During a ceremony on Thursday, April 27, Fairmont State University awarded Maestro Grant Cooper, Conductor and Artistic Director of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra since 2001, an honorary Doctor of Letters degree, the University’s highest honor.
Preceding the second half of the orchestra’s concert at Fairmont State’s Colebank Hall, Dr. Maria Rose, the University’s president, conferred upon Maestro Cooper the honorary doctorate given in recognition of outstanding contributions to the educational mission of the institution. Normally honorary doctorates are conferred at Commencement, but scheduling did not allow that in this case so a special ceremony was planned in Cooper’s honor.
The WVSO, led by Maestro Cooper, has played two concerts per year at Fairmont State since 2003. Over the years, Cooper has been a regular lecturer in the Department of Music. He has taught classes for majors, met with Music Appreciation students for informal discussions and delivered special humanities lectures for the University and Fairmont community. His original music for Young People’s Concerts is studied in classes for Elementary Education majors, and the repertoire for the WVSO’s on-campus concerts is central in Music Appreciation classes. His piece for solo flute was featured in the inaugural season of the Department’s West Fork Festival of New Music.
Dr. Anne Patterson, Coordinator of the Department of Music, nominated Cooper for the special honor.
“Aside from his exquisite musicianship, the thing I appreciate most about Maestro Cooper is that he makes no cultural assumptions about which music will speak to certain populations. Working together, we have shown year after year that students with no previous experience with orchestral masterworks are enthralled by live performance. Some have even said that studying this music has changed their lives. That’s powerful,” Patterson said.
Earlier in his career, Cooper taught at the State University of New York for 11 years before taking a position as director of orchestras at Ithaca College, where he served for a further 10 years. He resigned his full professorship at Ithaca College in order to take his position with the WVSO, but he has remained a committed teacher as exemplified by his multi-year close involvement with classes taught at Fairmont State’s Music Department. By linking the classes he has taught at FSU with concerts given by the WVSO, Cooper has been able to address an extremely wide range of topics, driven by the cultural and historical context of the orchestra’s repertoire and its profound connection to language and sociological trends.
“The core meaning of the word ‘maestro’ is teacher. I am both honored and thrilled to have been recognized by Fairmont State University for my efforts in education on behalf of the WVSO. I've always felt a strong affinity for teaching, having spent the first 21 years of my adult career as a university professor. It seemed only natural that I would continue this work while serving as artistic director of the WVSO,” Cooper said.
“The West Virginia Symphony is thrilled that Fairmont State University has chosen to honor Maestro Cooper with this special recognition. His work at Fairmont serves as an example of the work he has done throughout the state of West Virginia, making music more accessible to audiences of all ages. His commitment to education is the crowning achievement of his tenure with the orchestra, and Fairmont State has chosen well to honor his work,” said Joe Tackett, President of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
Grant Cooper, Artistic Director and Conductor of the WVSO, was named to the position in March 2001, and officially began his duties as the ninth conductor in the WVSO’s history on July 1, 2001. From 1997-2007, Cooper served as Resident Conductor of the Syracuse Symphony, appearing to critical acclaim on all the major series. In November 2016, Cooper gave his 750th performance with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. During the summer, Cooper is Artistic Director of the Bach and Beyond Festival in Fredonia, N.Y., and serves as a resident conductor at the Eastern Music Festival.
Cooper was born in Wellington, New Zealand; his mother was a soloist with the New Zealand Opera Company. He sang and acted in his first opera at age 4, and he studied piano and music theory prior to college. After completing his degree in Pure Mathematics at the University of Auckland, his performing career took him to many of the major concert halls of the world from Beijing to London. Following a performance at the Henry A. Wood Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall under conductor Claudio Abbado, Cooper was invited by Maestro Abbado to join the orchestra of La Scala as solo trumpet. Instead, Cooper accepted a fellowship from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council for study with Bernard Adelstein and Gerard Schwarz in the United States. This, in turn, 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.
Cooper was conductor of the XIVth Commonwealth Games closing ceremonies, appearing with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as soloist. In Europe, his engagement as guest conductor for the Mozart Wochen of the Heidelberger Schlossfestspiele prompted high critical praise. His appearances with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra have generated considerable enthusiasm and acclaim across the whole gamut of programs, showing his deep affinity for repertoire of enormous stylistic range. Cooper’s collaborations with artists such as Hilary Hahn, Midori, Elmar Oliviera and Deborah Voigt have, similarly, prompted critical praise for his skills as an accompanist.
