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Here come the suns: David Cooper rides his horn from Lansing to Chicago

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Anyone who loves what they do for a living is lucky, but David Cooper is in a league all his own. In the darkest time of year, you couldn’t find a brighter beam of energy. The man is just lit.

In fall 2019, Cooper, a graduate of Grand Ledge High School and alumnus of the MSU Symphony, reached the very top of his profession at the tender age of 35. He was named principal horn of the Chicago Symphony, celebrated for decades as home of the world’s greatest brass section.

Athletic and intense, Cooper is not an armchair music lover, or an armchair anything. He first heard the Chicago brass as a teenager, while snowboarding down a hillside, his iPod cranked to Mahler’s planet-crushing Seventh Symphony.

Jazz gets him worked up, too.

“My first speeding ticket, I was listening to Charles Mingus,” he said. “I was just so wrapped up in the bebop I got pulled over. I don’t listen to Mingus and drive now.”

He loves to tell skeptical Uber drivers why he loves classical music. He doesn’t mind when they ask him what his “real” job is.

“Passion is contagious,” Cooper said. “Every time I play a piece of music I feel like I know that composer. I know their joys, their sorrows, their stories, their loves. I’m sharing these emotions that are still current today, in sound. When you share your love of something, they might love it too, for the same reasons.”

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Cooper came back to Lansing to spend time with his mother, Joan, who lives in the same house on St. Joseph Street where David grew up, and his brother, John. He reconnected with former teachers and old friends, basked in the old Spartan spirit and celebrated a grand new phase in his life over a raspberry scone at Strange Matter Coffee.

Enchanted forest

Two suns burn in the sky when we first glimpse Luke Skywalker at the start of the “Star Wars” saga. A noble French horn plays the hero’s theme as he bounds into the frame, setting the tone for the epic to come.

That did it for little 4-year-old David Cooper. His glowing face and golden horn were forever paired, like the twin suns of Tatooine.

“Those John Williams horn solos — oh, God,” he sighed.

Cooper has had some head-spinning experiences at the top of the international music world. Before he came to Chicago last July, he was the first American to play principal horn in the Berlin Philharmonic. He even played “Star Wars” with the Fort Worth Symphony, conducted by Williams himself, in 2009.

Last month, The New York Times heralded his arrival in Chicago as part of a new era in the world’s most celebrated brass section.

It’s an intimidating resume, but the only important thing to know about Cooper is that he would happily play his horn in the vacuum of space.

He did something close to that in August 2016, on a camping and canoeing trip with his mother in the Boundary Waters between Canada and Minnesota.

His brother, John Cooper, a brass technician at Marshall Music, salvaged a junk beater horn for David to take along. He took out the valves, reducing it to a rustic “natural” horn.

With no valves to vary the notes, it’s almost impossible to get more than a lovesick elk’s mating call out of a natural horn.

Cooper piled into the car with his mom and drove through the Upper Peninsula, beyond Duluth to points northwest. He strapped the battered horn to his canoe with bungee cords, took it into the woods and played to the deer and thrushes every day to keep his chops in shape.

While portaging his canoe, Cooper ran into a woman who got excited when she spotted the horn. He gave her and her camping companions an impromptu concert: the enchanted forest music from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Cooper had no trouble coaxing Mendelssohn’s trilling, gossamer melodies out of his old beater. Valves? Who needs them?

“You can do all that stuff on the natural horn with your hands, changing pitches and stuff,” Cooper shrugged.

Eye of Sauron

At 16, Cooper was already sitting in the first horn chair at the MSU Symphony, surrounded by college students. “He beat everybody at the audition,” orchestra director Leon Gregorian recalled. “He was so damn good. He never made a mistake. I’m not exaggerating. And he enjoyed every moment of a rehearsal, which is unheard of. Just to see how much he enjoyed playing was really quite a sight.”

But Gregorian terrified Cooper at first. 

“He has a very deep voice and this Armenian accent,” Cooper said. “I’ve heard since that he really doesn’t have the accent. He just put it on for rehearsals.”

There is a cruel vocabulary for screwing up on the horn. “You chip these notes,” Cooper said. “Horns are notorious for it. It goes ‘skee-yaa.’ The British call it splitting a note, the Europeans say ‘he kicked it.’” Cruder musicians call it a “clam.”

When he missed a note at MSU, the older players threw coins on the floor.

“Jeez, it was embarrassing,” he said. “It was like trial by fire. They were initiating me into the group. I learned real quick.”

But his experience at MSU steeled him for a lifetime of playing a painfully exposed instrument under the exacting eyes of the world’s top maestros.

“The one that was really scary was Jaap van Zweden,” Cooper said. The intimidating Dutch-born conductor, who was named music director of the New York Philharmonic last year, was the maestro of the Dallas Symphony during Cooper’s time there.

Even in still photographs, Van Zweden’s shaven head looms over the musicians like a glowering hunk of granite.

“He’s super-intense. He’s got these eyes that look through the whole orchestra,” Cooper said. “We used to call it the eye of Sauron. But Leon Gregorian taught me how to deal with conductors, how not to be afraid.”

