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In preparation for the 2024–2025 concert season, the Portland Columbia Symphony officially became Orchestra Nova Northwest. With the name change came a new sense of mission to highlight rarely performed orchestral music.

“Since its inception, the orchestra has had a mission to perform rarely played but worthy repertoire,” says ONN Music Director and Conductor Steven Byess. “If you look at a survey of 100 orchestras in the United States alone, you see certain pieces that are played with overwhelming frequency. It’s just unimaginative, uncreative, traditional programming. That’s not what our orchestra has always been about.”

Byess first conducted for ONN, formerly the Portland Columbia Symphony, in 2010 and, even after the renaming, continues to perform lesser-known orchestral pieces for his audiences.

With the hiring of Executive Director Kevin Irving in 2022, ONN has doubled down on that commitment by focusing its programming on new pieces as well as pieces by female and BIPOC musicians.

ONN’s renaming came about because the inclusion of “Portland” in their previous name created an expectation that they would only play in Portland. In reality, however, the orchestra regularly plays in Gresham, Troutdale, and Beaverton. ONN decided to rename itself Orchestra Nova Northwest, with “nova” coming from a Latin word for “new.” This, coupled with the fact that nova explosions are the sign of the birth of a new star, is something ONN believes will emphasize its focus on new and underplayed music.

“We don’t play Brahms symphonies, we don’t play Beethoven symphonies, we don’t play Mozart symphonies, we don’t play Schumann symphonies,” says ONN board member Ann van Bever. “These are pieces that the Oregon Symphony plays, and plays super well. There are a lot of other orchestras in town that play the standard orchestral works, so we’re trying to find a new place for ourselves where we’re not just repeating what other people do all the time,” says van Bever.

ONN begins its season on September 14 and plans to present two arrangements by black composer Florence Price. Price first came to public attention in 1933 after winning a competition that led to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing her first symphony.

“She won that competition and it helped her career tremendously, but she never made it through like her male counterparts,” says Byess. “Now people are discovering the music and saying, ‘This is extraordinary! Not just good music, but great music!'”

From September to May, ONN will perform pieces by new, underrepresented composers such as Anna Clyne, Caroline Shaw and Margaret Bonds.

SEE IT: Orchestra Nova Northwest at Reynolds High School, 1698 SW Cherry Park Rd, Troutdale, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 14. Orchestra Nova Northwest at Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, 12625 SW Crescent St, Beaverton, 3 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 15.