Grant Cooper hit the big stage for the very first time as a very small guy.
The current maestro of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra was then age 4, growing up in Wellington, New Zealand. His mother would end up singing as a soloist with the New Zealand Opera Company, but before that she sang with a semi-professional opera outfit.
“Once, they needed a kid to come on stage,” recalled Cooper. “I had to shout, 'The bears broke loose!' It was before I could read obviously, so it's a line I've never forgotten.”
His stage chops have come a long way since then. Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Clay Center and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Parkersburg's Blennerhasset School, Cooper, 63, will mark 15 years of conducting the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra with a special concert dubbed “Maestro's Fantasia.”
It's Cooper's swan song in leading the entire orchestra, as he announced his retirement this past fall. In the upcoming 2016-17 season, he will lead four Symphony Pops concerts, while potential new maestros of the WVSO will take turns leading the full orchestra in what amounts to live auditions.
In a wide-ranging interview at the symphony's Wyoming Street offices last week, Gazette-Mail assistant lifestyle editor Douglas Imbrogno and freelance classical music reviewer David Williams talked with Cooper about his days as a trumpet star, just what a conductor does, the role of symphonies in the short-attention span digital age and more. Listen to a "Mountain State of Mind" podcast drawn from the interview lower down on this page or visit blogs.wvgazettemail.com/mountainstateofmind.
Growing up around musicians gave Cooper an ease and familiarity with concert halls.
“The fact I was at rehearsal and would walk into the orchestra pit and musicians would allow me to sit beside them, it all seemed very, very natural to me — like everybody did this,” he said.
His uncle was a seasoned trumpet player who mostly played dance band music, said Cooper.
“New Zealand had a tradition of working class people making music one night a week and going to national competitions and fiercely competing for honors.”
Cooper took up the trumpet and joined a local brass band. One Christmas, the present under the tree from his uncle was a trumpet. It came with strings attached. His uncle refused to give his nephew lessons until he'd taken two years of piano lessons.
“Which was a huge blow. I hated it at the time,” Cooper said. “But, on reflection, I think it was the best musical advice I've ever gotten.”
In learning piano, the sound, intonation and musical relationships between notes, chords and keys became evident.
“Getting a tone simply by pressing a key — that doesn't happen on a clarinet or a trumpet all the time.”
He also studied music theory, which was training that would pay dividends.
“That's something that doesn't happen a lot in America. A lot of kids start instruments but they don't actually learn the theory of music until they go to college. I was lucky in that I had these early influences, which included piano and theory. It wasn't just all about playing in a band.”
Having said all that, the teenage Cooper's sights were not set on a musical career.
“I never gave any serious consideration to becoming a musician for a profession, in part because in the country I grew up in there were very few opportunities to make a living as a professional musician,” he said.
“I figured I'd become a civil engineer like my dad. My dad was very good at mathematics. And I was pretty handy at it, too.”
But Cooper got picked to play trumpet in the national youth orchestra of New Zealand for a week-long session culminating in three performances. At the end of it, the tuba player approached him.
“I live in Auckland,” he told him. “There's a lot of work for young musicians and you're terrific. If you move to Auckland, you'll get paid to play the trumpet.”
Cooper was taken aback by this pitch to move to the much bigger city.
“Paid to play the trumpet?!” he said, smiling at the memory of that moment. “Amazing! I just simply never thought about that.”
So, at age 17, off he went to the University of Auckland. That was the last time he lived with his family. His parents had divorced at age 4, but university admission was free. That made all the difference in the world for Cooper, not needing to call on either parent for aid.
He eventually got a degree in Pure Mathematics. But it was a quirk of New Zealand's geography that would help propel the young musician a continent away to his musical future.
After the architectural wonder of the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973, great symphonies like the Cleveland Orchestra and New York Philharmonic began to make the long trek to perform there. New Zealand was about 1,400 miles from Sydney and was a good wayfaring point for orchestras on their way to the Opera House, said Cooper, “just to get their bearings before playing their important concerts.”
So it was that the young trumpet player got to hear Leonard Bernstein lead the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
“The last time a foreign orchestra might have been there, the Prague Philharmonic came through in the early '50s. New Zealand was that isolated,” Cooper said.
Hearing what trumpet players in a great orchestra and those on records could do with the instrument made his ears perk up.
“I had practiced and practiced and practiced and been very successful as a trumpet player in New Zealand,” he said. “But there were things I couldn't do on the instrument that I knew had to be done because people were doing them on records. Composers had written them. They must be playable. I just couldn't do them.
