CSO principal horn denied tenure

Tue Dec 06, 2022 at 9:41 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

David Cooper joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as principal horn in 2019. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is once again in the market for a new principal horn.

After being appointed CSO principal horn in May of 2019 David Cooper was denied tenure by the orchestra. 

A CSO spokeswoman would not comment on the situation, saying that she is “not able to discuss internal personnel matters.” Yet the CSO website clearly shows auditions scheduled for principal horn in April 2023.

Following a probationary period, all new CSO hires must be approved with a positive evaluation by the players’ committee before being granted tenure as a permanent CSO member.

Denial of tenure for a musician hired to fill a high-profile CSO principal chair is unusual but not unprecedented. Alex Klein was denied tenure in 2017 when he failed to be approved in his second round as principal oboe with the CSO. That situation proved contentious, with Klein threatening to sue the orchestra at one point. 

The current development is more surprising considering Cooper’s largely polished and impressive playing. After a somewhat shaky start, Cooper’s horn playing was strong and secure for most of his brief Chicago history, not least in the majestic performances of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony under Christian Thielemann in October.

The scuttlebutt is that the dissatisfaction came less from Cooper’s solo work than issues of ensemble playing and section leadership. For now, Cooper remains with the orchestra and is playing in the current program, which closes Tuesday night.

Cooper also won the position of “solo horn” (principal, effectively) with the Berlin Philharmonic but only played for one season in 2017-18. Apart from that season, he served as principal horn of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from 2013 to 2019 before coming to Chicago.

Posted in News


30 Responses to “CSO principal horn denied tenure”

  1. Posted Dec 07, 2022 at 7:52 am by WL Weller

    What a huge disappointment this must be for this young man and what a colossal failure on the part of the CSO. How many years did it take them to replace Dale Clevenger?

    I did not hear Cooper play enough to adequately assess his abilities (he sounded good to me), nor do I know anything about internal orchestra politics, but I have to wonder who will want to subject themselves to a grueling audition process and probationary period only to be dumped by an orchestra that frequently plays to a half-empty hall.

  2. Posted Dec 07, 2022 at 10:13 am by Tom

    It is Muti who should have been denied tenure, long ago. Muti has ruined the orchestra. Cooper is an outstanding player and this is outrageous.

  3. Posted Dec 07, 2022 at 11:15 am by RB

    Since the COVID period, I have not attended as many concerts as usual, but have enjoyed Mr. Cooper’s sensitive playing…and also enjoyed the charisma he demonstrated in his online presence. Just seems like a remarkable young man.

  4. Posted Dec 07, 2022 at 2:25 pm by Jburgdorfer

    A great loss for the many concertgoers who found his playing to be the finest French horn heard in many years at Orchestra Hall. A colossal organizational failure.

  5. Posted Dec 07, 2022 at 5:43 pm by Brad

    An utterly wretched decision on the part of the orchestra. DC is an absolutely first rate musician who brings his A game to every performance. The supposed issues of blend and ensemble playing are ridiculous and sound like half-baked excuses for why they did this.

    I sincerely hope he auditions again, wins, and is granted tenure this time. If not, the orchestra doesn’t deserve him. It’ll be a loss for audiences, but he will then land in a position elsewhere — hopefully at an organization that treats him with the dignity he deserves.

  6. Posted Dec 07, 2022 at 6:42 pm by Owen Youngman

    Hard to follow a legend, perhaps; this also happened to the first principal trumpet after Herseth, Craig Morris.

  7. Posted Dec 07, 2022 at 10:37 pm by KCT

    I go to almost every CSO concert and as a musician who played the french horn, I am of the opinion that David is one of the best horn players I have ever heard. What a shame and what a loss to CSO if David decides to leave (and I wouldn’t blame him).

  8. Posted Dec 08, 2022 at 12:18 am by Alan

    I too am baffled by this decision. I have attended probably 80% of the concerts in which David Cooper has played, and I found his playing consistently superb.

  9. Posted Dec 08, 2022 at 2:40 pm by CA

    I’ll just add my vote as one who attends frequently, and listen closely to not just the CSO but other orchestras in their home halls when I get the chance… and also has their ear to the ground in terms of what happened in Berlin and New York.

    David has been great. CSO is shooting itself in the foot.

  10. Posted Dec 08, 2022 at 4:11 pm by Disappointed

    Wow…having met David, he is a really nice guy and one of the best players in the world. I don’t know why they would not vote him in. It has to be some sort of generational disconnect between him and the council. He is a little silly (in a good way) and maybe that rubbed the older generation the wrong way.