“I just expected so much from him,” Gregorian said. “More than anybody else.”

Joan Cooper compared her son to a “wild horse.”
“Sometimes you give him free rein, but you also have to pull him in,” she said. She has seen conductors from Gregorian to Van Zweden to Chicago maestro Riccardo Muti take Cooper under their mighty wings.

“He was a kid you could teach,” Gregorian said. “He was not ashamed to say, ‘give me a little more time to prepare this’ and the next time he was perfect.”

Cooper got his work ethic from his dad, Kirby, a violinist who made his living as a landscaper and counted Gregorian among his clients.

“I saw my dad get up at 6 in the morning, go to work at 7 and get home at 7 every night,” Cooper said. “He rarely took a vacation. That’s the Midwestern work ethic. I knew that’s what you had to do just to make it.”

The horn component comes in part from Cooper’s grandmother, Marie Grasius, who 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.

David Cooper played his first note on the horn at the age of 4, in his grandmother’s attic. She dusted the horn off, polished the mouthpiece and handed it to him. He still remembers making that first sound.

After a brief flirtation with bass guitar, Cooper became a star horn player under Michael Kaufman, director of Grand Ledge High School bands from 1981 to 2008.

“We had all these farm kids in Grand Ledge,” Cooper said. “He would take the farm kids’ mentality and use that toward music. Mr. Kaufman made this amazing program out of a farm school, a farm community.”

Cooper also took life-changing lessons with Dale Bartlett, an unorthodox Lansing Symphony musician and MSU musicologist. They are still close.

Bartlett recalls Cooper bounding down the steps to his basement studio, eager for each new lesson.

“I’m not surprised he’s principal horn in Chicago,” Barlett said. “He has the same joy in playing he always had.”

‘I love it’

It’s hard to believe that Cooper ever had a dark period, but he did, after his father died in a work accident in 2002.

“I was not in a place to play the horn anymore,” he said. “I was having trouble dealing with the grief and I needed to take a break from it. At 20, I stopped playing and I never thought I’d get back into it.”

He worked as a dishwasher and prep cook in the tiny town of Fort Townsend in Washington. He got a job with the nonprofit Americorps, working on a land trust project that protects farmland and natural habitat by buying easements.

A Jamaican forester lived on one of the easements, taking care of the forest.

“He reminded me so much of my dad,” he said. “We measured and classified all of these trees and I felt like I was honoring my dad.”

Cooper was a hairsbreadth away from going into forestry, but a part of him was missing the horn.

“Imagine you’re missing an arm or a leg,” he said. “I had to get the horn back because it was the only way I could express myself.”

What he needed was a stack of music to learn and an audition to shoot for. He started with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and made it to the semi-final round. The near-miss gave him hope that the hiatus wouldn’t be fatal to his career.

He sent a resume to the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia, near Washington, not far from where many members of his family — his cousins, aunt and grandmother — lived.

He had a run of lucky breaks. The orchestra accepted his application, even though it was late. When Cooper showed up to board the ferry to Vancouver, the boat was full. There were 11 cars ahead of him, on standby.

“Because I was driving a Honda Civic, they squeezed me in,” he said.

At the next day’s audition, he played the best horn of his life.

“I couldn’t miss. I was in the zone. It was the weirdest thing.”

Impressed by the audition, the Vancouver maestro decided to overlook Cooper’s career detours and take a chance on a 22-year-old horn virtuoso.

It was his first job in a professional orchestra.

“I thought my playing days were over,” he said.

He tells the story, not to go on about himself, but because he believes the lesson is important for anyone pursuing a goal, musical or otherwise.

“I had to have this setback to realize — this isn’t for my mom, this isn’t for school, this isn’t for the conservatory, this isn’t even because I’m good at it,” he said. “It’s because I love it. This is all I want to do.”

Made man

In 2018 and 2019, after successive stints at the Dallas Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic, Cooper auditioned for the Chicago job four times and almost hit another wall. He had already devoted about nine months of constant preparation to the Chicago auditions. The relentless buildup was taking a toll.

“When you put pressure on yourself like that, and you get to the day, it’s really easy to choke,” he said. “You just want it so bad.”

He soared through all of the music he prepared for the audition. Then came the sight-reading part, when players are handed a piece of music they’ve never seen before. It was an obscure piece of Italian opera, Bellini’s “Montagues and Capulets,” with a big horn solo.

The strange notes danced before his eyes like jumping beans.

At first, “I just crashed and burned,” he said. “I lost it.”

Then his mind went back to lessons he first learned in Grand Ledge.

“Mr. Kaufman made sure I did sight-reading in high school band, but I confess it’s not my strongest suit,” he said.

To prepare for the last audition, he doubled down on sight-reading. At the final audition, they gave him another piece of Italian opera. He nailed it.

Then the orchestra went on strike for seven weeks. He knew he was in the running, but there was no definitive word.

When the strike ended in late April, the first rehearsal was charged with a mix of celebration and lingering tension. Chicago Symphony maestro Riccardo Muti gave a conciliatory speech to the musicians. The first notes the orchestra played, after a seven-week hiatus, would came out of Cooper’s horn, as he led the horn quartet that opens Georges Bizet’s “Roma.”

