A life in violin: Meet the concertmaster

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2011 - 3:25 PM

Steve Copes of the SPCO talks about famous teachers, desert-isle music and the ups and downs of being a concertmaster.

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Steven Copes practiced in a music room set up in his St. Paul home.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Steve Copes couldn't be more punctual, arriving at the stroke of 4 for our meeting in a St. Paul café. His stride is purposeful, his manner easy. He's not wearing a watch.

Copes' time-management skills should surprise no one. Concertmaster of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra since 1998, he may well be the busiest classical musician in the Twin Cities. He solos often with the SPCO, is a fixture on its chamber series and, absent a conductor, directs the orchestra from his chair. He's also heard locally with the five-member Accordo, a string ensemble that debuted in 2009.

He racks up countless frequent-flyer miles; his schedule this summer includes a month-long tour and stints at chamber-music festivals on both coasts. And Sunday, with pianist Shai Wosner, he plays a recital on the Schubert Club's Music in the Park Series.

Copes' world seems complicated but not daunting: "It's tricky," he likes to say. Unmarried and without children, the Los Angeles native shares his house in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood with two cats, Daphne and Cleo. He turns 40 in August. "I'm looking forward to getting past it," he tells me.

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Q Your ancestry is partly Greek... A My father's father was from Crete; his name was Kopidakis. He had a family there, then emigrated to the states and had a second family. His second wife was Russian or Romanian; my dad was the first of their four children. My mom's father was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey; his wife was from Romania. Q Were any of them musicians? A My mom's father played mandolin in Turkey and later had his daughters take piano and violin lessons. Go through my parents' old records and you'll see traces of his curiosity about music--he would underline the program notes. My mom has a good ear. And my dad, who has no sense of pitch, told me that his mother spoke ten languages.

Q Do you have that same facility for languages?

A No, but I do have a facility for impressions, which sometimes gets me in trouble.

Q How did you come to take up the violin?

A I have a vague recollection of my mom asking me when I was around six if I wanted to play the violin. It was probably what had happened in her parents' household; she had no idea where it would lead. At a certain point I played a little something on a TV show and met Robert Lipsett, who's now the biggest teacher in L.A. He took me on and became a kind of older brother. By 13 or 14 I wanted to go to Curtis.

Q Which you did.

A It was amazing. All that history, people I looked up to. Aaron Rosand was a great influence. So was Felix Galimir, a link to the Vienna of Schoenberg and Berg; I worked with him again at the Marlboro Festival. "I want to hear clarity, not schmutz," he used to say.

From Curtis I went to Juilliard, where I studied with Bobby Mann [first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet]. Being a nurturing teacher wasn't his thing, but he had a very sophisticated knowledge of music and communication. His lessons were at 8 in the morning -- there's only so much communicating you can do at that hour!

'After Juilliard I spent two years in the Colorado Symphony. Then the SPCO opportunity came up. It was instantly appealing to me; I'd bought SPCO LPs as a kid.

Q Do you wish you had more time for chamber music?

A Quartet playing has been on my mind since I was a teenager. It's still a dream for me. I kind of missed that boat. Learning that repertoire and working with that kind of intensity--I wish I could fit more of that in.

Q Does the SPCO have enough rehearsal time to accomplish what you want it to?

A There's never enough time. You have so much music to absorb, and too often you don't really absorb it. And the next week it's on to something else. I wish we could do less of a symphony-orchestra schedule, where you're playing a different program every week. There needs to be some reorganization, some different ways of structuring our season. We're discussing this.

Q Is there something of a vacuum at the SPCO when it comes to artistic leadership?

A It's difficult for us because we don't have an Osmo [Vänskä] or a Ricardo [Muti] who can articulate and advocate for the orchestra's artistic vision, especially outside the Twin Cities. I can't tell you how many people I meet -- classical musicians, orchestra players -- who think that Pinky [Pinchas Zukerman] is music director of the SPCO.

Q Are you what some people have called you, the orchestra's de facto artistic leader?

A I'd never say that, though I realize that because of our situation I'm often placed in that role. Still, I'm very ambitious for the SPCO.

Q Do you get calls from headhunters?

A Occasionally. I've had a variety of experiences in other orchestras. But there are so many things about a chamber orchestra that are suited to my personality and my playing. It's not that I don't like symphony orchestras; I think it's important to play that repertoire. We don't get to do Brahms symphonies with the SPCO. But I remember spending a week with a very famous orchestra, playing a Mozart symphony and thinking, "SPCO can sight-read this 20 times better."

Q You play a violin by a contemporary maker...

A: I played a [Guarneri] del Gesù for three years, until about a year ago. Since then I've been borrowing this fiddle and that, looking for an upgrade. It's been a bit anxiety-causing. This week I'm playing my 1997 [Samuel] Zygmuntowicz, made in Brooklyn. I'm thinking about getting another fiddle from Sam.

Q Does coughing bother you?

A Coughs have made for some special moments in performance. During [artistic partner] Christian Zacharias' first time here, playing a Mozart piano concerto, he got to the cadenza in the first movement and someone's cell phone went off. It happened right at the top of a phrase, during a pause. Christian just stayed there and let the phone go. He used it. That's poise.

Q Hobbies?

A I love to cook, though I don't do it enough, and to read. Also to travel. I did a big kayaking trip last year on Vancouver Island and was just on the Oregon coast. Being outdoors in beautiful surroundings changes the way you process information. I sat for eight days in a house in Vancouver and did nothing, didn't have my violin. It was scary at first -- just sitting and staring at an ocean for two hours is very difficult.

Q Who are the violinists you most admire?

A [Nathan] Milstein was a particular favorite--the way he can go from being incredibly dolce and calm to being almost unbearably intense. I love Oscar Shumsky--the sound, the intensity on his old recordings. Leonidas Kavakos is phenomenal. I've been hearing Josh [Bell] since I was a kid -- it's amazing that guys like him still come out every night and are really that involved. And there's my friend Leila Josefowicz, who's learning so many brand-new concertos -- no one's doing it with the zeal that she is.

Q What are your desert-island pieces?

A Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and a lot of Beethoven: the String Quartet, Op. 127; the Cavatina from the String Quartet, Op. 130; the Violin Concerto... I'll be performing the concerto in April. It's got everything. I don't know how so many scales can make so much music.

Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.

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    Saturday January 29, 2011

    Highlights in the education and career of the SPCO's concertmaster

  • STEVEN COPES: COMING PERFORMANCES

    • Jan. 30 (4 p.m.) - Music by Beethoven and Stravinsky, with pianist Shai Wosner, on the Schubert Club's Music in the Park Series. (St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, 2129 Commonwealth Av., St. Paul. $22. 651-645-5699, or schubert.org.)

    • Feb. 4 (8 p.m.) and 6 (2 p.m.) - Chamber music by Britten, Mozart and Brahms, with members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. SOLD OUT. (SPCO Center, 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul. 651-291-1144, or www.thespco.org.)

    • Feb. 20 (7 p.m.) and 21 (7:30 p.m.) - Chamber music by Schubert, Martinu, Kodaly and Mendelssohn, with members of Accordo. (Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Av. S., Mpls. $24-$26. 612-340-1725, or southerntheater.org.)

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