    They’re gonna have to learn that you need to not take everything as seriously if they want this art form to stay alive with the younger generations…

  11. Posted Dec 08, 2022 at 4:47 pm by Ken

    David is both a wonderful friend and an absolutely amazing player. The audition process is flawed.

    This is a huge loss for the CSO. They will regret it eventually.

  12. Posted Dec 08, 2022 at 6:59 pm by Steve

    Politics in music is ugly business.

  13. Posted Dec 08, 2022 at 9:26 pm by EB

    Man, the CSO is a hard orchestra to love anymore. I’ve been spending my live music dollars elsewhere and feeling much happier.

  14. Posted Dec 09, 2022 at 1:24 am by Michael

    For what it’s worth, David Cooper’s denial of tenure had nothing to do with his performance this season and had been determined already. To include his performance at Bruckner 8 in this article as reason why he should have stayed on is careless reporting.

  15. Posted Dec 09, 2022 at 8:27 am by Vivian

    If this is an organizational failure (which I am convinced it is), under whose watch did this failure happen? Doesn’t the buck stop with Muti?

    Muti has truly overstayed his welcome in our city; years and years of stale and recycled programming, complacent performances, and questionable interviews (like the battle against “political correctness” and keeping inflammatory words in Verdi’s librettos). Maybe he should give fewer controversial interviews and worry about the orchestra more.

    Not to mention, what has Muti done for American performers? How many has he hired to sing his operas? I think if Cooper leaves, Muti should follow in short order.

  16. Posted Dec 09, 2022 at 9:20 am by Roger

    I find it highly ironic that the CSO could not find a way to disengage from a principal horn who spent the last ten years or so of his otherwise storied career ruining concerts, but they created some flimsy rationale for doing so with a principal horn who will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

    I have to wonder how the other members of the horn section feel about this action. If they were unhappy with Mr. Cooper’s leadership, that’s something I would consider a valid basis for the move. Otherwise…

  17. Posted Dec 09, 2022 at 11:13 am by Jeff

    David Cooper is an exceptional and charismatic artist whose playing elevates the sound of the horn section and the entire orchestra. Regarding the purported concerns about “blend,“ I think it would more productive if the current tenured members of the horn section looked in the mirror and hit the practice room, as I hear them dropping more notes on any given night these days than they used to leave on the floor in an entire season. And if being a cipher who “blends” were an essential requirement for entry into The Chicago Club, then the orchestra never would have hired Herseth or Still or Clevenger or Frank Miller.

    I guess the decision makers think they will find a better leader out there, but they are wrong. Given the departure of accomplished principal players in the recent past, and the delay the orchestra has experienced in filling empty first chairs, it seems that Chicago is a tough sell for the elite musicians of the world.

    Denying tenure to Cooper is a huge missed opportunity.

  18. Posted Dec 10, 2022 at 9:10 am by Bill

    David Cooper is a talented soloist but he didn’t understand what it took to be part of the “Chicago sound” and that sound is one of the things that makes the CSO one of the top 5 orchestras in the world. You have to be a team player.

    I wish him luck in his next orchestra or a solo career.

  19. Posted Dec 10, 2022 at 10:37 am by Chuck

    I strongly assume the orchestra has good reasons for denying tenure. For whatever reason, I’ve thought more than once to myself, during preconcert warmup periods, “this musician’s (David Cooper) affect does not comport with that of all other members of the orchestra. I’ve thought this only one other time in 35 years of attending many CSO concerts each season, and that was when a substitute principal viola from another orchestra was sitting in. During the warm up period she exhibited — in reaction to the CSO brass section warmup — a demonstrative facial expression of surprise and a body turn slightly to the brass section. The reaction was just for a moment and probably observed by few. Whether the surprise was due to the type of playing that she was not used to or something else I don’t know. I again thought, “this is not how members of this orchestra act.”

    The quality of the orchestra’s musicianship is largely maintained in the end I think by the orchestral members themselves. I am grateful for that.

  20. Posted Dec 10, 2022 at 4:37 pm by Charlotte

    I disagree, the CSO is not one of the world’s top 5 or orchestra because Muti has completely ruined the Chicago sound for something that is nor fish nor flesh. sad!!

  21. Posted Dec 13, 2022 at 8:09 pm by Randy Hester

    Wow. As a retired orchestral principal wind player, I’ve loved David’s playing ever since we bought a small getaway condo in Chicago in 2019. His opening solo in Galanta Dances was fantastic, and his playing in Brahms 2 with Blomstedt was absolutely beautiful.

    Makes us sad when we hear about these “not getting tenure” situations unless there is a sadly non-functional relationship with colleagues.

