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Atlanta, Kon-Tiki and Boeing

– Hey, what’s your take of the world’s biggest airport? Violinist and concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra David Coucheron has picked up Music Norway’s reporter at the Hartfield –Jackson Atlanta International Airport. – The world’s busiest airport with 900 000 flights and 92 million passengers passing through it each year, explains a visibly excited Coucheron.

We have journeyed all the way to Atlanta, Georgia to discuss the Kon-Tiki Classical Music Fest. Late August sees the third edition of the festival being staged at the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo, located adjacent to the famed raft that is Coucheron’s festival’s namesake.
Why the Norwegian Maritime Museum? Because of its proximity to the original Kon-Tiki raft?
– To me, Kon-Tiki represents the urge to explore, wanderlust, adventures and rewarding experiences off the beaten track as well as courage, stamina, bravery and imagination. These are all traits that I treasure. As child I was also a huge fan of Thor Heyerdahl and, to top it off, the museum also sports an excellent concert hall.

The Norwegian audience came to know Coucheron as a blond child prodigy that won the nation’s hearts early on. However, over the last 15 years Coucheron has more or less left the Norwegian mainstream. Some news of a successful US career has filtered down, but we feel that there is a need to shine a spotlight on the still young violinist; what is the status in the Coucheron camp?

You have chosen a path different to many of the other Norwegian performers out there, choosing not to go through the ranks of the Barratt Due Institute of Music.
-Yes, even if I was initially a member of the Barratt Due’s Junior Orchestra, I chose to go down a different path. I started to play at age three after my mother found a violin for sale note down at our local convenience store. She’s a pianist and thought that it would be nice to have someone to perform with. At the surprise of my parents, I managed to produce a melody on the instrument right away. I then went on to study with local teacher Kåre Fuglesang – a mentor that has had huge influence on me.
– Always remember to be a scientist, he would say. I’m still re-discovering much of what he taught me back then. Whenever I would return from abroad, I’d pay him a visit.

Popular concertmaster
Coucheron’s path now led him to Isaac Schuldman, and, at the age of seven, to Ruggiero Ricci in Berlin. Ricci was impressed by the talented young violinist. – I did not play Paganini No. 24 when I was seven, Ricci declared and ensured that the young boy was to be taught by one of Europe’s leading teachers; Cologne- and Bern-based professor Igor Ozim. For years, Coucheron would commute from Norway to the two cities every second week. –Flying Lufthansa, Coucheron emphasises, who, at the tender age of 15, was admitted to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Reportedly, the institution has the highest admission standard of all US universities, Harvard included.

-A fantastic learning environment that I cannot give enough praise, says Coucheron. The level of teachers and fellow students alike was sky-high. We would have people like Sir Simon Rattle and Mstislav Rostropovich come in and teach when they were in town to visit the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. Following his BA-level studies at Curtis, Coucheron completed a Master at the Juilliard School of Music and yet another one at the Guildhall School of Music in London.
At the age of 25, Coucheron auditioned for the position as concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; a fiercely competitive application process that culminated with the finalists being tested, filling the coveted position over time. The young violinist came out of the process victorious, and remains to this day the youngest concertmaster in the US. It appears that the Norwegian is a popular figure in town, at least if one is to judge based on a Atlanta Journal review of Coucheron’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Vionlin Concerto in March 2013: – David Coucheron takes a star turn! His strengths are his liquid, fluid tone and flawless intonation. He took the virtuosic passages with breathless speed but never sacrificed accuracy.

On an annual basis, Coucheron serves a 28-week orchestral duty tour, representing the orchestra’s entire classical repertoire. In the US, its is common for orchestra to also devote time to performances of popular music, and during these weeks, Coucheron takes time off to concentrate on his own solo performances and chamber music work.

Flying the Norwegian flag
Coucheron performs on a Stradivarius, on loan from Norwegian fund Anders Sveaas’ Almennyttige Fond for the last six years.
– A fantastic instrument, declares a beaming Coucheron. Before sitting down for our talk, Coucheron takes us on a tour of the Woodruff Arts Centre, home of the renowned Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Coucheron is visibly proud when he shows off the Norwegian flag that adorns the door of the concertmaster’s dressing room.

– I’m Norwegian to the core! Coucheron concludes without hesitation and emphasises the need for an anchor point in his home country as the main reason for establishing a chamber music festival. – I also have to admit that it is very rewarding to be able to compose your own festival, with the musicians and the repertoire that I really want to hear and play. I’ve come to the conclusion that the programme will be at its best when the performers themselves can contribute with their favourite repertoire.

Coucheron is in a position where he can pick the featured performers for the Kon-Tiki Classical Music Fest from the top-tier of his own generation. Several of the featured musicians are former fellow students of Curtis and Juilliard. One of 2013’s highlights is British bass singer Matthew Rose, who garnered praise earlier this year for his appearance in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan. Other guests include viola player Cynthia Phelps and cellists Christopher Rex and Efe Bartacigi, who are set to perform both well-known classics as well as new compositions.

– For me, the festival represents so much, both the re-discovery of my own background and childhood as well as the joy and pride of showing Norway to my friends with its fjords, mountains and woods bathed in summer’s glow. It’s been a really rewarding experience.

On our way back to the Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, we spot three planes making their final approach. – The Seoul aircraft is on time, Coucheron states matter-of-factly.

How on earth can you be so sure?
– The one on the left is a Korean Airlines Boeing 777.

Are you able to determine an aircraft’s type from a two kilometre distance?
– What can I say, I’m really, really into aviation…

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