southern Methodist University.

With the recent hiring of Kate Mulligan as ensembleNewSRQ’s first general manager, Bennett and Nickson have more time to focus on artistic matters. Mulligan is the former executive director of the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey and previously was executive director of the Trenton Children’s Chorus in New Jersey.

“We’ve been super-thrilled with Kate,” said Nickson. “It makes this group more professional because we have someone who has great knowledge. We are able to fundraise more efficiently and liaise with corporate sponsors.” Adds Bennett: “We don’t have to pick up programs anymore.”

This summer, the couple traveled to Paris on a European tour with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That trip primed them for their three-day music festival on May 2024  in The Ringling’s Art of Performance series called “Parisian Refraction.”

Bennett and Nickson said the idea for that project came about through ensembleNewSRQ’s chairman of the board, Dwight Currie, who was “adamant” about their need to perform in the Historic Asolo Theater at The Ringling. He introduced them to Elizabeth Doud, curator of The Art of Performance at The Ringling, where Currie worked before retiring. Doud who was putting together a 2023-24 season with a (mostly) Francophile flavor.

The end result of those conversations is being billed as an adventurous four-concert series that “explores works and composers that either embody Paris, have been commissioned by groups in the city, or are deeply inspired or affected by the French capital.”

Bennett and Nickson, who have friends in the City of Lights, definitely fall into the latter category.

For more information about ensembleNewSRQ’s 2023-24 season, visit ENSRQ.org.

 

author

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.

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