Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Kevin Irving: Bringing The Muscle And The Hustle To PCSO

by | Sep 16, 2022

He was the White neophyte dancer that Alvin Ailey awarded a scholarship. He was the modern dancer that joined a classical company at 24 and rose to the rank of Principal Dancer. He was the American who became Associate Director of the Spanish national dance company, and then the Director of the second largest ballet company in Sweden. All things that were somewhat unexpected, improbable even. Moving from Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre to Executive Director of Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra(PCSO) is another atypical move, but Kevin Irving is ready to bring his signature muscle and hustle to the table.
Kevin and I have known each other for nearly a decade. I am a recently retired dancer and Kevin is my former boss. Over the years, we spent countless hours together in dance studios. We shared sweat, laughter, pain, joy, and frustrations. Most of all, we shared a passion for our then life’s work. During the past year, Kevin and I shared similar experiences again, this time completely independently. I believe these experiences involved a reckoning with our pasts, an evaluation of what really matters, and a taking of steps in new directions. Kevin and I recently got together for a chat to talk about his new role as Executive Director of PCSO, their exciting upcoming season, and life in general.

Can you tell us a little about the programming for the upcoming PCSO season?

The first program is kind of, I don’t want to say typical, but in some ways expected because it’s a program of Tchaikovsky and Brahms together. A soloist named Miki Sowada is coming. She is very interesting; she’s been traveling the country with an upright piano, performing her Gather Hear Tour. This is a classical elite soloist coming to play with our orchestra– the expected part, but I think she brings this a fresh kind of energy with her. 

From there, we have works that are new, that are put up against works that you’re familiar with. Violist Brett Deubner is joining us in November with two premiers that were written expressly for him. There’s a work inspired by the landscape from Tasmania and we closed close the program with a symphonic Leonard Bernstein West Side Story which is another kind of landscape. It’s the juxtaposition of newer voices in conversation with the masters, so to speak. It’s the kind of programming that I think gets people in the door, but also gives them an experience that is enlivening. 

What are your first impressions entering into the world of a symphony orchestra?

It’s interesting for me coming from a visual medium to go into a theater and say, actually, visually, it’s not what it’s about. It’s what you’re hearing. It’s a very different kind of state go into, but that makes the way the works are put together on a program that much more important. It’s one of the things that really draws me to this organization and to the leadership of Steven Byess. Steven has been music director since 2014 and he’s just so thoughtful and so engaging. You can really see in this programming the way he’s trying to create experiences that are free of pretension, first of all, which you know, resonates with me. Experiences that are, I keep wanting to say, enlivening. 

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Speaking of the lack of pretension, PCSO is known for having performances at a lower price point. Why is PCSO so committed to accessibility? 

I think we are an important part of the ecosystem. We have lower barriers, you know, our performance venues aren’t perceived as being elite in any way, shape, or form. The ticket prices are really very reasonable and that allows a family on a leaner budget to say “let’s go to the symphony tonight”. They can have an experience that you wouldn’t have just watching Netflix. It’s not as steep a price to pay as if you were going to one of the larger arts organizations in town. 

Although you have a net set of responsibilities as Executive Director, how do you feel you background will influence your approach at PCSO?

I think it is maybe interesting that I’m involved with this because I come from a visual background, a theatrical background. You know, the obligation of any theatrical experience is to justify taking people’s time. An audience is going to go in and be somewhere specific at a specific time for a specific duration of time. And we are in a very visual world. Our culture is kind of defined by visuals and we do compete in that world. 

We’re trying to think of what other aspects of the theatrical experience can add value to what is already a very high quality acoustic experience. We’re just still teasing out what that may be, but it is exciting to be part of an organization that is as forward-looking and as interested in breaking up what has been perceived to be the time-honored traditions, despite the fact that PCSO has been around for 40 years. There is very much kind of a startup mentality in a lot of ways. And I really liked that. 

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You’re very experienced with leading arts organizations but how do you feel your approach may be different in this role?

It’s true. I have a lot of experience in leadership roles, but never with bottom line responsibility for the business side. Many years during the time that I was leading Oregon Ballet I was kind of a de facto responsible person for that because I had to make the business run. I had to be sure that income exceeded expenses at a very basic level. I was involved in a lot of the operational areas that were crucial to our survival. 

You know, frankly, one of the things that I aspire to be is the Executive Director that I never had. I mean, there were just two Executive Directors over the course of eight years at OBT, neither of whom stayed longer than 18 months. Both of them brought lots of talent and some great energy. I had a great working relationship with both of them; in particular with Dennis Bueller who was so generous in how he shared what he did. 

I think I learned a lot working with Dennis, in particular, was the consistency, the longevity, the support. The muscle and the hustle. That never occurred to me, but, you know, that may be my byline for the next little while. I got have to bring the muscle and the hustle because it is crucial. 

Lastly, what are your hopes for PCSO in your new role?

I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get to know the people who are the prime movers here, the ones that have been expending a lot of energy to make sure that our organization will get to the next phase. 

Like every arts organization over the past two years, it’s been incredibly stressful and overall people are pooped. I bring fresh energy, I think, a fresh eye. I’m also bringing a theatrical background that is a pretty solid background in galvanizing people in terms of how they support. Turning that experience and knowledge towards this organization and, hopefully, bringing the benefits of that to this organization, to put it on a solid path. That is the ambition. 

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra’s season opens Tchaikovsky and Brahms September 16th featuring Miki Sawada. Tickets are available here and learn more about their entire upcoming season here.

Thomas Baker is a retired dancer living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He loves all things performance, art, and design.

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