David Cooper may be the most spectacular case of “local boy makes good” to come out of Lansing since Magic Johnson.
Cooper, who grew up in Grand Ledge on the western edge of town, was named principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2016. He’ll get a grand homecoming as soloist with the Lansing Symphony Saturday.
The pinnacle of international success doesn’t seem to have gone to his head.
“I’m a huge Spartan fan. I’m actually wearing my Spartan T-shirt right now,” he enthused by phone from his newly rented flat, a few minutes’ walk from the famed Berliner Phil harmoniker.
Despite his exalted position in the world of symphonic music, he said it’s a “dream come true” to come back to the house where he was raised, on St. Joseph Street, near the “new Wal-Mart, although it’s not so new anymore.” His mom still lives in the same house.
“We used to grow thousands of chrysan themums and sell them in the front yard,” he said.
He produced his first horn blast at his grandma’s house in Lansing, when he was four years old.
“She got this French horn out of a closet, dusted it off, polished up the mouthpiece. Wow! Making my first note — it was incredible.”
Cooper’s grandmother, Marie Grasius, studied the horn after seeing John Philip Sousa’s band in Brookings, South Dakota, around 1910. “It was unusual for a woman to take up the French horn,” Cooper said.
When Cooper’s grandparents moved to East Lansing in 1953, Marie and her brother, Edward, both played in the Lansing Symphony.
“I still have a couple of old programs with her name and my uncle’s in them,” he said.
Cooper remembers listening to the radio in the car at four or five years old and falling in love with the sound of the horn.
“It could be heroic, soft, sensitive, sad, joyous, angry,” he said. “It just strikes this chord in my soul.”
Cooper’s pump was already primed with Wagner and Rossini music from Looney Tunes cartoons, but what really sunk him “hook, line and sinker” was the music of “Star Wars.”
When Luke Skywalker starts to grow up and face his destiny, a pensive French horn enhances Mark Hamill’s performance considerably.
“Getting to hear those John Williams horn solos. Oh, God,” Cooper said. In 2009, Cooper played “Star Wars” with the Fort Worth Symphony for John Williams himself, who was conducting a few feet away.
“It was my childhood dream come true,” Cooper said. Dreams that come true are a recurring theme in his life.
While still in Lansing, Cooper took life-changing lessons with Dale Bartlett, an unorthodox Lansing Symphony musician and MSU musicologist. Bartlett spiced lessons with nutty head games that were right up Cooper’s alley.
“He talked about a wall of masks, with every note having a different mask,” Cooper recalled. “He’d say, ‘take the mask for middle C off the wall and put in on.’ I’d imagine these fantastic tribal masks.”
When Cooper was 17, the Berlin Philharmonic came to Ann Arbor in the last year of Claudio Abbado’s tenure as music director. On the slate were Beethoven and Wagner, perhaps the horn-iest composers of all.
“Every sound was the best sound of that particular instrument,” Cooper said. “You could see that everybody was listening to everybody else. It made this 100-piece ensemble sound like chamber music and I didn’t think that was possible.”
When the principal horn gig in Berlin opened in 2016, Cooper was doing fine as principal horn of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Although he had already narrowly missed the Berlin position in 2013, Cooper decided it was time to go for the brass ring. He flew to Boston to huddle with a longtime mentor, Eric Ruske of the Empire Brass and Cleveland Orchestra.
“Do you want to go to visit or do you want to win?” Ruske told him. “This is the Olympics. The way you’re practicing, you’re not going to win.”
On Sept. 16, 2016, after the final round of auditions in Berlin, Cooper called Ruske.
“I tried as hard as I could, but I don’t think I got it,” he told him.
A few minutes later, they offered him the job.
“It was the best day of my life,” he said. If we’re piling up dreams come true, why not make it a Trifecta?
“I never, ever thought I’d be principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic,” Cooper said. “It’s such a long shot.”
But he broke some hearts in Dallas. “A player of satin-finished tone, astonishing breath control and elegant expression, Cooper has led the DSO horn section to new heights,” Dallas News critic Scott Cantrell wrote, lamenting Cooper’s departure as a “huge loss.”
Needless to say, Cooper’s life has completely changed.
“I was nervous at first,” he admitted. For one thing, he keeps on cheerfully saying hello, like a Michigander, even though people often reward him with a Werner Herzog glare.
But the Berlin players are not as stern and scary as you might imagine. A recent YouTube video shows the rest of the horn section looking for their new principal in the rehearsal room. Cooper pops out of a closet, wearing a cowboy hat and playing the John Wayne-ish Marlboro Man melody (“The Magnificent Seven”) on his horn.
They give him a hat that says “New Guy.”
Cooper really felt tight with the group when he played soccer with them on the Berlin Philharmonic’s recent Asia tour.
“I’m one of them now,” he said. Saturday night in Lansing, he’ll play one of the greatest of all horn concertos, by Russian composer Reinhold Glière.
He started to sing it over the phone. Who needs an Alexander horn, anyway? “It’s got all these gorgeous, singing melodies,” he said. “The first movement is very heroic and triumphant, then goes to this lyrical melody, like a lullaby. The second movement is sad and nostalgic and the last movement is this Cossack dance. It’s just fun to play and fun to listen to.”
Cooper has been nuts about the concerto since high school. “I played it a bunch when I was in Michigan when I was in my teens,” he said. “This piece has a real connection for me with Lansing. I couldn’t ask for a better homecoming piece.”
Lansing Symphony Orchestra
David Cooper, horn 8 p.m. Sat., Jan.6 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall www.lansingsymphony. org (517) 487-5001