In Montclair Orchestra, Students Play Among Masters

The nonprofit promotes reciprocal learning about the nuances of music and performance. 

David Chan leads the Montclair Orchestra during a performance at Central Presbyterian Church. The group’s third season kicks off September 22. Courtesy of Adam Anik

Standing at his podium, David Chan sways with passion, crouching, lunging and jabbing the air. The members of the Montclair Orchestra follow their conductor’s movements, filling St. Luke’s Episcopal Church with music. 

As they blend into a seamless whole, the musicians never betray a unique aspect of this orchestra. In this ensemble, students play alongside professionals. The students hail from the Juilliard School in Manhattan, the Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, and other prestigious institutions. The professionals are borrowed from the likes of the Metropolitan Opera and New Jersey Symphony orchestras.

Andre Weker, president of the Montclair Orchestra, founded the nonprofit in 2016 as a fellowship opportunity for students to learn from professional mentors. Individual donors, grants and corporate supporters provide the funding. To Weker’s knowledge, Montclair Orchestra is the only one of its kind in the nation to mentor undergraduate and graduate students. The players say that the learning is reciprocal.

“The unique thing about music is that you never really stop striving [or] stop learning,” says violinist Miran Kim, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Another violinist, Njioma Grevious, an undergraduate at Juilliard, is thrilled to perform among professionals. “I learn so much from watching them lead, give notes to their section, ask questions and interact with their colleagues.”

For Chan—who is both music director and conductor—a key lesson is that music is a form of communication. “The tightest ensemble doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have something to say,” says Chan. “I really try to impart to [the orchestra] that we have to send the audience home feeling like we said something.”

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Chan is well equipped to teach such nuances. A Juilliard graduate himself, Chan has been concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra since 2000 and has worked with many of the biggest names in classical music. He is on the faculty at Juilliard and the Mannes School of Music in New York.

“He’s able to elaborate what he wants from the ensemble, what pictures or images that he has, or specific words, to describe a feeling or a texture within the soundscape,” says Aurora Mendez, a violinist and Cali School graduate.

The orchestra averages 50 musicians per concert; typically, 60 percent are students. That presents a unique set of challenges. Compared to a school setting, where students may have a few weeks to prepare for a performance, musicians at Montclair Orchestra have one week with four rehearsals. What’s more, the musicians, who are contracted on a by-performance basis, do not play together regularly.

“The plus side is that there’s a certain excitement of bringing all these different groups together,” says Chan.

Chan and Weker go beyond the traditional repertoire. This season’s children’s show, Carnival of Animals (November 3 at Central Presbyterian Church, Montclair), is a prime example.

Montclair Orchestra’s third season kicks off September 22 at St. Luke’s with 1001 Nights, featuring guest soprano Gabriella Reyes. The season, which runs through April 26, consists of five performances. Tickets are $25-$50 for adults; $15-$40 for seniors; and $10-$25 for students and children. To order tickets or donate, visit montclairorchestra.org.

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