In past seasons, Cooper has appeared regularly as guest conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestras of Buffalo and Rochester. In recent years he has made his debuts with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Spokane Symphony, the New Mexico Philharmonic, the Kansas City Symphony, as well as with the Stamford (Conn.), Modesto and Pasadena (Calif.), and Youngstown (Ohio) Symphony Orchestras. He returned to New Zealand to conduct the millennium celebrations there with the Auckland Philharmonica. He appeared as guest conductor of Ottawa’s Thirteen Strings for many seasons and conducted several engagements with Syracuse Opera, including Così fan Tutte, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. With the WVSO, Cooper’s operatic repertoire has also included Tosca, Carmen and La Bohème.
In 2008, Cooper made successful debut appearances with the Jacksonville (Fla.), Elgin (Ill.), and Wichita (Kansas) Symphony Orchestras. In the summer of that year, he conducted two evenings of ballet at New York’s Chautauqua Institution featuring North Carolina Dance Theatre’s recreations of George Balanchine’s choreography, as well as making his debut with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on its symphonic season. He has returned to Chautauqua as a guest conductor in each subsequent season. In 2010, Cooper conducted the premiere of his ballet, On the Appalachian Trail at Chautauqua, featuring the North Carolina Dance Theater and original choreography by Mark Diamond.
In the calendar year 2013, Cooper traveled to New Zealand on four occasions to conduct the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a national tour of a newly commissioned work by composer Gareth Farr for orchestra and theater ensemble, titled Sky Dancer. Also in 2013, Cooper made his debut conducting the Kennedy Center Opera and Ballet Orchestra.
In their March 2009 Pops concerts, the WVSO premiered Cooper’s original scores for two Charlie Chaplin films: The Immigrant and Easy Street. Cooper’s original concert work for soprano and orchestra entitled A Song of Longing, Though…, with poetry by Tom Beal, was premiered by the orchestra in April 2007 and was performed by the Chautauqua Symphony in 2010. Cooper was awarded the National Symphony Orchestra Chamber Music Commission following competitive adjudication as part of the 2010 American Residency program of the NSO. His new work, Octagons, was premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in May 2012 and was included in the following season’s concerts by the Montclaire String Quartet.
Cooper is especially passionate about creating original music designed to introduce young audiences to the orchestra, including works such as Rumpelstiltzkin for narrator and orchestra, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Boyz in the Wood, for coloratura soprano and rap singer, and Song of the Wolf, for folk singer, fiddler, vocal soloists, and orchestra. His educational music is an eclectic blend of modern and established styles with interactive participation of the audience, a compositional style that reflects his belief that orchestral music is a living, vital, and relevant part of our society, able to be appreciated by all.
Cooper’s first arrangement for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, Take Me Home, Country Roads, was premiered at Symphony Sunday in June 2002, and has found a permanent place in the orchestra’s repertoire. Further arrangements celebrating our Appalachian heritage and the WVSO’s role in honoring our shared cultural values include West Virginia’s Home to Me and The West Virginia Hills. Many of these works are featured on an audio CD released in the spring of 2011 titled Tales from the West Virginia Hills. The WVSO also released a CD, Home for the Holidays, in December 2008 which features the orchestra’s performance of Cooper’s original and arranged music composed for the holiday season.
Cooper has recorded for Delos International, Atoll, Ode, Mark and Kiwi Pacific recordings. As a conductor, a CD devoted to the premier recordings of the string music of New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn has been enthusiastically received. Cooper has also released Points in a Changing Circle, featuring his work as a trumpet soloist in works by New Zealand composers as well as a CD featuring three of his own compositions recorded with the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra on a disc titled Boyz in the Wood. With this, Cooper has reached the milestone of having CD recordings of him as conductor, performer and composer, all currently available in the catalog.
In the spring of 2012, Cooper was honored by West Virginia’s Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin as the recipient of a Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts.
Cooper resides in Elmira, N.Y., with his wife, Margie.
About the photo: Pictured from left to right are FSU President Maria Rose, Maestro Grant Cooper and FSU Provost Christina Lavorata.