The Power of a Little Finger: A Profile of Robert Cooper

From the June 25, 2010 issue of Retirement News Weekly/Niagara

In the late 1960s, Robert Cooper was 14 and living in London, England with his parents. Walking pass the Royal Albert Hall one day, young Robert was intrigued by a large, door-sized poster promoting a variety of choirs and on a whim he bought a ticket for 60 cents. As Robert stood surrounded by hundreds of young people, the conductor came out causing the crowd to go silent. Then Robert’s senses were flooded by what he later found out was the Symphony of a Thousand No. 8 by Gustav Mahler. This moment is one of those moments that help define a man’s life.

Mr. Cooper, now 62, continued to follow this engrained passion for choir music, which he traces back to that moment, and is currently the Artistic Director of Chorus Niagara, the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, the Opera in Concert Chorus, and the Faculty of Music Women’s Chorus, University of Toronto; additionally he teaches when the opportunity presents itself, presents at conferences like the 33rd Annual Chorus America Conference last week, and guest conducts a variety of choirs on the side. He accomplishes this all, while making time for his wife, a school principal, and his two sons, 21 and 25.

While Robert lived in London for a year, he travelled all over Canada in his childhood. Robert was born in New Brunswick to a father in the RCMP. He lived everywhere from Halifax to Ottawa. His parents were not musically inclined, but never discouraged him and did the best they could with their gifted child. Robert performed on stage for the first time at the remarkable age of six in Ottawa’s Little Theatre production of Rumpelstiltskin.

He didn’t get any formal training until high school, where he performed in a variety of high school musicals. A performer at heart with a passion for his art, Robert continued his education and received a Bachelor and Master degree in music at the University of Western Ontario. He credits this formal education for his focus and discipline.

“When I look back, I knew I had some kind of innate raw talent,” he explains. “I had a talent and I had a way to be just… larger than life, but it was all unfocused. University gave me more discipline, a little more humility, and a greater depth of understanding of what our culture is. So I could bring more to what I’m doing and not be all surface-y and flash and dash.”

But practical experience was also necessary to get Robert to where he is today. He went to Germany to study under Martin Stephani and Helmuth Rilling. He then worked for the CBC for 31 years producing choir programming, while developing his own choirs. He’s been the president of the Ontario Choral Federation and the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors. He taught as a guest lecturer for two 7 year stints at the University of Toronto. In 2003, he received an Honorary Doctorate from Brock University and was appointed to the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian choir music. For his connection to Niagara, however, we have to go back to 1989.

It was Bob and Joe Henderson, friends of Robert’s and singers in the Niagara Symphony Chorus, who invited Robert to lead their choir through their transition. At the time, there were only 42 people in the chorus and it took four to five years to turn the group around. Today they’re called Chorus Niagara and they’re a full-fledged arts organization with over 100 members, a concert series, a board of directors, a budget that is well over a quarter of a million dollars, and a children and youth choir component.

As artistic director it’s Robert’s job to provide artistic leadership, programming ideas, and creative impetus to the group, while pushing them to reach their musical ambitions. And Robert has his share of musical ambitions for the group. In the short term, he wants to see his chorus singing at the new art centre that is being built in St. Catharines. He’s also commissioning works for the opening of the new health centre and for the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Primarily, he strives to take Chorus Niagara to a level where “when people come they know that they’re going to get a high standard of performance every time.”

He also wants to challenge the audience to reach new levels of appreciation for his music. He recalls, “In one performance we did a work that was quite complicated. And I said to the audience, ‘You know what? I’m not going to tell you to sit back and enjoy. I don’t necessarily want you to enjoy it. But I want you to be touched by it. I want you to be poked by it… prodded by it. I want you to close your eyes and listen to it. Just let the music seep into your pores and see what effect it has.”

He seems to always come back to this; the importance that the people and the music play. He explains that the real satisfaction is working with the 18 to 80 year-olds that make up his choir.

“When you leave you feel like you’ve touched people,” he explains, “and they’ve touched you and you’ve come together in a collaborative situation all because of the music; that uniting spirit that the music brings to the rehearsal.”

Last year, Robert brought Chorus Niagara on their first international tour. While in London, right off of the airplane, the tour organizers needed to keep his group busy, while the hotel was getting ready. They took his group to the Royal Albert Hall. With his career coming full circle like this, Robert took time to pause and consider where his life has taken him; a life filled with music, people and a professionalism that has helped take Chorus Niagara and Robert to the level that they are at today.

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