It wasn’t Cooper’s only trial by fire. That same week, the orchestra played Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” a spectacular showpiece that sets up its orgasmic climax with — you guessed it — a long horn solo.

Cooper longed to know how his trial-by-Firebird week was going, but he didn’t dare ask. He found out at intermission the next night.

A delegation of suits trundled backstage and informed him he was in. “Maestro Muti kissed me on both cheeks, like I’m a made man, like in ‘The Godfather,’” he said. “It was like, ‘You’re one of us.’ You can’t make that stuff up.”

Cooper grew up listening to recording of the Chicago Symphony in one of its serial heydays, with legendary maestro Sir Georg Solti.

Cooper’s predecessor as principal horn, Dale Clevenger, was, and still is, his horn hero.

“The things he can do on the horn — the time he takes, the musical expressions, the risks. He’ll draw a listener into the phrase and you’re speechless.”

All of these traits, and more, are blossoming in Cooper’s own playing. He has bound his electric energy into a dark magnetic field of control to devastating effect.

Last summer, just after Cooper joined the symphony, extra horns were needed to amp up the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

Clevenger, now in semi-retirement, rejoined the section as a sub.

“He sat next to me,” Cooper said. “I remember thinking, ‘How is this going to work? He’s a legend.’”

By the third day, Cooper got over it and realized that they both had a job to do.

“I’d say, ‘Mr. Clevenger, would you please play this note for me?’” Cooper said. “He was assisting me, holding my notes so I could really play.’”

One of the musicians commented that seeing Cooper and Clevenger sitting next to each other was like seeing Captains Kirk and Picard sitting together in the Enterprise.

Clevenger told Cooper he felt as if he’d gained a son.

“This orchestra, the horn section, is the envy of the other sections,” Cooper said. “They are the nicest people, they get along great, work great together, and they are the best horn section I’ve ever heard.”

Cooper quickly found that they also eat constantly. Second horn Jim Smelser, who joined the orchestra in 2000, is another hero of Cooper’s.

Early in his tenure, Cooper courted disaster by skipping dinner before the orchestra performed Verdi’s “Aida,” a long opera with two intermissions.

In the first intermission, Smelser walked by with a cheeseburger from McDonald’s and observed Cooper’s pallid condition.

Smelser went to the dressing room, opened his locker, produced a second cheeseburger and handed it to Cooper. Principal horn or not, things like that still put Cooper back in “gee whiz” mode.

“I thought, ‘Holy smokes, Jim Smelser just gave me his cheeseburger,’” he said.

Another nudge

In spring 2017, David Cooper was in Baden-Baden, Germany, doing an Easter festival with the Berlin Philharmonic.

He stayed in an AirB&B in a fairly remote village. A rare feeling of melancholy came over him.

“For some reason, I felt like I needed to go outside and play the horn,” he said.

He was missing his dad. He wandered into a thicket and played his favorite piece of chamber music, the Brahms horn trio.

Brahms wrote his unusual trio for his mother, Johanna, who had recently died. Her favorite instruments were the horn, violin and piano, so he wrote it for those three instruments, even though it’s a rare combination.

“There’s this eerie moment where it seems like his mother’s spirit almost left the body,” Cooper said. “The music ends with a celebration of his mother’s life, with these horn calls: ba-duuum, ba-duuum, ba-duuum. It’s joyous.”

The music always brings Cooper close to his father.

“Every time I play it, that third movement reminds me of his spirit,” Cooper said. “The last movement, for me, is a celebration of his life.”

Cooper’s father tended many flowerbeds, trees and bushes in greater Lansing, including Leon Gregorian’s.

“David’s father was a very musical person, although what he wanted to do and what he ended up doing are two different things,” Gregorian said. “That happens sometimes. But what he could not accomplish — that came out in his son.”

Two weeks into Cooper’s stay at Baden-Baden, he decided to try a pilgrimage to Jonannes Brahms’ house, which was not far away.

He knocked twice. No answer. He knocked one last time

“I heard the doorknob start to move and this lady asked, “What can I do for you?” in German,” Cooper said.

He told her he was a musician and hoped to see Brahms’ house.

“You’re a musician?” she said. “Then you must come in.”

The date happened to be March 27, the anniversary of Kirby Cooper’s death.

The woman showed him Brahms’ piano. He was stunned by the pictures lining the walls. A beardless Brahms? “He was smiling, he was with friends, like a normal guy!” Cooper marveled.

Among the framed items on the walls was a postcard from Brahms to his music publisher, with a melody scrawled on the back.

Cooper sight-read it to himself. It dawned on him that the haunting motif was from the horn trio — the melody he played on his first day in the village.

The woman pointed out the window and showed him the hill where Brahms used to walk and come up with his melodies.

“The exact place he came up with the melody for the horn trio,” he said. “It was like a visit from my dad. Uncanny. Full circle.”

Joan Cooper knows the feeling.

“When David was in the MSU Symphony, Kirby and I used to sit in the audience, and I’d keep nudging him in the ribs,” she said. “Now I’m nudging him again.”

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