New Jersey Youth Symphony honors past and looks to future at NJPAC concert



Helen H. Cha-Pyo with some members of New Jersey Youth Symphony, May 5 at NJPAC in Newark.

It wasn’t your typical anniversary concert, but New Jersey Youth Symphony isn’t your typical youth orchestra program. They do everything in a big way.

NJYS presented a “45th Anniversary Concert,” May 5 at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark, that was full of high spirits and fun surprises. Honoring the past, celebrating the present and looking to the future, it featured 350 of the Garden State’s talented young musicians in grades 3-12 alongside alumni and guest stars Rufus Reid and George Marriner Maull. Four full orchestras were led by conductors Helen H. Cha-Pyo, Mark Gunderman, Dion Tucker and Simon Lipskar.

“In this special anniversary year, we’re celebrating all the individual hands it takes to run the ship, and the strengths of the people who make Wharton Arts what it is,” Cha-Pyo said in an interview in anticipation of the event. She is in her sixth season as artistic director of Wharton Arts and the principal conductor of its flagship orchestra, NJYS.

“Everyone, starting from the people who set up the chairs for every rehearsal all the way to everyone around our communities … that’s what we’re really celebrating. It takes a village.”

Wharton Arts is New Jersey’s largest independent performing arts education organization. The nonprofit community arts center draws 2000 students from 13 different counties and includes four impactful programs — Performing Arts School, New Jersey Youth Symphony, Paterson Music Project and New Jersey Youth Chorus — at sites in Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Paterson.


George Marriner Maull with members of New Jersey Youth Symphony, May 5 at NJPAC in Newark.

To honor the milestone season, Cha-Pyo looked back to the symphony’s 1979 founding by Maull, whose mission as music director for almost 20 years was to provide local performing arts students an outlet for creative expression and personal growth. The program paired works from Maull’s inaugural season with signature pieces NJYS routinely performs at their annual Playathon fundraiser at The Mills at Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth. At this year’s Playathon, in March more than 500 students performed as one large orchestra.

For alumni, this concert was a homecoming, and they were invited to perform alongside the students. Helen Ahn, trustee on the Wharton Arts board and a NJYS alumna, gave a touching speech about the impact the youth orchestra had on her personal and professional growth. Along with other alumni, she wore a blue carnation on her lapel, while graduating seniors wore red roses.

The familial feeling is at the heart of Wharton Arts. Master of ceremonies David Furst, a New Jersey native and WNYC radio host, is a former Wharton student. His son now plays in the symphony, while another graduated two years ago.

“There’s a strong sense of continuity and tradition for alumni, and an idea that you’re always welcome to come back home,” Cha-Pyo said. “Better together and building community through music is really at the core of everything we do.”

The Philharmonia, featuring the youngest students of the NJYS programs, opened the concert with 20th century works of striking melody, pyrotechnic color and rhythmic brio. The middle schoolers put an energetic, lively spin on “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, a suite of seven movements named after the celestial bodies.


Mark Gunderman with members of Philharmonia, May 5 at NPAC in Newark.

Gunderman brought out all of the drama and articulation of the thrilling showpiece, Reinhold Glière’s Russian Sailors’ Dance, capping its 12 melodic variations with a prestissimo climax.

Lipskar led the NJYS Youth Orchestra in two rousing dance episodes from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, a quartet of musical portraits of the American West. “Buckaroo Holiday” was full of jaunty expression and swingy tempos while “Hoe-Down” was brightly colored and infused with fresh, youthful humor and uplifting rhythms.

A standout performance by the NJYS Jazz Orchestra shined a spotlight on the way Wharton Arts has grown.

“Looking back to 45 years ago, we began with 65 musicians in one orchestra and we’ve since developed to 15 different ensembles,” said Cha-Pyo. “We’ve grown many lanes in music education and the performing arts, and I think one of the most exciting things is that we added a full jazz program. We’re not just serving more kids and trying to elevate them artistically, but also being really inclusive of different artforms like jazz.”

