Symphony finale promises looney tunes, merry melodies
If you go
What: Portland Columbia Symphony presents "Orchestral Showpieces, Slavic Spectacular"
When: 7:30-9:30 p.m., Friday May 3 (Portland), and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 5 (Troutdale)
Where: First United Methodist Church, 1838 S.W. Jefferson St. Portland (Friday); Reynolds High School Performing Arts Center, 1698 S.W. Cherry Park Road, Troutdale (Sunday)
Admission: $30 and up
Tickets and info: Visit columbiasymphony.org or call 503-234-4077
In demeanor as well as deeds, Steven Byess could not be farther from the musical elitist stereotype often associated with classical music aficionados.
In fact, the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor is as much about sharing and spreading the gospel of music as he is directing an orchestra.
"It is reflective of my personal mission to be a musical evangelist," he says.
The rural northern Georgia native credits that passion to being a musical late bloomer.
"I didn't start studying music until I was 18. That is incredibly rare," he observes. "Because I started so late, I have a certain laymen's perspective of how I look at things. I think that informs my programming. I like to program music that is engaging, captivating, educational and entertaining."
Those words certainly apply to the Columbia Symphony's season finale show, "Orchestral Showpieces, Slavic Spectacular," set for Friday, May 3, at First United Methodist Church in Portland and Sunday, May 5, at Reynolds High School Performing Arts Center in Troutdale.
The orchestra will celebrate Slavic folk-inspired classical music through the works of composers Franz Liszt, Antonin Dvorak, Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly. The pieces include "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2," which Byess says is characterized by its distinctive "gypsy scales"; the "rich, harmonic coloring" of "Romanian Folk Dances"; and the lyrical "Czech Suite" with its rustic, polka-like movement giving way to the exhilarating "Finale."
Byess describes the program's conclusion, "Hary Janos," as a "musical sneeze" in which the listener is meant to take the tale with "a grain of salt."
Admitting that the "Slavic"-themed program originally included more actual Slavic composers, Byess nonetheless promises a rollicking, adventurous evening of music.
"Most of the composers (on the bill) are from Hungary," he explains. "I understand Hungarians are not Slavs, but Hungary is surrounded by Slavic countries. Music doesn't stop at the border.
"I am drawn, as I think most people are drawn, to exotic influences and the exotic content of Slavic folk music," Byess adds. "There is an exotic nature to this music that's attractive. To do an entire program based on this is an exciting possibility … It is listener-friendly for the audience and great to play for an orchestra. Artistically speaking, it helps create a well-rounded offering."
Liszt, one of the genuine Hungarians featured in the program, inadvertently created some of the more widely recognized classical motifs which, several decades after his 1886 death, became staples of classic 20th century Warner Bros. cartoons.
"Many people may be familiar with (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2) through 'Looney Tunes' cartoons," Byess says. "It's just that sort of attractive music that creators — artists, animators, pop bands — they can't resist taking these melodies and doing something else with them."
As with other programs he conceives, Byess — now in his fifth year with the Columbia Symphony — invites input and feedback before committing to a theme or style.
"I always consult the musicians to solicit ideas and proposals regarding what they want to perform," he says. "The responses I get from the (Columbia) orchestra run the gamut from straightforward suggestions to outlandish.
"We did talk about this concert," he adds. "Two of the pieces had been highly requested, so a program like we're going to present in a couple of weeks was certainly in order."
Byess officially resides in Los Angeles with his wife, but for the self-described "itinerant" musician, "home" becomes a nebulous concept. In addition to his work with the Columbia Symphony, he also serves as music director with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra and as associate music director of the Ohio Light Opera.
"I would say I am unique," he says of his far-flung responsibilities. "I know a few conductors who have two or three positions or anchored with academic positions and conduct two orchestras. But to conduct three orchestras and an opera is exceedingly rare."
Despite his hectic schedule, Byess likes to learn and absorb the cultures of the communities he serves, including those of East Multnomah County.
"Gresham is a wonderful community. Every time I go there, there's something new happening," he says. "I think it's a community that will support an orchestra on a regular basis. We just have to make sure we provide music people will enjoy."