  22. Posted Dec 14, 2022 at 3:31 pm by Bob

    I see some reference to “the Chicago Sound” as a team player type of thing creating a blend. There hasn’t truly been a “Chicago Sound” in quite a few decades. That concept was built when the brass was relatively louder and brighter than the rest of the orchestra. There were soloists, Clevenger, Herseth, Friedman, Kleinhammer and Jacobs. Gingerich was a kid when he was hired, and Tom Howell was a phenom before he had some struggles that forced his departure.

    The idea that David Cooper doesn’t hold the stuff to make the Chicago Sound is hogwash. David holds the potential that Clevenger, Herseth, Kleinhammer and Jacobs had to inspire young brass players to play in more exciting ways, create new connections and bring the level of orchestral brass playing to new heights, perhaps bringing a renaissance to “The Chicago Sound”.

  23. Posted Dec 14, 2022 at 4:20 pm by Craig Kowald

    I met DAC at masterclass sponsored by The University of Washington a few years ago, and he was personable and engaging and had a beautiful sound on the horn. Sad to see this situation.

  24. Posted Dec 14, 2022 at 5:05 pm by MCarter

    One doesn’t have to act with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding is sufficient.

    Cooper’s playing has been the highlight of every concert as well as Batallan. They are both extraordinary musicians and artists who respect the Chicago tradition. Cooper has one of the most beautiful tones, is very musical and brings energy to every performance.

    The lack of leadership comes from Muti who knowing that the majority of the brass and the orchestra stand with Cooper and that he is one of a kind, makes decisions that not only affect Cooper but the CSO. And how can someone be in their right mind vote against keeping such artist in their section? Is it musical or is it personal? Can someone tell the CSO horns how good Cooper makes them sound?

    If what they are looking for is Dale’s replacement, Cooper musically is as good as Dale. Personally, he is obviously much younger than the entire section and didn’t go there to babysit them as Dale used to do. He is there to make music and he has done a terrific job so far.

  25. Posted Dec 14, 2022 at 6:14 pm by CA

    @Randy– right there with you. Hearing David play has been the high point of the week for me many weeks over the past 3 years. Whatever the issues are that prompted this decision don’t make it past the edge of the stage.

  26. Posted Dec 15, 2022 at 8:52 am by Leo Schwartz

    I have a series of tickets and sit in the Terrace directly behind the horns because, as an ex-professional horn player, I find the playing of David Cooper to be incredible. This is truly disappointing news.

  27. Posted Dec 18, 2022 at 3:18 pm by Ab Koster

    This is shocking and tells us more about the orchestra then about David Cooper who is known as an outstanding horn player all over the world.
    It will not be a problem for him to get a very good position in a first class orchestra.

  28. Posted Dec 20, 2022 at 10:33 am by Randy Wilson

    This is just heartbreaking. After years of hearing David lead the horn section with assurance and style in Dallas, I was thrilled that my move to Chicago meant I could also continue to follow his career firsthand. So many concerts this year alone have been distinguished by his incredible style and control as a soloist.

    I’m not as perceptive of any issues with blend, nor of course with any of the political background to all this. I’m simply disheartened that this is the direction things have taken for now, for this talented and charismatic musician I’ve enjoyed for so long. As others have observed, the future is also far from clear.

  29. Posted Jan 14, 2023 at 12:41 pm by Hank

    A colossal failure on part of the CSO indeed. Mr. Cooper being denied tenure is quite the head-scratcher. He brings his passion and musicianship to every performance I’ve heard him in. It’s almost as if he was born for this position. The CSO needs young virtuoso musicians such as David, and Mr. Batallán, to continue the quintessential Chicago brass sound they have been famous for for decades.

    Muti certainly has some pull under this decision. Goes to show the orchestra has been declining recently under his baton. There is a je ne sais quoi lacking under Muti, which makes the orchestra sound bored and uninspired. Go to a performance this season and you will see a sea of empty seats between white-hairs.

    The CSO needs new musical leadership and it needs to keep these young energetic virtuosos to fill the hall with younger generations of classical music lovers.

    David is a true artist on the horn, and if he leaves the orchestra, his absence will truly be felt.

  30. Posted Jan 25, 2023 at 11:35 am by Tim

    Having followed Cooper’s career for several years now, I can tell you that this is truly a loss for the CSO. Cooper is one of the greatest living horn players, and on top of that a very nice guy. He puts a lot of effort into his daily routine and staying in tip-top shape.

    If someone THIS good can’t retain tenure, then why would anyone want to pursue a career as an orchestral musician? The CSO might be searching for the “holy grail”, or another Clevenger…but the reality is that there is only ONE Dale Clevenger.

    There is nobody on earth more fit for the job, and Cooper will surely find success in another orchestra.

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