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David Ogden Stiers ready to ignite fireworks of the spirit with Pittsburgh Symphony

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

By Adrian McCoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The subject of his six-year tour of duty in the TV series "M*A*S*H" comes up inevitably in interviews with David Ogden Stiers, and he good-naturedly brushes it away like a pesky gnat. "You're going to say the M-word," he says as he sees the question coming.

These days, Stiers is much more willing to talk about another M-word -- music, specifically classical music. He has guest conducted numerous orchestras -- large and small -- across the country, including in Chicago and Dallas. This summer, he'll conduct an all-20th century program at the Ernest Bloch Music Festival in Oregon.

On Saturday, he'll be the host of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's "Soundbytes" concert. The season-closing edition is themed "Going Baroque" and includes music by Vivaldi, Corelli and the three Bachs -- J.S., C.P.E. and P.D.Q. PSO resident conductor Edward Cumming and PSO concertmaster Andres Cardenes will conduct.

"Soundbytes" presents classical music in a different way -- combining live orchestral music with drama, readings and visual elements. This is Stiers' second "Soundbytes" appearance: He hosted the series debut in November 1998.

Stiers says he happily came back for another edition because of the high quality of the Pittsburgh Symphony and the integrity of "Soundbytes," which he sees as a good way to draw audiences who otherwise might not attend a symphony performance. "It's not musty; it's not a museum. It really is the gathering of people to address something bigger than they are, and everybody wins.

"Fun can happen on the interior. Nobody knows about it, but there are fireworks going on inside your spirit when you hear a great orchestra playing great music. I think the preservation of orchestras and what they do is worth expending all the ways there are to reach out to people who might not otherwise go."

Stiers would also like to sell the younger generation on the joys of "real, organically produced music, rather than amplified music."

"You go to any cineplex, and the sound system is louder, faster, brighter, more digital. The simple act of sitting down and playing something enormously complex and spiritually uplifting on a harpsichord just bores kids to tears. There's no sizzle, there's no grab. But it's the great lesson of serious music, that it invites you to listen, rather than demands that you listen"

While many think of Stiers as an actor, he also devotes a lot of his creative energies to classical music.

What goes on in the smaller markets is equally as important as the big leagues, he says. "People ordinarily don't think of their orchestras as important as we'd like them to be. People don't care about their friends and neighbors who sit down to commit excellence three or four times a year, but they will go see the tall bald guy with three names from television."

Although he's done a lot of guest conducting, he isn't a musician. "I BS-ed my way onto the podium the same way everybody else BS-ed their way onto the podium. I admit it. They don't."

Best known for his role as Maj. Charles Winchester in the long-running TV series "M*A*S*H," Stiers also has a slew of serious stage and film acting credits. Was "M*A*S*H" a blessing or a curse for the actor? "It's a blessing to have done it. It's a curse to talk about it every damn day of my life. I think about it so much less than the people who watch the reruns. They know more about it than I. Life's ahead, not back."

Stiers hasn't left Hollywood to pick up the conductor's baton permanently. He's currently working on a short horror film called "Food for Thought." He spent the better part of an 18-hour shooting day last weekend "lying face down in a pool of Karo syrup blood, with calf brains spilled on the floor in back of me."

He's also cast in "Teacher's Pet," an upcoming animated series for ABC, created by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner (who were involved with "Cheers") and starring the voices of Nathan Lane and Jerry Stiller.

"I'm doing the voice of an indolent, overweight cat named Mr. Jolly. It's extremely literate and funny."

For the actor, doing just a voice is a great experience. "It's so freeing. You're free to arrive at the sound of the voice however you want to. The only people who know -- and they ain't talking -- are the people on the other side of the engineering booth. "

Performance time for "Soundbytes/Going Baroque" is Saturday at 8 p.m. in Heinz Hall. Tickets are $10-$49 and are available at the Heinz Hall box office or by calling 412-392-4900.

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