When violinist David Coucheron began his role as concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in September 2010, he was just reaching his 25th birthday, making him the youngest concertmaster of any major symphony orchestra. That remains true today. Coucheron, who plays a 1725 Stradivarius, will turn 28 in September.
He holds the most important position in the orchestra after the conductor. As concertmaster, he is the leader of the first violin section, helps establish bowing marks for the string sections, oversees the tuning of the orchestra, and acts as a liaison between orchestra and conductor. It’s a position that requires not only superb playing ability and comprehensive musicianship, but also a capacity for grace under pressure and an indefatigable optimism.
Coucheron was born in Nesodden, Norway, a city of 18,000, across the inner Oslofjord from Oslo. He studied with Kåre Birdsong and Isaac Shuldman in Oslo and with Aaron Rosand at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 2005. He then earned a master’s degree from the Juilliard School in New York. Many more details of his career can be found in his ASO biography.
What we offer here, instead, is a conversation with Coucheron that both touches on his creative beginnings and brings his story up to date as an under-30 artist who has had a significant impact upon Atlanta’s classical music scene. The face-to-face talk with ArtsATL took place just after Coucheron had finished playing a chamber music concert in Dahlonega.
ArtsATL: Tell us about the Stradivarius violin that you play, made in 1725 at the end of Antonio Stradivari’s “golden period.”
David Coucheron: The violin is owned by a Norwegian foundation, Anders Sveaass Almennyttige Fond, and they have kindly loaned it to me for the past 10 or so years. It’s an amazing violin, which I feel honored to work with. It both inspires me and challenges me. Of course there is something magical about all Stradivari instruments, but I generally prefer the sound and feel of the later ones.
ArtsATL: But I understand that for part of your time here in Atlanta you were playing a Guadagnini violin, while the Strad was being restored because it had become somewhat “moody.”
Coucheron: The violin went through an extensive restoration that lasted three years, finishing a year ago. It was very successful and the instrument is now more predictable and better sounding than before. Playing concerts in different parts of the world with huge variations in humidity and temperatures, it’s much appreciated with a violin which doesn’t change too much with the weather. The Guadagnini is a great violin and I was very happy playing it, but it lacked some of the magic that the Stradivarius has.
ArtsATL: How and when did you first get involved in music and playing the violin?
Coucheron: I got involved very early. I was about two years old. My mom has been a hobby pianist all her life. She saw an advertisement at the local grocery store where somebody was selling their violin. It was a half-size. She got the violin and it was too big for me, so she traded it in for a quarter-size, and then I started playing. I’ve been playing, you know, ever since, and it was a very lucky thing that she saw that advertisement and played piano.
ArtsATL: Did they have to entice you in the beginning?
Coucheron: There was a certain amount of the carrot and the stick. My mother has a very good degree in pedagogy and she’s a teacher at a college in Norway. Looking back, she was very good at making practicing seem like a fun and interesting thing to do. Not just “you have to do this every day,” you know, not that kind of thing. But I practiced, I played concerts, I would get a reward. She was very good with that, and I thank her every day.
ArtsATL: When did you get to the point where you didn’t need outside incentive? When did you really feel like “this is what I’m going to do”?
Coucheron: I cannot remember not playing the violin. It’s been part of my life ever since I can remember. There was never a point where I would have to decide if I want to pursue this or not. It’s sort of been natural for me to keep playing.
There was a time I remember where I was about 12 or 13, my parents would say, “If you don’t want to play violin then that’s fine, we’ll love you just as much, but you have a great ability to do this and we believe that in the future you will be very happy to continue to do this.” There was a great sense of freedom that came with that, also responsibility. It was never really a question between playing violin or not. I’ve been very happy doing it, and so I don’t see much what I’m doing as a job, I see it as something fun. I hope people around me in the orchestra will also view playing an instrument like that.
ArtsATL: How did you come to get the job as concertmaster for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra?