Jazz legend Rufus Reid, 80, has been a longstanding inspirational role model to the students. At the Wharton Arts gala in March, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award, given annually to an individual who has made contributions of notable significance to the performing arts.


Rufus Reid at NJPAC in Newark, May 5.

Reid played two of his own compositions, “City Slicker” and “The Meddler,” alongside about 20 students (on saxophone, trombone, trumpet, guitar, piano and drums), showcasing his verve and brilliance as a composer and bassist. A handful of students explored the works’ progressive harmonies and smooth rhythms with adventurous and charismatic solos.

Conductor Dion Tucker, in a stylish black fedora, moved around the stage to the toe-tapping rhythms.

“It feels so good to celebrate and to be at this point,” Tucker said at a post-concert reception at NJPAC’s Ryan Gallery. “Especially having Rufus Reid play with the band, I feel like it’s everything I’ve been teaching them. A lot of times I talk about the history of the music, but to have somebody who is part of the history of the music play with the band, it just felt like the perfect climax to our big season.”

As an educator, Reid has made a profound impact on jazz in the Garden State. He co-created the jazz studies and performance bachelor of music program at William Paterson University, the first of its kind in the tri-state area, and his book, “The Evolving Bassist,” is the industry standard for double bass methodology.

“I love to see the light go on in young people,” he said at the reception. “Teaching at the college level, they came to the program because they wanted what we had to give, something that would make them better when they were alone and introducing themselves to the world. That’s what the program was designed to do, so that when people heard them play, they enjoyed what they played because they could hear the history, the passion, their urgency and their hunger. Because that’s what young players have to show, no matter what the music or genre is. It’s hard to hide passion when it’s there and that’s what I enjoy the most.”

The tribute to Reid also included the showing of a short documentary created by board trustee and professional filmmaker, Lara Stolman. Reid’s musical journey was told through a mix of archival photos, videos and interviews with key figures in his life. As a child, he had wanted to play the trumpet, but his family couldn’t afford one. The instrument was provided through his school’s music education program.

Maull, too, was featured in a mini-documentary by Stolman, which focused on his lifelong dream of conducting and educating. He is the artistic director of The Discovery Orchestra, which he founded in 1987 as the Philharmonic Orchestra of New Jersey. His approach to classical music seeks to break down the barriers for listeners of all ages and education levels.

Maull was also honored at the Wharton Arts gala in March and presented with the 2024 Education Award for his lifelong commitment to sharing his appreciation of classical music and building a community around it.

Cha-Pyo surprised the audience by announcing a new Wharton Arts scholarship fund in Maull’s name to encourage the next generation of musical talent. “The scholarship is, in a small way, showing Wharton Arts’ commitment to continuing the tradition of supporting young people in the arts,” she said.

The scholarship was also a surprise to Maull.

“I didn’t know it was coming until today,” he said at the reception. “All I knew is that Helen asked me to conduct the last number on this 45th anniversary concert and I was thrilled, so it’s an incredible honor and I’m touched and moved by it. I couldn’t be happier at what the NJYS has become, especially after it connected itself with Wharton Arts. It’s an amazing phenomenon with them, beyond my wildest dreams and the other founders.”


Scholarship winner Karri Li with George Marriner Maull at NJPAC in Newark, May 5.

Each year, the George Marriner Maull Careers in Music Scholarship Award will grant $1,000 to a graduating senior who has played with the symphony for two consecutive years and plans to enroll in a conservatory or school of music. The inaugural recipient is Karri Li, principal flutist in the symphony and a student at Mountain Lakes High School.

Cha-Pyo noted that only a small percentage of NJYS’ graduating students go into music careers. For example, out of this year’s 55 graduating seniors, only seven will continue with music education or performance.

Maull was back in his element as guest conductor to lead the NJYS in the grand finale. The students tapped into the lush, vivid colors and stunning accents of “The Pines of the Appian Way,” the third movement from Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The work allows for doubling up on instrumentation and was packed with celebratory brass for a jubilant ending to the event.

