steven zopfi tackles 10 questions

what’s your connection to the oregon symphony?

I am the artistic director of the Portland Symphonic Choir which serves as the official chorus of the Oregon Symphony.  This is my eighth season with the choir.

the same choir that will be performing handel’s messiah with the oregon symphony this weekend.  how would you describe this piece to someone who doesn’t listen to much classical music?

I don’t know if words do the most famous piece of choral music ever written justice.  Certainly, everyone’s heard the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Well, the Hallelujah is just 1 of 49 other movements just as incredible.  And they range from the majestic, to the tender, to the most dazzling of vocal fireworks.  You just have to experience it.  As I said, words don’t do it justice.

for this piece, the program identifies the choral performers as a chamber choir – what’s up with that?

Well, the choirs in Handel’s day were much smaller than the average symphonic choir.  If we tried to sing Messiah with the full 120 voices of PSC it would be kind of like doing open heart surgery with a chainsaw – with similar results.  So we are bringing the chamber choir – about 48 voices.

what’s so great about experiencing classical music live, especially a choir?

There is nothing like the expressive power of the human voice.  Sir George Solti, the late famous conductor of the Chicago Symphony once said, the basis of all music making is the human voice.  There is something about singing that is both basic to the human voice and extremely powerful.  That is why some of the most profound music ever written is choral – Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Brahms’ Requiem.  Beethoven’s last symphony, #9, was complete without adding a choir.  And the voice is the hardest thing to record well, ask any sound engineer.  You just can’t get the full spectrum of sound you can get when you are live.  Even with the advent of digital technology – it may be cleaner than what we had in the past, but it is not live.

often you are not actually directing the choir during the concerts… how much collaborating do you do with the conductors before a performance?

It really varies.  If I am preparing the choir for another conductor, sometimes we spend considerable time looking at phrasing, markings, style, etc…so that I can communicate exactly what the conductor wants to the choir before he gets there.  Sometimes, the conductor leaves it up to me.  It just depends.

if you weren’t a musician, what profession would you choose?

If I weren’t a musician – hmm – well, I briefly considered medicine for a while. I worked my way through college as an EMT.  But it has always been music.  I suppose now….maybe a writer.  I love to write when I have time.  Any chance I could be a professional eater?

if i were to buy you a drink, what would you order?

Easy – Caffrey’s Cream Ale.

whoa nellie – you baroque folk are very specific about your alcohol.  anywho… what composer really rocks your world?

Usually the one I am working with at the time.  But, I have to say there is something special about Bach.  He is the only composer that I sometimes can’t listen to because I don’t feel I am worthy.  Not all the time, obviously, but there are times I put on the Orchestral Suites, or a movement from the St. Matthew Passion and I just have to turn it off.  If my head and my heart aren’t up to it, I’d just rather turn it off then listen or conduct it half-way.

wow – thanks for sharing that!  are you stoked by any non-classical music?

Sure.  My ipod is probably like most people’s – pretty eclectic.  I have a real fondness for some of the stadium bands of 70’s and 80’s – groups like Kansas and Boston.  Aerosmith is on there, Billy Joel, Amy Nialick, Nickleback, Radiohead, the Beatles, CSNY, Metallica, Rockapella, Frank Sinatra.  Karen Carpenter could sing the phonebook and still sound wonderful as far as I’m concerned.

i have to agree with you: there is something special about billy joel.  speaking of say goodbye to hollywood, any thoughts as to what sets the oregon symphony apart from other orchestras?

They’re good!  Seriously.  I think we tend to take our local groups for granted but the OS is getting a reputation outside of Portland and it is very well deserved.  This is a very good orchestra and they are right here in Portland.

amen to that, and thank you for some great responses!


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