Orchestra gala provides students with opportunity to work with master cellist

By: Charity Meier | Novi Note | Published February 21, 2024

 Bruce Uchimura

Bruce Uchimura

Photo provided


NOVI — Novi High School orchestra students will be given a rare opportunity to work and perform with master cellist Bruce Uchimura during the Novi Orchestra Gala at the high school March 2.

Students in the NHS philharmonic orchestra will perform Gabriel Faure’s “Elegie” alongside Uchimura.

Uchimura is a graduate of Juilliard School of Music and has a master’s in music with an artists diploma in cello from the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has been a professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo since 1987, where he teaches cello and coaches chamber ensembles.

“I’m very glad that we can get our music to a level where we can accompany him and it will sound good,” said cellist Cattleya Fortmann, a co-concertmaster for the NHS philharmonic orchestra.

As a co-concertmaster, Fortmann is a member of the first violin section and sits at the front of the orchestra. She leads the orchestra and helps the conductor make musical decisions while performing music.

There are four NHS orchestras: The philharmonic and the symphony orchestras require students to audition, the concert orchestra is for sophomore students and older, and the Wildcat Orchestra is for freshmen. All four orchestras will perform during the galla.

The Wildcat and concert orchestras will each play two pieces, and the symphony and philharmonic orchestras will each perform three pieces. However, Uchimura will only perform with the philharmonic orchestra, which is composed of the most advanced students.

“I really like the performance aspect — the whole thing about going onstage and making a concert so that everyone can kind of see what you’ve been working on as well as experience the same love that you have for music,” said senior David Niu, the co-president of the philharmonic orchestra.

Uchimura was asked to perform with the philharmonic orchestra by his former student and current NHS Orchestra Director Jim Van Eizenga. Van Eizenga said that as it is the first year the program is doing a gala, he wanted to work with someone he knew personally and with whom he could guarantee the kids would have an “awesome” experience.

“He’s just a phenomenal teacher. He’s been the teacher of the year for the Michigan Chapter of the Strings Association. He’s well known throughout the world for his teaching and his coaching. So, I know he’s just going to be so good with the kids, and they’re going to love him and learn so much,” Van Eizenga said.

In addition to performing alongside the students at the gala, Uchimura will offer the cellists personalized instruction through a master class March 1. During the master class, students will perform their solo cello pieces for Uchimura and receive his feedback. This will be done in front of a live audience of fellow Novi students, as well as cello students and teachers from outside the district who have been invited, and some middle school orchestra students.

“We want to inspire (middle school students) to continue their orchestra journey and to know that where they’re at now isn’t the end. That’s just the beginning of something much bigger,” Van Eizenga said.

Fortmann has been playing the cello since she was in fourth grade. She said she started playing the instrument after seeing high school students perform demonstrations at her elementary school. Fortman said she liked the sheer size of the instrument. She hopes to be able to inspire younger students to go into orchestra, as high school students once inspired her.

“I love the variety of music we get to play,” Fortmann said. “I know that orchestras tend to just stick with classical music, but there are different types of classical music that we play. We play ballets, we play symphonies, we play concertos (solo pieces). It’s all these different types of music that really brings us all together, and I’m really glad to be a part of it.”

Senior Yuna Chung, the co-president of the orchestra, said she likes how classical music allows people to express themselves.

“It’s music without words,” Chung said. “Music can be expressed in a lot of ways. There’s dance, there’s body movements, but especially we can express ourselves with sound, with dynamics, different kinds of notes, different tempos and different types of classical music, because there’s different types of classical music. There’s different eras, like the Romantic era and Baroque era. Listening to all these different kinds of music in the same genre is just very appealing to me.”

Leading up to the master class with Uchimura and the gala, students will have the opportunity to work with Alan MacNair, a violinist and retired Troy High School orchestra teacher. Van Eizenga said that he hopes the students gain skills and knowledge by working with Uchimura and MacNair.

“My ultimate goal is that the students should be able to have the skills necessary to continue their musical life after they leave school, whether they are going to major in music or not,” Van Eizenga said. “And sometimes it’s just really helpful to hear the same thing I’ve said every day from a different voice.”

The opportunity to hold a gala and perform with Uchimura will take the place of students attending the annual Michigan State Band and Orchestra Association Festival this year. Van Eizenga said that he was just looking for something different for the kids this year.

“(At the festival) they get comments from the adjudicators, but sometimes it’s a little bit more impactful to hear it from the source themselves,” Van Eizenga said. “It’s just something different.”

The gala is open to the public and will serve as a fundraiser for the Novi Orchestra Boosters, with all proceeds benefiting the high school orchestra program. Funds will help to pay for instrument care, uniforms and music rights.

Prior to the concert, an Italian dinner will be offered for an additional fee. The food will be  provided by Genitti’s Hole-in-the-Wall, of Northville, prior to the concert. Several gift baskets will be raffled off during the event.

“I know we have had receptions in the past, but I feel like actually having a dinner will help connect everything better together as well. I really feel it will bring more people together, as well as the community of Novi together as a whole will be able to see what we do and what we have been working on for years,” Niu said.

“I feel like some members of the community may think that because we’re a high school orchestra, that we’re not extremely capable of playing certain pieces that are popular and well known,” Niu said. “I feel by playing more famous pieces, pieces that are more recognizable, will allow the community to see that, oh, just because they’re high schoolers doesn’t mean that they can only play, like, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’”

Tickets for the 7 p.m. gala can be purchased online at form.jotform.com/240196084770156. Tickets are still available  to attend the concert for $15. The deadline  for the dinner has passed.