Much has changed in the 40 years since the Sinfonietta was first formed by Boris Sirpo in the early 1940s. Below is a brief history, as well as an update on the Performing Arts Initiative and plans to build a 600-seat performance space.
Boris Sirpo, born in Russia in 1893, started a music conservatory in Viipuri, Finland. During the Winter War between Finland and Russia in 1939, his house and conservatory were destroyed by bombs. He came to the U.S. with his wife and adopted son, 14-year old violin prodigy Heimo Haitto, at the invitation of President Herbert Hoover, to tour on behalf of the Finnish war relief effort. He came to Portland as part of the tour and settled there, becoming a professor at Lewis and Clark College and starting the Portland Chamber Orchestra in 1947. While on a visit to Hood River, he was taken by the beauty of the landscape and the similarities to his homeland.
He was also happy to find a community of Finnish Americans who had settled in the Hood River Valley, with whom he could speak Finnish.
There were a handful of promising young musicians in the Hood River Valley, and Sirpo was asked to give music lessons. With the talented young string players, there was a need for a children’s orchestra in the valley, which Sirpo started, overseen by the Hood River Music Association (HRMA), formed in 1942. Later came a senior orchestra, plus junior and senior choirs. Many children and adults participated in music in the late 1940s and 1950s, thanks to Sirpo’s efforts.
Sirpo had a dream to make Hood River the Salzburg of America, with music festivals in a beautiful setting. There were summer and winter concerts, and two four-day music festivals in 1948 and 1951. These festivals were held outdoors, behind the Hood River High School (now Hood River Middle School).
After 1951, there were no more multi-day music festivals, but concerts continued with the orchestras and choirs. The Hood River Music Association continued to organize concerts, even after Sirpo broke ties, reportedly due to salary disputes, and was replaced by a string of conductors, including Clayton Hare, Paul Bellam, James Annala and Anthony Porto.
Dorothy Lingren McCormick
Dorothy Lingren McCormick was born Jan. 7, 1929, in Hood River, to Oscar and Hilda (Hango) McCormick, of Finnish ancestry. McCormick began playing the violin at age 7, and she performed on violin at the San Francisco World’s Fair when she was 10 (Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939 and 1940 on Treasure Island). When McCormick was 13, she began to take violin lessons from Sirpo. She played in the Junior Orchestra that Sirpo started, and later was the concertmaster for the Senior Orchestra/Hood River Symphony. She attended schools in the valley and graduated from Hood River High School. Following high school she attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland and studied concert violin with Sirpo. When she was 20, Dorothy married her high school sweetheart, James McCormick (Brick), in Hood River in 1949.
While she did not continue on to a professional violin career, she taught music to students in the Hood River area until the time of her death. In 1970, McCormick and her family moved to the Portland area. She was active with the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, conducting different groups within their organization, and she taught many students out of her home. She pioneered the Mid-Columbia Sinfonietta in Hood River, that gave its first concert in May 1978. On Oct. 17, 2004, McCormick suffered a stroke onstage while conducting the Mid-Columbia Junior Orchestra at the Fruit and Craft Show at the Hood River County Fairgrounds. Following the first piece, Corelli’s “Fugue and Vivace,” she became disoriented and had to sit down before being taken to the hospital. She never recovered; on Nov. 15, 2004, McCormick passed away in Portland as a result of her stroke. She was 75.
At her funeral, a large group of violinists (students, former students, Sinfonietta members and friends) played the Finlandia hymn by Sibelius. It was a tradition for McCormick to play Finlandia at funerals in Hood River, and now it was her turn to be honored with this hymn. Her daughter, Karen, led the violinists at the funeral.
Mark Steighner, who was then music director at Hood River Valley High School, agreed to step in to lead the Sinfonietta in 2005 after McCormick’s death, under the auspices of the newly formed Columbia Gorge Orchestra Association (CGOA). The name of the Sinfonietta was changed from Mid-Columbia Sinfonietta to the Columbia Gorge Sinfonietta, to be more inclusive of musicians from throughout the Gorge.
“When I became the conductor of the orchestra in 2005, my immediate goals were to establish higher musical expectations and increase the professionalism of the ensemble,” he said in previous interviews. “We increased the number of performances to two for each series so that the hard work of the musicians would be rewarded, and we began doing full-length repertoire instead of sections or selections from longer works.”
When he started conducting Sinfonietta in 2005, the CGOA offered three Sinfonietta concerts a year. In 2018, the CGOA had 45 performances, including concerts and shows by the Sinfonietta, Voci choir, Jazz Collective Big Band and Stages Theater.
Steighner creates PAI
CGOA ensembles perform at various venues, including the Wy’east Middle School Performing Arts Center and Hood River Middle School auditorium. With the dream of building a new home for performing arts in the Gorge for local performance and to attract national talent, Steighner founded the Performing Arts Initiative (PAI) in 2016 and serves as board president. The PAI board of directors has completed a feasibility study, signed a land lease agreement and secured a $1 million donation toward the $25 million project, a 600-seat state-of-the-art performance space in Hood River, overlooking the Columbia River.
PAI’s next gathering of the Gorge Arts and Business Alliance (GA+BA) will take place at Kickstand Coffee and Kitchen on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. This will be another opportunity for business owners and community members to hear a progress update on development. Ten percent of all proceeds from the evening will benefit the PAI, a federally registered non-profit.
“The PAI has raised over $250,000 towards their goal of building the PAC complex on Westcliff Drive,” said Steighner. “Funds have been used to support a feasibility study by ECO Northwest, perform programmatic studies on the location by Surround Architecture and hire a Project Manager. We estimate the PAI will need an additional $500,000 to complete the initial Phase One of the project, including assembling a Design Team and hiring a capital campaign adviser.”
For more information, photos and video about the PAI, please visit www.gorgeperformingarts.org.
Both Sirpo and Steighner can be described as energetic visionaries who inspire; and both have focused on bringing in big name talent to play with the orchestra. For Sirpo, it was Ezio Pinza and other Metropolitan Opera stars, plus well-known soloists and chamber music groups like the Hungarian String Quartet. For Steighner, it is Storm Large, David Wilcox, Aaron Meyer and others.
Additionally, Sirpo had plans in 1963 to build a 4,000-6,000 seat amphitheater near Sherwood, while Steighner and PAI are working on building a new state-of-the-art performing arts center overlooking the Columbia River in Hood River. That is the future of Sinfonietta and other performing arts in the Gorge.