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Musical alumnae to play for Bridge School

MIDDLEBURY — Anais Mitchell, Moira Smiley and Abigail Nessen Bengson are all versatile, up-and-coming musical artists who regularly perform in venues across the country.
They also have something else in common.
All three can trace their musical lineage to a common stage — the Bridge School in Middlebury, where their artistic talents were nurtured in a converted dairy barn off Middlebury’s Exchange Street.
On Saturday, Aug. 21, Smiley, Mitchell and Nessen Bengson will take a brief respite from their touring schedules and return to Middlebury to perform for the small school in which they all got their start. They will perform individually and at times together at a special concert at the Town Hall Theater, with proceeds to benefit the Bridge School’s scholarship fund.
The concert will also shine a spotlight on the Bridge School’s 30th anniversary and the retirement of two of its four founders, educators Richard Nessen and Bobbi Loney.
“Their enthusiasm is great,” Nessen said of the three musical alumnae. “They are really putting in an effort to get here and do this.”
Smiley, a singer-composer and New Haven native, leads “Moira Smiley & VOCO.” She travels the world as a soloist and creates new work for dance, theater and film. Her voice can be heard on a wide variety of media, including feature films, television (BBC, PBS), National Public Radio, and on more than 40 recordings. Smiley has developed a reputation as a musical “shape-shifter,” exploring the depths of early American, Irish and Balkan traditional song, according to her website. She is in high demand as a music director and vocal coach and composes for vocal ensembles around the world.
Mitchell, a New Haven native, has established herself as an emerging star on the folk music scene. She performs to rave reviews at venues throughout the country. One of her most acclaimed works has been “Hadestown,” a folk opera retelling of the Orpheus myth.
Abigail Nessen Bengson and her husband Shaun McClain Bengson are self-described “vaudevillian indie folk” performers who have developed a particular following in the New York City experimental music and theater community. They have displayed their talents on stages as far away as Johannesburg, South Africa.
Nessen Bengson happens to be the daughter of Richard and Kathy Nessen of Lincoln, two of the four founders of the Bridge School.
“It is great she is returning,” Nessen said of his daughter.
Getting the performers under one roof on a specific day took months of planning, according to Nessen. But after a flurry of phone calls and e-mails, Smiley, Mitchell and Nessen Bengson agreed to Aug. 21. They will play their own material, as well as “some old school songs,” Nessen said.
While they were not all at the Bridge School simultaneously, all three women know each other and are looking forward to playing music together. As Bridge School students, Mitchell, Smiley and Nessen Bengson and their classmates took an arts-related course every day. It’s a tradition — along with regular student concerts — that continues to this day at the nonprofit, private school that serves more than 60 elementary-age children annually.
“All three of them took pretty full advantage of the music opportunities at the school,” Nessen said of his former students. “All of them sang in the choirs I directed and all were in the plays.”
Smiley attended the Bridge School during the mid- to late 1980s. She had been learning piano at the time, and recalled receiving a lot of support pursuing her musical interests. She expressed particular fondness for a former teacher at the school, Connie Sophocles Miller, whom she said encouraged students to sing in the community.
“You really got a taste of what music does,” she said of her experiences.
Smiley also appreciated the talents of performers like Jon Gailmor who visited the Bridge School.
She is now enjoying her professional musical career, which takes her on the road for a majority of the year. Smiley is happy to take a quick breather to help her former school.
“It is somewhat of a sacrifice financially, but it’s worth it,” Smiley said.
“It just feels right.”
As of Wednesday, there were still seats available for Saturday’s performance at Town hall Theater. The show begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $25.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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