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EnsembleNewSRQ makes its Historic Asolo Theater debut

The contemporary classical music group will present "Parisian Refraction" on May 9-11.

George Nickson and Samantha Bennett, co-founders of ensembleNewSRQ, pose on the stage of The Ringling's Historic Asolo Theater, where they will perform May 9-11.
George Nickson and Samantha Bennett, co-founders of ensembleNewSRQ, pose on the stage of The Ringling's Historic Asolo Theater, where they will perform May 9-11.
Image courtesy of Brian J Boyd
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It's been said that "clothes make the man." 

Can a venue make an artist? Probably not, but a marquee space like Carnegie Hall can certainly inspire a musician or dancer to deliver their best performance. That's why ensembleNewSRQ is looking forward to its debut at The Ringling Museum's Historic Asolo Theater later this month. 

First built in 1798 inside a palace in Asolo, Italy, the jewel-box theater's elaborate proscenium, decorative panels, gilded stage boxes and other components were purchased by The Ringling in 1949. The historic theater, which opened for Sarasota performances in 1952, has only 286 seats. 

When you attend a show in the intimate, beautiful theater, it's easy to imagine yourself as a member of court or some other noble personage watching a rarified performance for the select few. No wonder The HAT, as the theater is nicknamed, is one of the most sought-after venues in town, along with the Sarasota Opera House. 

Last year, ensembleNewSRQ (enSRQ), founded in 2015 by husband-and-wife team George Nickson and Samantha Bennett, held its first concert in the opera house. With that venue crossed off its wish list, it was natural for the contemporary classical music group to set its sights on the Historic Asolo Theater.

That dream will become a reality on May 9-11, when ensembleNewSRQ plays four concerts in three days in an event Bennett and Nickson are calling a "micro festival." 

Titled "Parisian Refraction," the festival consists of recent masterworks and composers that "embody the City of Light, have been commissioned by groups in Paris or are deeply inspired and affected by the French capital," according to the program notes.

"Parisian Refractions" is the capstone of a mostly Francophile (and Francophone) 2023-24 season in The Ringling's Art of Performance series. 

The ode to France's artistic influence was the brainchild of Elizabeth Doud, who joined the museum in 2019 as the Currie-Kohlmann Curator of Performance. On her watch, the Historic Asolo Theater has rebranded as The HAT, with clever marketing materials featuring a flamingo wearing a hat. 

Most of ensembleNewSRQ's concerts take place in Sarasota's First Congregational United Church of Christ, which Bennett describes as the group's "musical home." However, during its season it's not unusual for the cutting-edge classical music group to perform for audiences in more theatrical settings. 

At the church, "we have to invent the concert experience," says Nickson, a percussionist and a musical jack of all trades. "It's going to be super-great to come to a proper concert hall. The HAT has all kinds of lighting and a front-of-house experience."

The HAT's capacity is about one-quarter the size of the Sarasota Opera House, which has about 1,100 seats. It also has a smaller stage, he notes.

Nickson, former principal percussionist with the Sarasota Orchestra, and Bennett, former second principal violinist with the Sarasota Orchestra, met when they were students at the New England Conservatory. 

Nickson, who was two years ahead of Bennett at NEC, moved to Sarasota first and Bennett followed. In 2019, they moved to Dallas but maintain a house in Sarasota.

Like its musical parents, "Parisian Refraction" will live in two places —Sarasota and Dallas, where Nickson is principal percussionist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and a faculty member of Southern Methodist University (SMU). 

"Parisian Refractions" took place from April 23-28 in Dallas, where it was a collaboration of DSO, SMU and enSRQ. Throw in the HAT, and that's a lot of acronyms to keep track of. 

In Dallas, the festival was held in SMU's Caruth Auditorium and SMU graduate students were heavily involved in the program. In Sarasota, enSRQ's musicians will step in and play their parts, according to Bennett and Nickson.

Packed lineup

Unlike their performances at the First Congregational Church in Sarasota, the first concert of "Parisian Refraction" features a conductor. Maurice Cohn, assistant conductor of the DSO, led the first program, "Soloists and Sinfoniettas" in Dallas and will take the baton in Sarasota on Thursday, May 9.

"Most of our concerts are unconducted," says Nickson. "But the first program is a chamber orchestra so it’s helpful to have a conductor. Maurice is an incredible artist. We will be lucky to have him in Sarasota."

The soloists in the first program will perform recent works by Unsuk Chin and Kaija Saariaho, both of whom were connected to Paris and French musical life. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon will perform seven scenes from fairy tales while Bennett uses her violin to lead the audience on a tour of Saariaho's "Graal Theatre. "

Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon will perform with ensembleNewSRQ in its "Parisian Refractions" micro festival at The Ringling's Historic Asolo Theater.
Courtesy image

Fitz Gibbon has appeared at Marlboro and Tanglewood and has a repertoire that spans the Renaissance to the present.

In the last performance of "Soloists and Sinfoniettas," Nickson and pianist Conor Hanick team up to play Chin's Double Concerto for piano and percussion.

Program 2, on Friday, May 10, is a solo piano recital by Hanick, who will perform Otte's "Book of Sounds." A graduate of Northwestern University and the Juilliard School, Hanick has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. He is director of the Solo Piano Program at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.

Conor Hanick will perform a solo recital as part of ensembleNewSRQ's "Parisian Refractions" micro festival at The Ringling's Historic Asolo Theater.
Courtesy image

The second half of the "Parisian Refraction" micro festival takes place on Saturday, May 11. Program 3, at 2 p.m., features Bennett and Fitz Gibbon performing Kurtag’s "Kafka Fragments," based on 40 diary entries and pieces of writing from "The Metamorphosis" author Franz Kafka, who was raised in Prague.

The micro festival closes on Saturday night with an ambitious program called "Plucked and Struck," featuring the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. The grand finale is Boulez' "Sur Incises," for three harps, three pianists and three percussionists. It will be led by Nickson.

"These are pieces that we have been wanting to perform because they are the great works of our repertoire," says Bennett. "There's not room for three pianos and three harps in the church. That's why we're grateful to have the great opportunity at The HAT."

Continued collaboration

Although "Parisian Refraction" marks enSRQ's debut at the HAT, it is not the group's first appearance at The Ringling Museum. "We had a great collaboration with The Ringling in 2017," says Bennett. "That was a series of five concerts that we did in different spaces at the museum."

During that festival, Bennett and Nickson got to know Dwight Currie, who was then The Ringling’s curator of performances, who now serves as chairman of enSRQ’s board. 

It was Currie who helped introduce the contemporary classical music ensemble to Doud, paving the way for this year's appearance at The Ringling. "Dwight was adamant that we perform at The HAT," Bennett says.

As they prepare for their groundbreaking festival at The Ringling, Bennett and Nickson can't help reflecting on the legacy of circus magnate John Ringling, who left his Sarasota mansion and art collection to the state of Florida. 

"The legacy of John Ringling helped make Sarasota an exceptional place for the arts," Bennett says in a telephone interview from Dallas. "It's what brings many artists to Sarasota. It's what brought us there."



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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