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In an unconventional move, Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra hired him to be its executive director.

COURTESY PHOTO: PCSO - Kevin Irving, who was with Oregon Ballet Theatre for eight years, is the new executive director of Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra.After leaving Oregon Ballet Theatre, Kevin Irving planned on departing Portland as well, along with his choreographer husband Nicolo Fonte.

"But, it slowly dawned on me that I wasn't ready to leave Portland," said Irving, who has lived and worked in Europe, Canada and New York, and currently lives in the Pearl District. "It was the combination of proximity to nature and a really enthusiastic and devoted community of people whose values align with my own. Not that Portland doesn't have its really big challenges. But, I felt like after nine years, there's a sense of home."

"When this opportunity came up, I grabbed it. Jumping into a whole new world."

The opportunity was to be the new executive director for Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, a group of about 62 musicians that plays chamber music concerts around the Portland area. The analogy to a man who has spent his whole life in dance going to lead an orchestra organization would be like a journalist becoming the foreman on a construction project.

But, as the cliche goes, it's not rocket science — it's working in administration along with Steven Byess, the music director and conductor, to build up Portland Columbia Symphony in the eyes of the performing arts public. Celebrating 40 years, the PCSO 2022-23 season begins Aug. 14 with a concert in a park.

Irving left OBT under somewhat mysterious circumstances that neither he nor the OBT folks would address, other than to say it was time for change. Clearly, PCSO executives saw the potential in him, and Irving, because of his experience helping OBT in many aspects, felt confident that he could do an executive director job.

"I reached out to them when I saw they were recruiting and I had already had a relationship with Steven Byess, and had formed a high opinion of him," Irving said. "Leaving behind dance seemed like the right move to make. I had ample opportunity at OBT and before to develop skill sets not conducive to artistic directing. Every operational area except for finance that I had to have some skill in (at OBT).

"I did feel that I wasn't a complete neophyte. I'm humble about the fact that I don't have direct experience in this realm, and grateful for Portland Columbia Symphony for taking the chance, and I carry with it oodles of respect. I have a fair degree of competency to leverage what I know and develop what I don't know."

Tom Chau, former PCSO board chair, cited Irving's experience with performing arts companies around the world.

"We cannot imagine entrusting the future of our beloved orchestra to a more visionary, thoughtful, and creative leader," he said.

Said Byess: "His experience as an outstanding performing artist and a proven administrative leader made him the unanimous choice for our orchestra. I am convinced that Kevin will be a powerful contributor to the PCSO's continued success and growth in the Northwest Oregon region."

Irving served for eight years as artistic director at Oregon Ballet Theatre. His dance career began when the famed choreographer Alvin Ailey offered him a scholarship at his school in New York City. From modern dance in New York, he performed classical ballet in Canada and then returned to New York to work with another dance icon, Twyla Tharp.

Once retired from dancing, Irving worked under Nacho Duato in Spain's national dance company, and became artistic director at Gothenburg Opera House in Sweden. He ran a nonprofit that connected American teachers with Latin American dance communities prior to joining Oregon Ballet Theatre.

"I had eight great years and did fantastic work there (at OBT) that I'm very proud of. I have no insight on the departure," Irving said.

As far as staying in Portland, "It wasn't just the departure from OBT, but the pandemic and protests and everything we went through in these long three years, I really tried to drill down into what core competencies were, what I bring to the table, what I want out of life, what brings me fulfillment and joy from being a citizen of world. I was looking for this kind of change."

He was "transparent" with the PCSO, "and I think they absolutely understood what they were getting when they decided to bring me on. They felt they were not taking a wild leap of faith — maybe somewhat of a leap of faith."

Portland Columbia Symphony, formed in 1982 and playing concerts in the tri-county area from Hillsboro to Gresham, begins its season with "Stage & Screen in the Park," 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14 at Nadaka Nature Park. It's free to attend.

Six concerts make up the season, featuring iconic works by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven and Bernstein and soloists that include Miki Sawada in her PCSO debut, local favorite JaTtik Clark, Brian Dunbar, Carlos Simon and Brett Deubner.

Irving admitted that Portland Columbia Symphony "hasn't broken into consciences" like Portland Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Music Northwest and "there's no sense to pretend or believe we're in a competition with Oregon Symphony."

He added: "We're an organization that has passionate musicians and supporters and the quality of music is extremely high. It's a thoughtful, forward-thinking organization. We have high aspirations; we're not fussy or precious. It's kind of the way I saw forward with ballet and dance: Less pretentious, and more joyful, more rich in experience without the hoo-hah.

"I'm excited about the conversation about legacy classical music and how can that represent a more diverse community. … What is received canon and status and what people think of classical music and that it's an evolving art and needs injection of new energy and voices in order for those works to remain vigorous. That's the starting point. … I want to give Steven credit. This is not me coming and dictating, Steven has been investing in it intuitively for a long time."

For more: pcsymphony.org.


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