Professional violist starts orchestra to enrich campus education, serve the lonely

Cecilia Engbert
Assistant Editor

Music is everywhere on the hilly campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville. On weekend evenings, guitar chords or singing can be heard from the Piazza dei Santi; dorm pianos get steady use; praise and worship takes place weekly in Christ the King Chapel. But while there is an abundance of guitars, pianos and singing, people might ask where the other instruments are on campus.

That is what Stanley Konopka, the director and founder of the new Franciscan chamber orchestra, thought when he visited his children at the university.

“As I was with my children on campus, I saw — it seemed like — a very fully developed program in so many ways,” Konopka said. “But I didn’t see any developed orchestra program.”

As a member of the Cleveland Orchestra for 30 years, the assistant principal violist was instantly interested in doing something to bring his passion for orchestral music to Franciscan.

“I saw a very good sacred music department but I thought there might be something I could do to contribute to the mission of the school,” he said.

Konopka converted to Catholicism about 15 years ago and said his appreciation for the Catholic tradition of art has only grown since then.

Konopka said that when he travelled in Europe with the Cleveland Orchestra, he had the opportunity to visit some of the top cultural centers of the world.

“In all these places, there’s an incredible Catholic artistic and architectural presence,” he said. “You go into cathedrals, and just the churches were phenomenally beautiful, and it was Catholic.”

Konopka said there is a hole in today’s music culture and Catholics need to fill the void of emptiness and darkness that comes from it.

In spring 2021, despite some COVID-19 challenges, Konopka began a chamber orchestra at Franciscan, a program that allows a variety of instruments to be played together.

“I think Franciscan, being as significant a force in American Catholicism as it is — I think that we need to lead in regaining that culture,” he said. “Whatever we as a school, as an institution, can (do to) develop Catholics and develop their understanding and appreciation and ability to lead in knowledge and fine arts and beauty and expression — I think that’s a goal we have to try harder at.”

Not only is the orchestra meant to enhance the education of fine arts, but there is a missionary angle to the program as well.

Konopka said he wanted “to be able to connect the beauty of classical music with the Divine Mercy message — in particular, to bring it to those that are at the edge of their lives, like people that are in nursing homes and people that are in prison.”

While COVID made that difficult last semester, Konopka hopes to bring his plan to life this semester.

“The idea of beauty and bringing it on campus and then to immediately turn it into a missionary musical ensemble simultaneously is a big driving force for me because I love for … my students to encounter Jesus in the poor, in the suffering,” said Konopka.

“Our hope is to have an on-campus concert at the end of the semester and we hope to take a van or two and hit the road and go tour some of the nursing homes in the area.”

Konopka wants to see the program grow through the years and to challenge his students with harder work. Last semester, the orchestra had 12 performers; this year there are almost 20.

“My hope and prayer is that every year we’ll be able to raise that bar, to make it harder and harder to get into,” he said. “We’d love for it to really be a high-level ensemble opportunity.”

This semester, the chamber orchestra includes flutes, violins, violas and a guitar, with a hot search still on for a bass and cellos, Konopka said.

Students can enroll as part of a one-credit course or as an extracurricular activity. They are provided with around two weeks of individual virtual coaching with Konopka. Following that, they meet every Monday in person for a 90-minute rehearsal.

Their performance at the end of the semester will feature soloist Karissa Shivone, a cellist from the Pittsburgh Symphony, as well as two student soloists. The ensemble will be performing “Concerto Grosso” by Archangelo Corelli.

Students who are interested in joining are encouraged to audition. Some instruments may not be needed depending on the piece of music for the semester, but that is determined by auditions as well, Konopka said.

Konopka said there is plenty of room to improve the program and its mission. Music is a key part of building the ministry within the Church, Konopka said.

“We as a generation have to be transformed to help our parishes and help create music ministers that understand theology and understand what the Eucharist is so that we can get music that represents that,” Konopka said. “Part of the vision is to bring music and to make it more part of the chemistry of the campus.”