An interview with Susan Nielsen, Oregon Symphony Director of Operations

by Tim Scott

In 1990, Susan Nielsen got “fed up” working as a legal assistant, and after looking briefly at the want ads, walked across the street from her office to leave off her resume with the Oregon Symphony. She was interviewed by Peggy Schwartz (then the orchestra’s manager) the next day, then by James and Ginette DePreist the following morning, and was immediately hired as assistant to the conductor and orchestra manager. After a few years, she became involved in producing concerts and engaging artists. Fifteen years later Susan is still happily producing, booking and sometimes creating the ideas for some of the Symphony’s most successful performances.

Although Susan likes to work behind the scenes, she often makes a cameo appearance at concerts as the voice that reminds us to turn off our cell phones. As one who prefers to leave the lime light to others, she was surprised when I told her I wanted to interview her for this Website.

Susan Nielsen was born in Portland, and raised in San Diego, where her father was in the Navy. Her mother and her grandparents loved classical music, especially opera, and she heard a wide range of music growing up, including The New Christy Minstrels, Heifetz and Frankie Lane. Studying violin in grade school didn’t work out too well, but when the noted Hawaiian musician Don Ho came to give a workshop at her school, Susan became the lead dancer. Another unusual foray into the performing arts which proved to be very useful for her activities with the orchestra, was Susan’s involvement in the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. Along with playing the parts of a ballerina, a clock and a Buddha in some of the tableaux that make up that event, Susan worked with the producer of the shows helping with lighting, costume, and many other aspects of research and production.

After high school, Susan attended Central Oregon Community College in Bend where she studied language, psychology and politics. After just a year of study she decided to make a living, and became first a Court Clerk, marking exhibits, swearing in witnesses and generally assisting the judge, and then started her career as a legal assistant.

Susan told me that she is happy her work at the Oregon Symphony has allowed her to follow her interest in the arts. She deals mostly with pops, specials, and the guest artists performing in these events. She has worked with a lot of interesting personalities, some with unusual requests. Almost all of the artists Susan has brought to the Symphony stage have been cooperative, and easy to make happy. At the top of the list of people she has enjoyed working with comes Norman Leyden, whose friendship, professionalism and musicianship Susan has admired for many years. James Taylor, Doc Severinsen, Tony Bennett, Lily Tomlin and Arturo Sandoval were also a delight to work with. Without naming names, Susan did admit that a few of the “stars” were rather demanding and hard, if not impossible, to please.

At the suggestion of a colleague, Tony Beadle, Susan brought the idea of the Gospel Christmas concerts to fruition some 10 years ago. The concerts, under the direction of Charles Floyd, have become the Symphony’s best selling event of the season. Both the high quality of the concert and the year–long community involvement make it her proudest achievement with the orchestra.

When Susan is not working she finds Chinese brush painting or charcoal and ink drawing very relaxing. She is also quite athletic, working out at the Princeton Athletic Club and cross–country skiing. Her tastes in classical music include mostly late Romantic and quiet impressionist music by Rachmaninov, Debussy, Satie and Ravel. The Doors, Billie Holliday and Miles Davis are also among her favorites. Her reading is somewhat unusual, as she mostly reads biographies of prominent visual artists.

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