American Virtuoso Cellist Strums the Strings of Love in Israel

The cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper was born to a pianist father and a violinist mother, and received a vigorous musical education, but love led her to Tel Aviv.

 Kristina Reiko Cooper
Alon Shafransky

Cellist virtuoso Kristina Reiko Cooper is the scion of a musical family from the United States. Her father is an American pianist and her mother is a violinist of Japanese extraction. She completed her doctorate in music at the prestigious Julliard School of Music at an early age, and took the fast track to an international career of concerts and recordings. The New York Times acclaimed her as “sensational in concert” and she has amassed a host of rave reviews, concert invitations and trips from stage to stage.

An unexpected turn in the story occurred a decade ago, when she met Leonard Rosen, a Jewish investment banker from New York who was managing his bank’s operations in Israel. Cooper converted to Judaism, the two married and decided to live in Israel. It was convenient but not necessary for his work, and the two decided to live in an atmosphere in which Jewish culture is dominant and present, not a deserted island. Since then, Cooper splits her time between New York and Tel Aviv, with Israel being the family’s primary base.

Cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper ahead of her show concert in Tel Aviv Museum of Art Tel Aviv Museum of Art

She has a teaching position here as a professor in academia, and continues to appear – much around the world, little in Israel.

Besides the personal change, her musical performance also changed. She says she started on the most accepted track and the toughest education. In her family, a career in music is almost unavoidable. “My sister is the rebel in the family by not becoming a musician,” she says.

Opus X - Libertango

She started out studying the piano, then violin, but says she fell in love early on with the cello. She says its sound is so similar to the human voice.

“It took time until I could play the cello, technically, because my hands are small, but at age 10 I started to study and the love between me and the cello has continued ever since.”

She studied in the most prestigious schools, meeting at Julliard Joel Sachs, a teacher and codirector of Continuum, the new music ensemble. “The encounter with modern music taught me a lot,” she says, explaining she learned how to draw sounds out of her cello that characterize new music. She says she mainly learned not to be afraid to try. Now, she says, when she teaches, she tells her students to dare to go a little crazy.

Cooper dared. She started becoming interested in combining styles, in crossing borders between genres, matching classical music with the world of the singer and the tune, jazz and every musical component that can go together. She released the album “Stone and Steel” in 2009, which she says was inspired by Israel. She says it is based on ancient foundations, but processed in a modern spirit. Songs of early Renaissance and Baroque composers like Dowland and Purcell, and other early works performed in a style that is close to jazz, as if they had immigrated to our time.

Her latest project is “Around the World with Love,” a collection of love songs from around the world, which she plays on the cello together with Or Matias on piano and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. The album has classical tracks like the beautiful song “Après Un Rve” by Gabriel Fauré, as well as popular songs like the Mexican Besame Mucho by Consuelo Velazquez and “My Beloved” (“Ahuvati Sheli Livnat Tzavar”) by Sasha Argov.

Kristina Reiko Cooper "Besame Mucho: Love Songs From Around The World"

Cooper says she believes that classical music is a little closed inside inflexible and outdated forms. “I fear it’s driving away the young, contemporary crowd,” she says.

There is a fear that interest in classical music will decline, that this whole atmosphere will shrink into a closed world that gradually dies away, she says. She cites Israel as an example of a country that is fairly active musically, having many orchestras and musicians. Still, it seems to her, interest in classical music, its place in the public stage and the feeling that it lives as part of the world of young people are all declining, being pushed a little to the edges, relative to what people say Israel used to be like.

Precise and meticulous

The solution Cooper offers is classical concerts being renewed both in content and in form to become more up-to-date. “Musicians need not sell their souls, compromise on the quality of their performance or play works that in their eyes are unworthy,” she says. However, she notes, there is a need to build a program that flows well, adapts to the pace of the concert to our world, to speak a little with the audience, not to ignore it, not to preserve the traditional detachedness of the classical concert.

For example, she says that we are used to this ceremony in which the musicians, the orchestra, tune their instruments on the stage before the concert begins. “I keep my tuning to the absolute minimum, and if it isn’t necessary, don’t tune on the stage,” she says. Now, when she performs on stage the program on the disc, which has love songs on it, she makes sure that the lyrics are projected onto a screen in the auditorium, even though they are only playing the tunes. That way the audience can relate more emotionally to the pieces.

The very choice of a mixed genre – classical and popular love songs – is a significant departure from the classical tradition. “I love the mix in general,” says Cooper. She says she loves Sting’s modern interpretation of Renaissance love songs by the composer John Dowland, which he released in 2006. She notes this recording also has a personal side.

Kristina Cooper-"Emanuel"

“My husband loves music, but he doesn’t relate to everything I’ve done,” she says. “I wanted to do something that could be entertaining and enjoyable for him. I chose love songs.”

She says there are love songs in every culture, and gave space to many cultures, periods and styles. She says the atmosphere of love songs is accessible to her husband, her children and, she supposes, other people.

Cooper says she had fun both working with musicians she admires and loves working with them. “We started with the recorded album, and now there are also the performances.”

She notes that recording is different from performing in that everything is precise and meticulous. “Every mistake and every gesture is magnified in a recording, so the recording teaches to play more precise and more polished.”

She hopes to perform the love songs in Israel, too. “We have to find a suitable auditorium that will allow projecting the words during the show,” she says.

Despite her current work crossing genres, Cooper’s connection to classical music remains strong, and there is a list of composers she points to as particularly beloved, or as sources of inspiration. She says Brahms embodies the tension between two sides of music – the intellect opposite emotional expression. “I very much relate to this struggle. I enjoy Rachmaninov, understand there are people who see him as a bit of a simplistic or kitschy composer, but I love it. I also love the works of the 20th-century Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi.”

She particularly likes the works of contemporary American composer Steve Reich, noting that they know each other a little. It turns out that the rabbi who was involved in her conversion is also Reich’s rabbi, and they met through him. She says that independent of their meeting, his works excite her because they are contemporary, accessible and rousing, and she hopes they will be performed more in Israel.

“It’s impossible to talk about great composers without mentioning Bach, who inspired them all,” she adds. “And the French composer Maurice Ravel is a special childhood memory for me. Father played piano, and Ravel’s pieces that he played enchanted me.”

In her choices, like in her works, Cooper crosses cultures and merges worlds.