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Kevin Irving dances into the music

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra hires the former Oregon Ballet Theatre leader as its executive director, and other comings and goings in Oregon music.


Kevin Irving, as artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, rehearses the company in Nacho Duato’s “Por Mos Vuero” in 2013. Irving moves to the music world as the new executive director of Portland Columbia Symphony. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ballet dancers work really hard to land on their feet. Apparently the same is true for ballet artistic directors. After being forced out of his role as artistic director at Oregon Ballet Theatre last year in a still-murky maneuver, Kevin Irving is taking over as executive director at Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, effective July 1.

Leading a major Oregon arts organization is rare enough. Even rarer is directing two — in entirely different fields. But Irving says it’s a natural transition for him. “Music is the throughline from my childhood throughout my life,” he told ArtsWatch, remembering his first artistic experience, singing in Amahl and the Night Visitors in a Long Island performance at age 11. He’d also danced to orchestral classics (Brahms, Stravinsky, etc.) throughout his performing career. 

“The reason I got into any kind of theatrical or performing arts was my love for music,” he says. “After the pandemic, thinking about what matters in life, and what next steps are out there for me, I was looking for an opportunity to continue investing in this community. It’s nice to land in an organization that has this much enthusiasm and community support.” 

He’d talked with CSO music director Steven Byess a few times to brainstorm ideas for possible collaborations, and they’d “hit it off personally from the start,” Irving recalls, sharing “a sense that these traditional art forms like orchestral music and dance are full of richness that’s not fully tapped. What I respond to with Steven is his enthusiasm to reimagine the experience. Especially after the pandemic, we don’t want to pretend everything was great and go back to what we were doing [pre-pandemic]. All arts organizations are looking for ways to refresh the experience and find ways to bring the tradition forward.”

Reinvention is especially crucial for CSO, which despite its musical quality has long struggled to distinguish itself on the Portland classical music scene. Unlike, say, Portland Chamber Orchestra and its thematic programs with scientists and others, Columbia Symphony hasn’t really offered much that that other big orchestra in town does’t do at a higher level. I’ve suggested possible identity-defining moves here, such as truly becoming Portland’s orchestra by commissioning and featuring music by Portland composers on every single concert, or partnering with local choirs (like the one it shares a performance space with) or adding nonmusical elements. So I’m excited by the potential (not promised) prospect of combining dance and orchestral music that Irving’s accession might enable.

While cautioning that “it’s still early days” and they’re figuring out the new directions, Irving did say that he and Byess shared my concerns. “That’s the big challenge for the organization,” he says, “and that’s why they looked to me” to bring a different perspective than a traditional classical music AD. “I have an outstanding track record in Portland doing those kinds of things. It was a different metier, but the same things were challenges for OBT when I arrived in 2013.”

As at OBT, he hopes to focus on making live performances truly special, a goal that vexes most American orchestras stuck in their 19th century performing traditions. “I’m excited to work with PCSO,” he says. “We’re all big proponents of live shared experiences. That to me is the really crucial thing we can’t get from home, watching on a computer screen.“


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What will that actually look like on stage? Too early to tell, Irving says, noting that the upcoming season is already mostly planned, so his true vision won’t start to emerge till the next. As indicators of possible directions, he points to OBT’s acclaimed show featuring a Tchaikovsky chestnut (Serenade for Strings), a new electronic music composition, and Portland pianist Hunter Noack playing Liszt on a raised platform.

“It’s not enough to do ‘important works’ and present ‘important soloists,’” Irving insists. “It’s combining all aspects in a performance that add up to experiences that are irreplaceable and unique. We’re looking for new ways to enliven and refresh the experience of live orchestra.” We’re looking forward to seeing how they do it.

Other Comings and Goings

NEW YORK’S PRESTIGIOUS GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL is taking on a Portlandian hue. Yesterday, the Cooperstown-based festival named Rob Ainsley its next artistic and general director. The personable Brit-born conductor and keyboard whiz is familiar to Oregon audiences from his tenure as Chorus Master and Associate Music Director at Portland Opera until 2012, often accompanying solo recitals in addition to behind-the-scenes work.

