In early January, Julie Coucheron received a surprise email. Due to a last-minute cancellation by pianist Stephen Hough, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra needed someone to step in on two weeks’ notice to perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra. Would she be interested?
Her first reaction was a mild panic. She’d played the concerto before, but when she was 11. She hadn’t performed it as an adult, much less with a full orchestra. Her worries turned to excitement when she realized this was the opportunity she’d long hoped for: performing with the ASO. It’s a bonus that her brother — violinist David Coucheron — is the orchestra’s concertmaster.
“When these opportunities arise, you have to take them,” Coucheron says. “I was surprised at how much of the concerto I actually remembered from when I was 11.”
The virtual concert, conducted by Peter Oundjian, will be broadcast Thursday. In addition to Coucheron’s performance, it will showcase Florence Price’s String Quartet No. 2 (2nd movement) and Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 5.
To prepare for her ASO debut, Coucheron worked 12–14 hours per day for two weeks, learning the piece by memory in the process. “It was a lot of mental preparation,” she says. “I channeled all my inner discipline and challenged myself to prepare for this in the best possible way.”
The Piano Concerto No. 1 was composed by Mendelssohn — the German composer, pianist, organist and conductor — when he was 21. Though Mendelssohn said he wrote the piece in a few days and “almost carelessly,” the concerto was instantly well-received and is still being performed nearly 200 years after it was composed. Mendelssohn incorporated the elegance of the Classical era while evoking the fantasy of the Romantic.
“There’s no dead time in this concerto,” Coucheron says. “It’s very upbeat and fun. The second movement is simply beautiful.”
A native of Oslo, Norway, Coucheron began to play piano at age 3. Inspired by her older brother, David, she began to perform onstage at 5. She accompanied her brother as a child and still finds herself performing with him in such groups as the Georgian Chamber Players and the Atlanta Chamber Players.
At 15, Coucheron studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She graduated with honors, receiving both bachelor’s and master’s degrees with a teaching degree from the University of London. She moved to Atlanta eight years ago.
Now 32, Coucheron has established an international career, winning major awards in Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. She has appeared at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and performed with the Norwegian Radio Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic and the Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra. In addition to her concert schedule, Coucheron is a sought-after private teacher and pedagogue. In August 2014, she was appointed an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University.
She’s also recorded or performed with such artists as Elton John, the Steve Miller Band and Yo-Yo Ma.
Like most musicians, she was hit hard by the pandemic. While the financial and mental impact has stung, she was determined to pick herself up.
“For the first couple of weeks, I didn’t even want to practice,” she says. “All of a sudden I received phone call after phone call of cancellations. We thought it would be for a few weeks at first, but the cancellations dated for at least a year in advance.”
Coucheron teaches at Kennesaw State, but a primary source of income ceased with the pandemic. Aside from her guest-pianist performances, her work with chamber groups also dried up.
“After a while, I started putting myself back together and went back to practicing on a daily basis,” she says. “I’m generally a positive person, but it’s hard to be positive when you don’t know when you’re going to get back into full performance mode.”
Coucheron found solace in a series of livestreamed concerts she assembled with classical musicians across Atlanta at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, created specifically during the pandemic to help local musicians continue performing and audiences to continue hearing live music.
“It’s hard being a musician and not being able to express yourself in front of a live audience,” Coucheron says. “When I’m performing, I give a piece of myself to the audience. I haven’t been able to do that as much recently.”
Coucheron thrives in the limelight. Her performances display the confidence of a seasoned pianist — both expressive and controlled. She’s often spotted proudly wearing long, brightly colored gowns at her concerts.
“My presentation is not always interpreted the way I would hope,” she says with a chuckle. “Once on a YouTube video of my brother and I playing Vitali’s ‘Chaconne,’ a woman commented that she could not listen to the video because I was wearing a fuchsia dress and that my dress should have been black.”
The widespread perception is that classical music lags behind the other arts in terms of women’s representation, particularly in composers and conductors. That is most likely because so much of its work is dominated by compositions written in past centuries, mostly by men. The Mendelssohn piece was championed by one of the major female figures in classical music: Clara Schumann.
“I love being a woman in the classical music world,” Coucheron says. “One person that has inspired me a lot is Clara Schumann. I love reading about her life and how she helped both Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann write some of their most beautiful music, all while raising kids and writing her own amazing compositions in combination with being a brilliant pianist herself.”