Coucheron: I’m not entirely sure about everything. All I know is they had a search for a while and I don’t think they were happy. So they called around, talked to people, and I got a phone call asking if I wanted to come and audition. So I [did] and I immediately felt very comfortable. Very nice orchestra. [Conductor] Robert [Spano] was wonderful to deal with. I felt at home very quickly. I think that also contributed to the whole thing being successful in my favor.
ArtsATL: Having now been here for three years as concertmaster, what do you see as the future of orchestras and the Atlanta Symphony specifically?
Coucheron: That’s hard to say. I can’t predict the future. I am employed and play mostly at the orchestra to heighten and improve, solidify the musical integrity of the orchestra. That’s my three-page job description. I’m very happy to be there, watching the orchestra grow. The violins, I feel, have never played better than we have this year. And it’s wonderful to be part of that musical journey with Robert.
Financially, for the future of the orchestra? I don’t know. It’s not my job. We have people who are in charge of that and they’re responsible for that. Hopefully, they’ll do what’s necessary. I try to be a part of fund-raising as much as I can, as much as I’m asked.
ArtsATL: So what about your personal artistic future? While your primary job is with the orchestra, you obviously do some other things — you play chamber music concerts with various colleagues, and you play recitals with your pianist sister, Julie.
Coucheron: I love the situation I am in at the moment. I am playing with the symphony 30-plus weeks a year. And the rest I am very active doing chamber music and solo recitals. And also solo with orchestra. I just played a Bruch concerto in Sarasota, Florida, with the Sarasota Music Festival Orchestra last week. I was a student at Sarasota for five years, [starting in] 2005. The year I got the [concertmaster] job, I still went back there as a student. I believe we can always learn something no matter what position we have. I know everything there from a student’s perspective, so it was such a joy when Robert Levin asked me to play the Bruch concerto and be on the faculty.
ArtsATL: We never stop learning.
Coucheron: I like to be able to progress and improve. I believe people who stop doing that stop doing music as an enjoyment and as a great thing.
ArtsATL: So you’re really not thinking so much about where you are going to be professionally geographically as you are about artistic growth.
Coucheron: That’s number one, the most important thing, for me. To my own surprise, playing concertmaster in an orchestra the last three years, I feel that I have grown musically myself. I wasn’t sure about that starting out. I was wondering how it was going to impact my playing, negatively or positively. I had no idea. But being here now three full years, I’ve learned so much — soloistically, chamber music-wise and musically. I view that as a big surprise in a way that I wasn’t quite sure what was going to be.
ArtsATL: Yehudi Menuhin said that every violinist should do a little bit of everything, whether section violin, concertmaster, chamber musician or soloist.
Coucheron: And I think today, in today’s world, increasingly so. It’s more and more important to be able to do a vast array of different things, not specialize in one thing. You see soloists today, they play chamber music everywhere.
ArtsATL: Have you tried your hand at conducting?
Coucheron: No, I have not. I’m terrified of that! There is something fascinating about it and maybe, down the road if I muster enough confidence, it would be something fun to try. But at the moment I am still learning the violin.
ArtsATL: If you could get one idea across to the people of Atlanta, both the classical music audiences and the populace at large, what would it be?
Coucheron: I think that it’s important for everybody in Atlanta to realize how lucky we all are to have an institution like the Atlanta Symphony to provide culture, classical music and experiences. It’s hard to put it into words, but for me it’s important to get the message out of how significant it is for a great city like Atlanta to also have a great orchestra. It’s not just an orchestra that gets together once in a while. In many ways it is a big identity of the city.
Every great city has a great orchestra. I believe Atlanta is a great city, and I’ve grown to become really fond of it. I like to remind people that it’s a part of their identity, having a great orchestra in Atlanta. I find that very, very important for people to think about and not just take for granted, because it’s not “for granted” anymore. The climate has changed, but the music hasn’t, and the need for music and classical music hasn’t changed.