Rob Ainsley: A Portland Opera alum is the new boss at Glimmerglass Opera. Photo: Arielle Doneson

He’s also held leadership positions at English National Opera, Minnesota Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and most recently Washington National Opera’s Cafritz Young Artists and the American Opera Initiative, where, according to the New York Times, “he commissioned, developed and premiered more than 30 new operas and other works.” 

At Glimmerglass, Ainsley will balance new operas with older, though not necessarily standard, repertoire, music theater and more. It’s a treat to see an advocate for new music in such a prime position to advance an art form that’s too often been content with looking backward.

Coincidentally, this summer’s 47th Glimmerglass festival features the premiere of Portlander Damien Geter’s new opera Holy Ground, co-created with Lila Palmer. His African American Requiem, which premiered earlier this month in Portland, just received its second performance at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center.



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PSU alum Kelley Nassief succeeds the retired Christine Meadows as leader of the university’s acclaimed opera program. Photo courtesy Portland State University

SPEAKING OF PORTLAND AND OPERA, Portland State University’s nationally acclaimed opera program announced the successor to its longtime director. Kelley Nassief will succeed Christine Meadows, who’d led the program since 2006, as director of opera and opera studies. Both won renown as student singers in the PSU program.


Marc Vanscheeuwiick: moving on. Photo courtesy University of Oregon

IN OTHER ACADEMIC NEWS, University of Oregon music professor Marc Vanscheeuwijck is retiring after 27 years leading the school’s early music studies programs. Along with his well-regarded teaching and scholarship, the Belgian-born musicologist and Baroque cellist (whose playing is as eloquent as his name is hard for Americans to properly pronounce) directed the school’s Collegium Musicum early music ensemble, conducted the UO Oratorio Ensemble and Jefferson Baroque Orchestra, and helped create the annual Musicking conference that entertainingly mixes performance and academic inquiry. He also performs with many of Europe’s top early music ensembles, which he’ll likely do more of when he moves back there after his last term concludes. The university is hosting a farewell concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 28, at Berwick Hall on its Eugene campus.


SPEAKING OF UO PRE-CLASSICAL music, the school’s Oregon Bach Festival announced a third candidate for its artistic director position. Kazem Abdullah, an American conductor currently living in Nürnberg, Germany, joins Eric Jacobsen and Miguel Harth-Bedoya as finalists after the withdrawal of the third candidate. (Read all about it here.) The Indiana-born former music director of the city of Aachen, he’s guest-conducted several American orchestras, including the Oregon Symphony, and appeared with the Metropolitan Opera (Terence Blanchard’s landmark Fire Shut up in my Bones last year), Portland Opera (Central Park Five) and other opera companies.


AND SPEAKING OF BAROQUE artistic director searches, Portland Baroque Orchestra named New York-based violinist Aisslinn Nosky, London-based harpsichordist Julian Perkins, and Dublin-based multi-instrumentalist Peter Whelan as finalists for its AD position. Each will conduct a tryout concert next season, which will be led by interim AD John Butt.


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SILETZ BAY MUSIC FESTIVAL has named Shellie Stuart as its executive director. The Washington native returned to the Pacific Northwest to lead Lincoln City’s Bay Area Merchants Association after leading a nonprofit organization in Georgia. 

Plaudits & Laurels

EUGENE SYMPHONY GUILD won a Spotlight Award from the League of American Orchestras, honoring the organization’s innovative virtual fundraiser last summer that featured ESO musicians performing in six Eugene gardens. Next month, the guild hosts an in-person Music in the Garden, with musicians performing in six Springfield gardens June 12.


OPERA THEATER OREGON scored a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Yale University’s 2022 Native Voices Endowment Award from the Endangered Language Fund, both to support its upcoming project, Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story.


AS ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH draws to a close, here’s a video of University of Oregon music prof Wonkak Kim performing Jean Ahn’s 1976 Blush for Solo Clarinet last month at the UO Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s Korean Gallery.


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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.


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