It was a full-circle moment for the symphony, which had opened the season in October at the War Memorial in Trenton with the same work. It was also full-circle moment for Maull, who has supported the youth symphony every step of the way since he founded it 45 years ago.

“George is still educating and being a guiding light for classical music and how to really engage the audience,” Cha-Pyo said. “He’s ‘walking the talk’ that he’s been doing all of his career and he’s still right here with us.”

Another surprise came during the world premiere of James Ra’s orchestral work, Ring, O Bells!, in which he dedicated the piece to Maull.

As told by Cha-Pyo, the story goes something like this: Ra had visited Wharton Arts and told the students something to the effect of, you’re all individuals who sound different and look different, but you’re all equally important, so ring your bell to bring people together and make the community a better place.

Ring, O Bells! was commissioned in commemoration of the anniversary. It is grand and ambitious with clarion luminosity and cinematic color. Led by Cha-Pyo’s generous and clear podium language, rhythms were tightly knit around a reflective middle section. A triumphant closing crescendo matched the inspirational, optimistic tone.

For Ra, a New Jersey-based composer, it was his first commission by a youth orchestra.

“It’s hard to do new music at any level,” he said at the reception, “but to have such a young orchestra play something that’s new, you have to gauge the right level of difficulty. Helen would tell me it needed to be difficult and challenging, but at the same time, it had to be within their reach. They really pulled it together and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

The commission highlights NJYS’s adventurous programming, which began with Cha-Pyo’s predecessor, the late Barbara Barstow. Cha-Pyo is intent on continuing Barstow’s tradition by elevating voices of new composers from underrepresented groups.

“We’re always looking out beyond the walls of Wharton Arts and trying to expose our students to this incredibly vibrant new music scene,” she said. “I’m very passionate about working with living composers and commissioning new works, bringing them in, and working with our students so that we can be part of creating history.”

Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja, Anthem for Unity” was symbolic of the symphony’s interconnectedness. The orchestral tone poem opens with whisper-light lashings and builds into jazz-inspired call-and-response sections. The title means “unity” in Swahili and the NJYS musicians captured the message through cohesive and attentive musicianship.

“The piece brings us all together in one spirit and one family,” Cha-Pyo said. “We’re definitely better together when we come together around these young, energy-giving people.”

The concert was just one of the special initiatives acknowledging the anniversary season. A free concert in February to celebrate Black History Month was co-presented with The Union County Performing Arts Center Rahway. Nearly 1,000 elementary and middle school-aged children from Union County and Paterson attended. Selections by Duke Ellington and William Grant Still included educational visuals. Musicians wore colorful T-shirts organized by different sections to help the audience distinguish each part of the orchestra.

“It was a fun-packed, 50-minute, intense program,” Cha-Pyo said.

The hope is to expand these kinds of educational partnerships with local public schools and concert halls, annually. These types of alliances are essential, now more than ever, because instrumental music education has taken a hit since the pandemic.

“General music is still there for students, but not every school building is able to have instrumental music teachers introduce how to play the instrument,” Cha-Pyo said. “Middle school programs were thriving but there’s some catching up to do for the elementary school kids because we lost two full years of starting kids on an instrument.”

At the end of the day, the NJYS goal is simple: to inspire kids, particularly at the elementary level, to learn how to play an instrument. And even if students don’t pursue careers in music, the benefits of playing in a youth orchestra are indelible.

“When our students graduate, they are going to be lifelong arts supporters and performers within their own communities and keeping music in their lives because this is an incredible part of their being,” Cha-Pyo said. “Our mission is to surround them in a loving and inclusive way and to create that environment and give them our best knowledge and best experience so that it’s not just producing excellent musicians but excellent people.”

Reid expressed a similar idea at the reception. “Whether they become professional musicians at all, that’s not the point. With the things that they possess, they’re going to be successful at whatever they do. I believe it and I’ve seen it, year in, year out.”

For more information, visit


Since launching in September 2014,, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.


Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter