The Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (SoNA) has named D. Riley Nicholson as its executive director.
SoNA announced Monday (Aug. 10) the arts administrator, composer and musician will start in the role Aug. 18.
Nicholson replaces former executive director Matthew Herren, who left in June to serve as executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania. Herren led SoNA for six years.
Nicholson was chosen as the new executive director after a nationwide search completed by Aspen Leadership Group and overseen by the SoNA board of directors. The Hot Springs native most recently resided in San Francisco and has a Master of Music in composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a Bachelor of Music in percussion performance and a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of Memphis.
“It’s wonderful to return to my home state to accept this position,” Nicholson said. “I’m profoundly honored for this chance to lead SoNA into its next chapter. Given Northwest Arkansas’ remarkable engagement with the arts, the visionary artistic leadership of SoNA music director Paul Haas, the talent of the musicians, and a fiercely loyal and ever-growing SoNA fan base, we are in a unique position to have an increasingly extraordinary artistic impact.
“My vision for SoNA, and really for the industry at large, is to continue honoring the beautiful classical repertoire we’ve inherited while actively working to build diverse communities and showcase contemporary voices,” Nicholson added. “By nurturing existing relationships and engaging new stakeholders, we can better serve our audiences, better support artists, make better art and truly serve our entire community.”
Before joining SoNA, Nicholson was project manager for the Center for New Music in San Francisco, marketing consultant for Dance Film SF (San Francisco Dance Film Festival) and a member of the board of directors at the Berkeley Ballet Theater and Post:Ballet.
“Riley is an impressive person who has achieved incredible things at an early age,” Haas said. “The fact that he’s forward-thinking, and that we share similar ideas about how to bring classical orchestral music into the 21st century, makes me think we’re looking at a new golden age for SoNA, as well as for the arts in Northwest Arkansas.”
Nicholson also is a pianist and has composed and performed for multiple ensembles and venues. His collaborations include original music for Dance Film SF, Post:Ballet, Switchboard Music, Amaranth Quartet, Hot Air Music Festival, David Herrera Performance Company and Ballet Memphis’ Cecily Khuner.
Nicholson received a Horizons Foundation grant for his work “One” for large string orchestra, which debuted at the Hot Air Music Festival in 2016. He received another Horizons grant for his full-length production “Shimmer,” which toured nationally in 2018. Also in 2018, he was honored as the California Association of Professional Music Teachers Distinguished Composer of the Year. He recently completed a new commission for pianists Sarah Cahill and Regina Myers.
“On behalf of the SoNA board, I’m so pleased to welcome Riley as executive director, and I look forward to building upon the impressive momentum SoNA has continued these past few years,” said Julianne Brown, chair for the SoNA board of directors. “His energy, passion for the arts and broad experience early in his career impressed the selection committee. SoNA has grown in strength over the past five years, and it’s important to all of us that our next executive director be able to maintain our trajectory, serve our musicians, collaborate with artistic staff, and connect with our donors and audience. We feel confident that Riley’s skill set and background add unique experience to the organization, which will be particularly valuable as we enter a season at a time when arts organizations across the nation are navigating many unknowns.”
SoNA previously announced its first three concerts of the 2020-21 season this fall will not take place as initially planned because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes “Masterworks I: Mozart and Beethoven” on Oct. 17, “A Very SoNA Christmas” on Dec. 12 and “The Snowman: A Family Concert” on Dec. 13. The Masterworks concerts on Jan. 30, March 20 and May 1 are still set to take place as planned.
Nonprofit organization SoNA was established in 1954 and has presented symphonic performances to an audience of more than 20,000 people annually. SoNA, a resident company of the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, has performed at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, John Brown University, the University of Arkansas, the Bentonville Film Festival and the Fayetteville Roots Festival.