A new executive director who’s been alive almost as long as his predecessor’s tenure will bring fresh energy to one of Santa Cruz County’s signature music festivals.
Composer, performing pianist and arts executive D. Riley Nicholson, 32, is returning to California to lead the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the organization announced June 1. Nicholson brings a diverse background in contemporary performing arts, including dance, theater and film, to the internationally-acclaimed contemporary orchestral festival.
Nicholson succeeds Ellen Primack, the Cabrillo Festival’s executive director for the past 33 years, as part of a planned transition. Nicholson will take the helm on October 1, 2023.
Riley has served as Executive Director at Symphony of Northwest Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas since 2020. According to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, during Nicholson’s tenure the Arkansas symphony experienced an “increase in contributed revenue streams by 71% to support a budget of $1.4 million, the largest budget in the organization’s history.”
The Cabrillo Festival reported gross receipts of $2.35 million on its 2021 Form 990 filing.
Before Arkansas, Nicholson spent four years with San Francisco’s Center for New Music and two years as marketing director for San Francisco Dance Film Festival. He also served as a board member at the Berkeley Ballet Theater and Post:ballet.
Nicholson will work with the festival’s Grammy Award-winning Music Director and Conductor, Cristian Măcelaru. When not in Coastal California, the Romanian-born Măcelaru can be found serving as music director of the Orchestre National de France and conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester in Cologne, Germany.
Before Măcelaru, Marin Alsop served as Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s musical director for 25 years.
“I am thrilled to have Riley Nicholson join the Festival as our new Executive Director,” said Claire Schneeberger, President of the Board of Directors, in a news release. “He brings a breadth of experience and creative energy to Cabrillo Festival’s mission of building a vibrant community dedicated to the creation of new and innovative music.”
“I will be Riley’s biggest cheerleader as he assumes the role of Executive Director of the Cabrillo Festival, which I love so much,” departing exec Primack said. “His appointment gives me enormous confidence as the Festival approaches a new era with great promise and possibility — further advancing our impact on the music world and our local community.”
“Cabrillo’s commitment to the creation and performance of profound, relevant and innovative music aligns perfectly with my artistic vision,” Nicholson said.
According to his biography, Nicholson received a Horizons Foundation grant in support of his large string orchestra work. One, which headlined Hot Air Music Festival in 2016. In 2017, his music was featured on a Not Art Records Mixtape. Horizons also supported his full-length Shimmer production, which toured nationally in 2018.
Later that year, he was honored as the California Association of Professional Music Teachers Distinguished Composer of the Year.
Riley has an M.M. in composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a B.M. in percussion performance and a B.A. in psychology from the University of Memphis.
“I am elated to join the Santa Cruz community,” Nicholson said. “During my time in the Bay Area, I visited many times, several times to attend the Cabrillo Festival and at times just as a weekend getaway. I have always thoroughly enjoyed my time in Santa Cruz and am thrilled to make it my home.
“I am impressed by not only the Cabrillo Festival and their work to envision and forge a path for the future of orchestral music but also by the Santa Cruz community’s steadfast support of that mission and programming.”
This article has been updated to add a quote from Nicholson, and his age.