Steve Zopfi knows he's scaling the musical equivalent of Mount Hood by preparing his Portland Symphonic Choir for their upcoming performance of Beethoven's magisterial Ninth Symphony. But harnessed to an increasingly accomplished chorus, 120 members strong, in a work beloved by singers and audiences alike, he's not afraid of free-falling.
The Symphonic Choir is collaborating with Portland Chamber Orchestra by revisiting Beethoven's "choral" symphony, the Ninth—perhaps the most notorious piece of classical music from the 19th century, if not from any century. "The Ninth is on that pedestal," Zopfi says over coffee, choral rehearsal pencil tucked behind an ear. "It speaks to a human experience the way that Michelangelo or Shakespeare or the Acropolis does." Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick certainly agreed, and used the Ninth Symphony in his groundbreaking A Clockwork Orange to eerie effect by making it one of three things—alongside naked women and violence—that Alex, his quasi-reformed protagonist, became incapable of enjoying after a potent bout of aversion therapy.
Talk about punishment.
There may be no violent droogs or gang rapes in PSC's performance of the Ninth, but there will be plenty of vocal fireworks and sex appeal of its own, especially in the infamously explosive "Ode to Joy" of the symphony's final movement. "I think it's taken me this long in life," 41-year-old Zopfi says, "to really appreciate the Ninth's raw power and sensuality."
In the four years since he was appointed artistic director of PSC—the Ninth was one of the first works he prepared with the chorus—a lot has changed. Zopfi has hired a core complement of first-rate paid staff singers, expanded the ensemble's repertoire and increased the overall size of the choir. Revisiting the work now makes Zopfi especially proud: It allows the audience "to hear how much the chorus has grown."
But with a work so popular and so frequently heard—KBPS reports it is their most-requested and most frequently played classical masterwork—why bother trotting it out again? Zopfi says there are always new things to discover: "Different ways of phrasing, of using the language. This is a perfect example of sublime music...it is that beautiful majesty of night and magic. Just to stand in the presence of the Ninth," he says, then pauses. "It reminds you why you're alive."