What To Know About Dr. Justin Knoepfel Posted on October 18th, 2023 by

Dr Justin Knoepfel became the conductor of the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra very suddenly.

He had already conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra for 10 years when the then-GSO conductor left for another position. During a year-long fill-in period, he discovered that it had been a missing piece in his musical career. Now, his recently announced appointment means he’ll be conducting Gustavus’s premiere orchestra full time.

Dr Knoepfel loves how the orchestral format enables him to closely collaborate with students. “I think being able to come together and tackle something, whether that’s a piece or a concert, is highly rewarding,” Knoepfel said. “I’ve been playing in orchestras almost my entire life, and I’m just drawn to it. And really, what it comes down to for me, it’s the students and their focus.”

Knoepfel exited college without a clear path of what he wanted to do. Without a job lined up, he continued playing the violin. Upon a teacher’s suggestion, he took to practicing viola as well. Playing the C string for the first time, Knoepfel realized that he had a passion for all different kinds of music, and not just his violin performance.

After he spent a year as a traveling accountant, of all things, Knoepfel attended the University of Minnesota, where he obtained his master’s and doctorate degrees in viola performance. He got a call from then-Gustavus Music Chair Michael Jorgensen, who asked if he would be interested in teaching adjunct viola lessons.

During this first assignment, he had a grand total of three students. Eventually, Knoepfel slowly worked his way up. He conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra and also taught several courses in Music Theory and History. Six years later, after a nerve-wracking application process, Knoepfel was formally tenured as a professor at Gustavus.

As Chair of the Music Department and Conductor of GSO, Knoepfel is eager to expand the repertoire and the resume of the Orchestra. “I want to do away with the idea that the Orchestra is a sort of country club,” Knoepfel said. “A lot of things are on the table. Someday, recording an album and commissioning it could be great.”

Knoepfel can now be found working diligently to ensure that GSO remains a place where people love being involved. He hopes to recruit new musicians with an eye toward three-to-four years from now, and not just in the immediate present, so that Gusties can love playing in GSO in the far future. (And maybe, just maybe, the Orchestra’s reputation will grow even bigger!).

Knoepfel wants a GSO that has a place for absolutely everybody. He wants students to have an opportunity to pair it with the Jazz Band, the Gustavus Choir, or any other musical opportunity they seek. “This is the liberal arts,” he said. “I would love to continue to expand and have the leeway to do that.”

There is an expressive excitement and a regimen for maintaining rhythm in Knoepfel’s work. He also hopes to debunk the myth that classical music is boring and posh. “Getting past that is a very important idea for a conductor to portray,” he said. “It’s also a good thing for an orchestra to portray. From a fundamental, technical perspective, I would love to be more proficient in finding out what makes every instrument tick.”

Are you reluctant about joining GSO? Do you play an orchestral instrument? Fear not, for GSO is a very welcoming group. “Come find me and talk to me! Do a rehearsal! Don’t be scared, because we are hopefully chill enough where you can be at ease,” Knoepfel said. “Whether we want to accomplish one thing or another, there is a place for you.”

Knoepfel encourages students to seize the opportunity to not just participate in GSO, but in any other ensemble. “We are all here together to try and accomplish something that really can be greater than ourselves,” he said. “That’s the great thing about even small ensembles. We are all making music together, and that is incredibly exciting.”


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