Mark Steighner conducts a musical culture in the Columbia Gorge

by Drew Myron

For 35 years, Mark Steighner worked as a music teacher in Hood River. Now in his “retirement”, he serves as artistic director and conductor for the Columbia Gorge Orchestra Association.

It’s countdown to curtain, and Mark Steighner is calm. After weeks of preparation, a snowstorm has cancelled the Brahms concert. Undaunted, he moves onto next week’s show—a collection of community choirs—then dives into rehearsals for a musical opening in two weeks.

“Just two weeks,” he reminds the nervous actors, though there is little alarm in his tone.

With his soft eyes, slow voice and relaxed style, bystanders wouldn’t know this is the commanding force behind nearly every music performance in the Columbia River Gorge.

Mark has composed, written and directed more than 65 theater productions, worked as a school music teacher for 35 years, and serves as the artistic director, conductor and composer for one of the oldest and longest-running community orchestras in Oregon. If you have attend a music performance in Hood River, there is a good chance Mark is at the podium or in the wings.

The Columbia Gorge Orchestra Association is the umbrella organization for the Sinfonietta Orchestra, Voci Choir, Jazz Collective Big Band and Stages Repertory Theatre. Mark leads them all.

When he took the baton as artistic director in 2005, CGOA offered three concerts a year. In 2018, there were 45.

“There’s an amazing amount of culture, arts and performance in the area,” Mark says.

CGOA has more than 200 musicians, from singers to instrumentalists.

“I keep adding,” Mark says. “I think, ‘We ought to do this, we ought to add that.’”

Mark is in rehearsals five nights a week and just added another group to the mix. This spring, he will debut the Choral Union Choir through Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles, where he teaches music theory. The choir is open to students, staff and the general public.

Mark spends nearly every evening in music rehearsals, earning praise from singers who call him a visionary with “a mixture of genius and grace.”

Raised in Redondo Beach, California, Mark attended University of California at Santa Barbara, where he earned a degree in music with an emphasis on composition. Wanting to escape the fast pace of the city, in 1979 he landed a teaching job at Wy’East Middle School and moved to Parkdale.

With roots in teaching—his father was a high school English teacher and his mother a grade school teacher—Mark established his own teaching niche and put his skills to work at Hood River Valley High School, where he was the choral and instrumental music director for more than 30 years.

During his time at HRVHS, Mark and his students made 10 performance tours in England, commissioned more than 30 works from noted composers and took part in dozens of state music competitions. In 2015, he received the Outstanding Educator of the Year award from the Oregon Music Educators Association.

“I really feel a sense of responsibility as a musician and educator to keep our culture alive,” Mark says. “We’re quickly losing the culture that is shared and that is understood. It’s important to preserve, to keep the arts alive.”

The musicians agree.

Members of the Voci choir, pictured here in rehearsal, frequently perform songs Mark composed.

“CGOA is, in my estimation, the best avenue in the Gorge for artistic expression and inspiration,” says Elaine Thompson, who serves on the CGOA board and sings in the Voci Choir. “Mark is a mixture of genius and grace. Not a night passes at Voci practice that I am not amazed by his depth of musical knowledge and skills. Everyone in CGOA has a great respect and almost awe for Mark. He wears many hats, never seems to run out of enthusiasm for the arts and is a true visionary.”

Mark’s latest vision may be his biggest: a 600-seat professional performing arts center overlooking the Columbia River.

“All the venues in the Gorge are deficient,” he says, citing small stages, limited seating and scheduling restrictions.

CGOA concerts are held in a variety of places, such as Wy’east Middle School Performing Arts Center, Hood River Middle School and local churches. Mark envisions a home for performing arts that will accommodate local performances and attract national talent.

To bring his vision to reality, in 2016 he founded the Performing Arts Initiative and assembled a board of directors to steer efforts to create a cultural showcase. The board consists of Columbia Gorge educators, business owners, and tech and art professionals. The group has completed a feasibility study, signed a land lease agreement and secured a $1 million donation toward the $25 million project.

Mark sees a sweeping masterpiece: a state-of-the-art facility that will turn the Gorge into an epicenter for the performing arts.

“This will be a landmark identity for the community,” he says.

For more information about the Columbia Gorge Orchestra Association, go to www.gorgeorchestra.org. For more information about the Performing Arts Initiative, go to www.gorgeperformingarts.org.