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New Berlin Philharmonic principal hornist got boost in Philadelphia

David Cooper, a Curtis alumnus, won the audition Friday to be principal hornist with the Berlin Philharmonic.
David Cooper, a Curtis alumnus, won the audition Friday to be principal hornist with the Berlin Philharmonic.Read moreMARK KITAOKA

The new principal hornist of the Berlin Philharmonic is a 32-year-old alum of the Curtis Institute of Music.

David Cooper, principal hornist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 2013, won the Berlin audition Friday and expects to take up the position officially in September. He will be the first American principal wind player in that orchestra, said a Berlin Philharmonic spokeswoman.

Cooper said Sunday he was "over the moon" about the new post. "I assumed because I was an American I didn't have a chance," said the hornist, born in Lansing, Mich., who left Curtis in 2004 after studying there for a year and a half with Jerome Ashby. "I assumed it was a one-in-a-million shot. But I also feel, as Americans, we have an advantage because we're raised to think we can do anything you can put your mind to."

Cooper started putting his mind to it when he was 16, when he heard the Berlin Philharmonic led by Claudio Abbado in Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan. "I remember seeing that concert – they did Beethoven, and it blew me away. It was like time stopped," he said. "I heard the loudest loud, the softest soft, and all of the colors in between, and the orchestra played as one instrument. I said, 'This is what I want to do with my life – I want to play in the Berlin Philharmonic.' "

Here is a video of David Cooper playing Robert Schumann's Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano, Op. 70:

Cooper comes from a family of musicians. His grandmother Helen Marie Grafius took up the French horn after the John Philip Sousa band came to her elementary school, and she saved up money to buy a Conn 1939 model 6D. It ended up becoming Cooper's first horn, and she paid for his lessons.

He credits Eric Ruske from Boston University for helping him win the position. "It's not only like he's my teacher – he's like my second father. I've known him since I was 16, and we talk at least once a week." He had a lesson with Ruske in October, and his mentor asked, "Did I want to just go to the Olympics, or go to the Olympics and win?"

He ascribed part of his success to Curtis, and to Marlboro Music, where he was in residence in the summers of 2011-2013. "It's been a huge support to know that, because I am part of that family, there are people who care about me. After I won the audition, Yuja Wang was there. She had another concert, and it's like we're there, and Curtis is throughout the world and on top of the world, and I'm so grateful to be one of them."

Preparing for the Berlin audition involved more than extra practicing. Cooper, who joined the Dallas Symphony in 2011 as third horn, played about 10 recitals all around the country – some in restaurants and churches – but not to get the notes down. "It wasn't about a perfect performance or making no mistakes. It was about learning to communicate," he said. "We communicate through sound, and you realize you can touch people in a way that words can't reach."

He also figured he needed a new horn to win the job. Cooper played an American S.W. Lewis horn. The eight-member horn section in Berlin, which includes one other principal, plays Alexander horns, which are German. So he got an Alexander.

"It was funny – when I started playing it, I thought I would not like it, but everyone in the [Dallas Symphony] orchestra heard a difference in my sound. Jaap [van Zweden, the music director] said he loved it, and the concertmaster said it had the ability to blend with the woodwinds and soar when you needed it to. The other horn players said I sounded more comfortable with it."

He picked up one other lift before the audition – in Philadelphia. He played substitute principal horn with the Philadelphia Orchestra a few weeks ago when it performed Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. "Playing with Philadelphia really inspired me to turn up the gas. Yannick said, 'I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of each other,' and that gave me a huge boost."

The audition started with Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 4, for which Cooper wrote his own cadenza. Two hours later, the audition committee said it wanted to hear him again. Then the Strauss Concerto No. 1, the "long call" horn solo from Wagner's Siegfried, and excerpts from Brahms' Symphony No. 3, Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, and Strauss' Ein Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel.

The excerpt from Till ended on a high C – "and it rang through the Philharmonie, and I felt like, OK, I left them with what I could do. The principal oboist, Albrecht Mayer, came out and gave me a fist bump and said, 'Merry Christmas, you're the new principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic.' He gave me this big hug and lifted me off the ground so high, my feet were dangling. I will never forget that moment my whole life."