An Interview with Artistic Director & Principal Conductor Helen H. Cha-Pyo
hope noun (hoʊp): to want something to happen or to be true, and usually have a good reason to think that it might*
*From the Cambridge Dictionary
As the New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS), a program of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts, prepares for its first live concert in seven months this Sunday at New Providence’s Centennial Park, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Helen H. Cha-Pyo gives some insights as to how NJYS has adapted throughout the pandemic and her vision for the 2020-21 season.
Q: How has the pandemic affected the New Jersey Youth Symphony?
A: Performing arts education institutions such as NJYS have faced unique challenges. As an ensemble-based organization, the inability to rehearse and perform concerts in-person is detrimental to the core mission of our program. When the pandemic hit, our orchestra rehearsals and concerts came to a screeching halt. On March 11, 2020, we had to shut down our physical building; however, within the following two weeks, we created virtual rehearsal rooms and instantaneously shifted to online programming. Although it is impossible to replicate the experience of playing together as a 100-piece orchestra remotely, we have found new avenues to continue making music through virtual performances, master classes, webinars, small ensemble rehearsals, and online courses. These have and will continue to expand the horizons of our young musicians beyond what we could have imagined pre-pandemic.
Q: What is your vision for the 2020-21 season?
A: The 2020-21 season will focus on messages of hope shared by our students with communities near and far. We see the young musicians of Wharton Arts as messengers of hope who will share the gift of music through our #StayHomeandPlay virtual concert performance initiative and bring comfort and joy to so many people who are in isolation, especially elderly populations residing in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Throughout this pandemic, our students are experiencing music as a source of inspiration and comfort, even when they are stuck at home. We believe music takes on a special meaning amid difficult moments, and we are taking the opportunity to spread hope in otherwise uncertain times. As Maya Angelou said, “The nice thing about hope is that you can give it to someone else who needs it even more than you do, and you will find that you have not given yours away at all.”
Another focus this season will be increasing the presence of underrepresented composers in our repertoire choices by performing more works written by black, Latinx and women composers, as well as learning from world class artists through the Monday Master Class Series and the Friday Webinars at Wharton Arts.
Q: How did you choose the ensembles for the upcoming Outdoor Community Concert?
A: Winds, brass, and percussion instruments are more conducive to outdoor performances. As the musicians of Youth Symphony, Youth Orchestra, Clarinet Quartet, and Percussion Quartet are some of our most advanced students, they can prepare for concerts in a short amount of time. We have been able to hold outdoor rehearsals in preparation for the October 25 concert despite some low temperatures in the early evenings.
Q: Tell us a bit more about how the young musicians have been rehearsing for the concert.
A: In order to maintain the safety of our student musicians and staff as our highest priority, we are currently unable to rehearse as full orchestras and large ensembles indoors. However, our most advanced students have rehearsed in small ensembles at our temporary outdoor rehearsal tent in the Performing Arts School parking lot for the past four weeks. Everyone is fully masked—even our wind and brass players—with specialized PPE such as bell covers and instrument bags to minimize aerosolization. Our rehearsals are under one hour with a short break for cleaning and disinfecting. For those students who have chosen to engage remotely, they have the option to join the rehearsal via Zoom.
Q: How did you choose the repertoire for the October 25 concert?
A: With this concert being our first public performance since last January, I was tremendously excited to program it. Due to the reduced rehearsal hours and the limitations of online rehearsals, it was tricky to choose repertoire that was both challenging and meaningful to our highly talented young musicians. Download the digital concert program.
Recognizing many of the silver linings during this time of social distancing, I see this as a rare opportunity for us to explore repertoire for small ensembles that we cannot normally program when we perform as a large symphony orchestra. As a celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, I have programmed works by American women composers such as Joan Tower and Valerie Coleman.
Q: What should the audience listen for on Sunday?
A: The concert will open and close with a pair of majestic fanfares. Aside from the two most well-known fanfares, Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland and Fanfare La Peri by Dukas, I am most excited to conduct Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 & No. 2, written by a prolific living American composer, Joan Tower. Additionally, you will hear a wide range of pieces written by diverse composers including Gershwin, Charlie Parker, Rossini, Holst and others performed by Youth Symphony Winds, Clarinet Quartet, Percussion Quartet and our award-winning Charles Mingus Jazz Combo.