“So, that was why I decided I needed to come to the United States and really devote myself to just doing the trumpet.”
From Trumpet to Baton
If all you've ever seen of Cooper is a tousle-haired figure without an instrument, fronting the massed army of instruments that make up a symphony, know this: He was a serious contender on trumpet before turning full-time to conducting.
He landed on his feet quickly in America and his performing career took off, whisking him to concert halls from London to Beijing. After one performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London under conductor Claudio Abbado, he was invited to join the orchestra of La Scala as solo trumpet.
Instead, he accepted a fellowship back in the United States. That led to performances in New York's Carnegie Hall and at Tanglewood under Arthur Fiedler, where he also performed as principal trumpet under conductors Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, and Sir Neville Marriner, among others.
In 1982, he took a position as trumpet professor at the State University of New York College at Fredonia. It was a time of huge budget crises, said Cooper.
“They used whatever was there. They needed a conductor. So I helped them out.”
He conducted the wind ensemble and faculty chamber orchestra over a ten-year period. “For five years it was fine,” he said. “The second five it was scary.”
“Because I was playing the trumpet less and less and it's a very physical instrument,” said Cooper. “I used to say to my students: 'Morning, noon and night.' If you're going to practice three hours, practice three different one-hour segments, morning, noon and night, so that your body is used to having this beast attached to your mouth. And the response you need and need to rely on will be there if you have this almost constant contact.”
The trouble was, he was two-timing it with a conductor's baton.
“The more you conduct, the less you're playing, obviously,” he said.
He decided to get a job that was purely conducting. He landed a conducting spot at Ithaca College, a private school about three hours from Fredonia. Just as he earned tenure at Ithaca, he heard the Syracuse Symphony was hunting for an associate conductor, a job he also landed.
“I lived a double life for a long time where I would rehearse in Syracuse, an hour north [of Ithaca] in the morning. I'd drive back for a two o'clock at Ithaca College until four. I'd go back to Syracuse for that evening's performance and I'd get back by midnight. The next day, I'd do the same thing again,” said Cooper.
The orchestra program at Ithaca had two orchestras. “I was conducting five days a week there and I was conducting probably six days a week in Syracuse,” he said.
At some point, he felt he'd done what he could at Syracuse, conducting what is called a Group 2 orchestra, said Cooper. “That's a level below the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony.”
He realized early on that he would not be succeeding Leonard Bernstein.
“I came to be at the peace with the idea that I was not going to conduct the New York Philharmonic. It's just simply because I'm not working in that echelon.”
As the 21st century got underway, he heard about a conducting job in West Virginia. He considered his resume.
The West Virgina Symphony seemed like a good fit for someone with his experience, he said. “So I applied.”
A Positive Contribution
Just like the conductor candidates who will lead the West Virginia Symphony next season, Cooper had his own try-out concert. This was pre-Clay Center, when the symphony performed in the cavernous Municipal Auditorium.
Little known fact — if that concert had ended at intermission, Cooper would likely have been long gone and you wouldn't be reading this story today.
“I can tell you quite honestly that as of intermission of my concert I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to take the job if I were offered it,” he said.
And why would that be, as the symphony made its way through, among other pieces, Bernstein's arrangement for “West Side Story”?
“Because I found the orchestra — as hard as we had worked in the rehearsals going up to this period — was performing very inconsistently. I couldn't rely on something we had fixed in rehearsal being fixed at the concert.”
But after intermission, he led the symphony in the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. “And the orchestra really shone on that piece,” he said.
He was offered the job and accepted, lifting his baton the first time as maestro in Charleston on July 1, 2001.
“I wouldn't have taken on this job if I didn't feel I could make a positive contribution to the orchestra. I felt between the two halves of my audition concert, a sense of 'this is where we are.' Because we're only as good as our weakest link. So, that was a snapshot of where we are right now. The Bartok was a snapshot of what we ought to be attempting to do.”
It also helped that he could see the scaffolding of the Clay Center under construction. That promised an escape from the ... well, let's just say that Cooper chuckled when speaking of the acoustic “challenges” the Municipal Auditorium poses for an orchestra.
Plus, there was the outlook for a robust touring schedule, the possible return of opera pieces to the symphony's repertoire and a family series of concerts with a chance to reach out to young audiences. Cooper would step into that breach exuberantly, writing original works himself, such as “Rumpelstiltskin” for narrator and orchestra, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Boyz in the Wood,” for coloratura soprano and rap singer.
