The Boy with the Shiny “Kay” Cello

or, the serendipity of programming for a community orchestra


I first laid eyes on Gary Stucka at my first rehearsal of the Park View School Orchestra, in my hometown of Morton Grove, Illinois.  I was in fourth grade, and had just recently begun to study the violin (a full year after others had begun to study stringed instruments, which at the time and in that school district, were first offered in third grade).  I sat last stand of the third violin section, and I still recall the first piece we worked on was Leroy Anderson’s Blue Tango.  In looking around the large mass of young music students, I noticed the boy sitting principal cello.  He had a shiny instrument with the word “Kay” emblazoned across the front of the tailpiece in shiny metal script.  That boy was Gary Stucka, a fourth grader at Park View School (I attended Grove School, the other elementary school in our district).


Gary performing on his Kay cello, with younger sister Barbara accompanying
Gary performing on his Kay cello, with younger sister Barbara accompanying

The fact that Gary was sitting principal cello in an orchestra that included students ranging from grades three to eight says something about his talent and dedication from a very early age. We played in the Park View Orchestra together through eighth grade, then continued playing together in the Niles West High School Concert Orchestra throughout high school.  Gary was principal cello by junior year; he was chosen to perform a concerto with the orchestra and won the prize for top music student senior year.  Although I was very active with singing and playing piano in school ensembles, took private violin and piano lessons, and truly enjoyed the community of orchestra, I didn’t really work hard and was not a high achiever. The highest position I attained in our high school orchestra was assistant concertmaster in the violin section my senior year (while junior Robin Fossum was concertmaster).  I grudgingly played in our district’s orchestra in Illinois senior year, while Gary made it to All-State quite regularly. I grudgingly played in the second violin section of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra senior year, while Gary blew right past the CYSO to play in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago (known as the training orchestra to the Chicago Symphony).

A string quartet from high school (L-R): Barbara Stucka (viola), Robin Fossum and Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes (violins), Gary Stucka (cello)
A string quartet from high school (L-R): Barbara Stucka (viola), Robin Fossum and Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes (violins), Gary Stucka (cello)

After high school we went our separate ways — me to DePauw and then Northwestern University, and Gary to Roosevelt University’s Chicago Musical College.  He developed an enviable career as an orchestral cellist, first performing with Chicago’s Grant Park Symphony, then the Winnipeg Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and finally landing his dream job, as a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1986.  In the meantime, I completed my master’s degree at Catholic University of America, spent 10 years as a “struggling young artist” in my dream location, New York City, followed by stints in North Carolina, California, and then back home to Chicago.  When we both lived back in Chicago we would occasionally run into each other at concerts, during the time I worked for the education department of the Chicago Symphony, and even at a Christmas caroling party put together by a fellow Morton Grove resident many years after we were all classmates together.  However, I moved to Minnesota to pursue my DMA degree at the University of Minnesota in 1994, and I haven’t seen Gary in person since.

Then Facebook came along, and not only did Gary and I reconnect with each other, but also with many other past friends from high school and college, including Robin Fossum.  Through Facebook we could follow along daily activities and learn about all that had happened in the decades since we truly shared our lives.  As with most Facebook reintroductions, it has been nothing short of miraculous to make such reconnections and to follow along with important life events and transitions.

Just as EMSO was about to present our May 15th, 2016 Russian music concert, The Soul of Russia, I glanced up and saw a familiar looking woman walking up the aisle to be seated. It only took me a moment to recognize Robin Fossum from our contact on Facebook.  Doing some quick arithmetic I realized we had not seen each other for 45 years – since I graduated high school.  Now, astonishingly, here she was with her husband, attending our concert, 100 miles away from her adopted home in Chetek, Wisconsin!   During intermission we had a quick reunion, and she told me that she was a tremendous fan of Russian music, so when she saw our concert posted on Facebook she decided to come!  Robin took the requisite selfie of the two of us, and posted it to her Facebook page that evening. Gary Stucka, Facebook friends with us both, commented on it and before the day was over we had arranged for Gary to come up to Minnesota to perform Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with the orchestra, and have Robin come back to play in the orchestra as well for this reunion concert.

The requisite selfie that started it all
The requisite selfie that started it all

A traditional orchestra concert

EMSO performs so many creative, collaborative programs that we actually almost never perform a “conventional” orchestra concert, consisting of an overture and concerto in the first half, followed by a symphony or other extended orchestral work in the second half.  Having Gary coming up to perform a concerto with the orchestra, it was clear that we needed no other special guests or collaborators.  This presented EMSO with an unusual opportunity simply to prepare a conventional orchestra concert.  So the next step was to figure out what else to put on the program.

Because EMSO does not have one home performance space, we are to a degree at the mercy of the availability of our performing partners and hosting venues when we plan our season.  For our 2016-2017 season we chose to present our second annual Pops Cabaret on February 11, 2017, with a Valentine’s Day theme.  However we then learned that our Side-By-Side concert collaborators, the East Ridge High School orchestras, had limited access to the school’s magnificent auditorium, and so we would have to present our Side-By-Side concert on February 27, only three weeks after our Pops concert.  With an amateur orchestra that only rehearses once weekly, I’ve found that the “sweet spot” for preparation is seven weeks, making a three week turnaround very, very tight.  Kelly DeMorett, the ERHS orchestra director, suggested doing a program of classical music masterpieces for the Side-By-Side concert.  Inquiring further about music she might especially want her students to prepare, Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (which EMSO had last performed in June, 2002) and Bizet’s Carmen Suites (which I’d never performed with EMSO) seemed like they would be good choices, offering lots of musical goodies to go around the entire orchestra. Since we would have so little time to prepare specifically for the Side-By-Side performance, I reasoned that if we prepared the Brahms and Bizet works for our fall concert we would create a delicious conventional orchestra concert for the fall, have the music in our hip pockets for Side-By-Side, and have what is for EMSO, a rare opportunity to perform these great works more than once in a season.

Having spent a lot of time in earlier years immersed in opera, I was eager to bring Bizet’s Carmen to our orchestra.  Eleven songs from the opera that constitute the two suites will be arranged in the order that they originally appeared in the opera, and I’ll create a written narration to tell the full story of the opera.

Finally, as the EMSO board of directors began to plan publicity for our 2016-2017 season, it became clear that each concert of our season was steeped in storytelling, each in a unique way. So we decided to call our 2016-2017 season A Season of Stories, with each concert a unique chapter. Appropriately, given how this program came into being, we are calling this concert, “Chapter One: Friendship.”

So this, ladies and gentlemen, is how our November 6, 2016 concert program came into being. For EMSO, it’s almost never simply about picking music that on its own seems interesting, but involves taking advantage of remarkable occurrences, being frugal in our use of limited time and resources, and bringing together music and experiences that bring fun, learning, and new experiences to our very diverse audiences.

Gary Stucka
Gary Stucka

Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes
Music Director and Conductor

Please join us!

The East Metro Symphony Orchestra presents
A Season of Stories  |  Chapter One: Friendship
Sunday, November 6th, 2016 at 2:00 p.m.
Trinity Lutheran Church
115 N. 4th Street
Stillwater, MN

Tickets: $10/adults, $7/seniors, FREE for children 17 years and younger
Available at the door or on out website: