“Today’s composer refuses to die.”
– Edgard Varèse
Samantha Bennett and George Nickson agree with Varèse. You are the founders and co-artistic directors of EnsemblenewSRQ, a contemporary music collective in Sarasota.
They have dedicated themselves to fresh, new classical music since the group was founded in 2016. And that commitment is based on both knowledge and practice.
Both are main actors in orchestras. Bennett is the second violin of the Sarasota Orchestra. Nickson is the lead percussionist at the Dallas Symphony and also teaches percussion at Southern Methodist University. This couple draws on this experience in their Ensemble NewSRQ concerts, as well as occasional concerts for the Sarasota Concert Association and New Music New College.
They see themselves as musical ambassadors. They love what they do, although it is not easy. The pandemic made it even more difficult. But it didn’t make her stop.
When most people imagine “classical music” they think of dead, white male composers in powder wigs. This is the stereotype association. But you prove they are wrong.
Nickson: That’s what we’re here for. There are so many people writing fantastic music right now. The contemporary music universe is rich and amazingly diverse.
Bennett: We want our audience to explore the full scope of this expanding universe.
You play great music. It is not “easy listening”. Her compositions can be dissonant or atonal – or on a non-western musical scale. How do you attract the audience?
Nickson: Well, every concert is its own musical journey. We lead the audience along the way. Just like a museum director curates an art exhibition, we curate the concert experience. We try to show the listeners the connections between different forms of music. What is the starting point of the style, how it multiplied and cross-fertilized with other styles, and how it connects with the composer’s culture.
They don’t throw the listener into the musical depth.
Bennett: No. We try to share our excitement with what’s happening in the music world right now. That creates a real connection with the audience. This music is not distant or from the past and that is especially important in the time of COVID. It speaks for what we are going through in the 21st century.
Nickson: I agree. We don’t have to fight to put ourselves in the shoes of an 18th century composer. Together we all had the same experience.
What’s a short list of contemporary composers you love?
George Nickson and Samantha Bennett, co-founders of ensemblenewSRQ
Nickson: That keeps changing, but some of the people we’ve listed recently include Nico Muhly, Eric Wubbels, Jessica Meyer, and Elizabeth A. Baker.
Bennett: I would also like to mention Kevin Day, Quinn Mason and Andreia Pinto Correia – she is a fantastic Portuguese composer. Your works have become part of our repertoire.
How has the pandemic affected your commitment?
Nickson: It prompted us to offer streaming concerts. We originally thought we could go back to performing live this spring, but that’s just not feasible.
Bennett: But it also opens up new possibilities. When we were planning this season, we had to reduce the repertoire to what we could fit on the stage. That forced us to leave out a lot of great compositions. If we work virtually, we can use them again.
Your streaming concerts are free. Why?
Bennett: We wanted to keep our music accessible during the pandemic. Everyone is so much more isolated now. People are hungry for artistic experiences. We made sure that we can reach them.
Has streaming content expanded your base?
Nickson: Yes, it has. People from Outside Sarasota – People from all over the country and around the world can now see our concerts. Virtual walking has increased both geographic and demographic reach.
Bennett: We also attract a lot more young people. We always wanted that.
Her commitment to diversity also applies to composers. They’re taking advantage of the pandemic to highlight works by composers who are female, LGBTQ, and colored.
Bennett: Absolutely. These composers were historically underrepresented. We have always advocated a very diverse group of composers. This has been part of our mission from day one. But given the social problems of our time, we re-examine our work to see if we can get any better.
Their ‘Sun Colors’ streaming concert will take place on April 19th. What is a great composition?
Bennett: They are all great. But when I have to stick to one, I go to “Darshan” by Reena Esmail, an Indian-American composer. She composed this amazing work for solo violinist and I am so excited to play it. It is based on “Raag Charukeshi”, a melodic raag that focuses on a certain range of Hindustani classical music. It’s a very different experience and I think the audience is transported.