“So, I took on this job hoping I would be able to make a positive difference to the quality of the orchestra, which meant the quality of their music making. And to create an environment where players wanted to come to West Virginia and play in the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra,” he said.
“That was a very simple goal. And that's what I hope I've achieved.”
A Conductor's Job
But wait. Big, stupid, but maybe pertinent question for a general audience: what exactly does a symphony conductor do?
Cooper was game for the question.
“Most people who are generalists, who are not musicians, think that a conductor beats time,” he said. “And then if they've had a little bit of musical background that means that he or she sets the tempo. They probably see other gestures where they see, okay, he or she is addressing balances. Or encouraging certain things or discouraging certain other things happening.”
Cooper put his conductor's hand in the air, wagging his fingers, gesturing for more, and then flipped the hand over, calming an imaginary tempo or sound.
“It's important to realize most of what's important about making music is not written down,” he said. “Even though we have a notation system that is remarkably effective when approached in a musical way, it only tells part of the story.”
So, a conductor “creates a space” where all of these musicians — 65 to 85 instrumentalists, all of whom are highly trained and all of whom have their own opinion on how a piece should go — arrive at a combined interpretation of a piece, Cooper said.
“You don't impose your interpretation, I don't think. I think what you do is you discover as effectively and as quickly as possible what our interpretation in this hall, with this group of players, is going to be.
“There has to be a certain amount of understanding that this is a shared collegial atmosphere that you are developing,” he said. “That's what a conductor does. He or she creates an atmosphere where music can be made, where people who have played their instruments faithfully for 30, 40, sometimes 50 years, are being asked to become a part of a bigger hall than just the sum of 65 individual people. And they do it, if a conductor is doing his or her job properly, gladly and willingly.”
As for his most significant achievement as the symphony's maestro, Cooper broadens the question.
“It's probably not for me to judge the significance. What has been significant for me is slightly different. It's this: People say the same thing about my conducting as they used to say about my trumpet playing. Which is, it has got a beautiful sound — 'you play with a beautiful sound.' This orchestra has a beautiful sound.”
As for the future of symphony orchestras in an age of digital media and short attention spans?
“I think orchestras need to decide that either they have something worthwhile or they don't,” said Cooper.
“If they don't and they decide they want to survive, what are they going to do? They're going to try to adapt to the market. And they're going to try to become more like the things that you describe — the shorter sound bites, the whizbang stuff, the visual stimulation.
“Personally, born in 1953, I've reached a point in my life where I enjoy being not bombarded. I enjoy being invited to be reflective.
“So, I think symphonic music is the antidote — the perfect antidote — to all this other stuff.”
As for young people today, digital natives all, “I do not expect a 13-year-old boy or girl to be able to sit down to a Brahms Symphony and feel resonance with their experience. I just think it's a waste of time, like teaching pigs to fly. They can't do it and it annoys them.”
That does not mean that a symphonic experience cannot be crafted for them.
“We do a lot of concerts for young people and we do repertoire not only that I've crafted myself, but also for other composers of far greater merit. But we package it in a certain way that acknowledges that the students need to be invited to have some sort of doorway that they feel comfortable walking through.
“In my case, I adjust my expectations. I don't expect to play a piece like Stravinsky's 'Firebird' and have the students come away with exactly the reaction that I do, with my listening experience. I just want them to come away thinking: 'That was amazing! I want to hear more stuff like that!'”
It comes back to something John Lennon once said, remarked Cooper: 'Every child is an artist until he's told he's not an artist.'
“So I think there's incredible potential to open the doorways for artistic, reflective, constructive, critical thinking through art.”
Cooper added that if we turn our backs on something that is inherently worthwhile, if we only measure the “worthwhileness” of something by how much money it can make, “then what sort of world do we leave for our children?”
He let the question hang in the air for a few seconds.
“This is the very moment when one brings back the Winston Churchill comment made during the war, when he was asked why he was continuing to fund the London Symphony during the darkest economic days of the Second World War.
“He said, 'Well, if we give up on that, what are we fighting for?'”
Tickets for “Maestro's Fantasia” range from $10 to $60 for Saturday's 8 p.m. Clay Center concert. Call 304-561-3570 or visit wvsymphony.org. Tickets start at $20 for Sunday's 3 p.m. performance at Blennerhassett School in Parkersburg. Visit wvsop.org or call 304-485-4200.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com, 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.