Morris Township maestro to lead New Jersey Youth Symphony in ‘Carmina Burana,’ May 19

Helen Cha-Pyo, conductor. Photo courtesy of Susan Peterson.
Helen Cha-Pyo, conductor. Photo courtesy of Susan Peterson.


Turning 40 is a big deal…especially if you’re still in high school.

This Sunday, May 19, 2019, the New Jersey Youth Symphony will celebrate this milestone with a performance of Carl Orff’s iconic Carmina Burana at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Nearly 500 young musicians will be following the baton of Helen Cha-Pyo, a Morris Township resident who assumed directorship of the youth symphony last summer.

What’s the secret to making 500 teens hit all the right notes? caught up with the maestro this week for an electronic chat, to find out.

Morristown Green: Hi Helen. When did you come to Morris Township? 

Helen Cha-Pyo: My husband and I first moved to Morristown 20 years ago, then moved to Morris Township five years later. I’m not originally from Morristown, but I feel like I am because we started our family here. Both of our boys were born and raised in Morristown, so it is now our hometown for sure!

MG: Tell me about the NJPAC event… and the New Jersey Youth Symphony.

HCP: This is my first season with New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS) as Artistic Director and Conductor, and it’s been a blast!

NJYS has 500 students in grades 3-12 from 13 counties of New Jersey, in 14 different ensembles: Three full symphonic orchestras, three string orchestras, three flute ensembles, clarinet ensemble, wind ensemble, percussion ensemble and two jazz big bands.

Every member of every ensemble has to re-audition every year to earn a spot. The youth symphony has a strong history of inspiring young musicians to reach his/her personal excellence through high-level ensemble training and performance opportunities.

The New Jersey Youth Symphony 2019. Photo courtesy of Wharton Arts
The New Jersey Youth Symphony 2019. Photo courtesy of Wharton Arts

NJYS is a program of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts, whose mission is to provide the highest quality performing arts education to a wide range of students in a supportive and inclusive environment. Striving for personal excellence inspires and connects those we teach to the communities we serve.

As you know, this Sunday at 3 pm, nearly 500 musicians will take the stage at NJPAC to celebrate the youth symphony’s 40th anniversary. When that many young musicians come together to perform, it’s guaranteed to be an extravaganza!

This celebratory concert will showcase the youth symphony’s extensive talent with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Described as “one of the most richly tuneful choral pieces of modern times,” the orchestra will be joined by soprano Mia Pafumi, tenor Theron Cromer, and baritone John-Andrew Fernandez, as well as the Newark Boys Chorus, J.P. Stevens High School Chorus, Newark Academy Concert Choir, New Providence High School Chorus, Ridge High School A Cappella Honors, and the Somerville High School Chorus.

I am also thrilled to present a 145-member Festival String Orchestra of our elementary and middle school-age string players assembled just for this concert.

The combined festival string orchestra made up of NJYS Sinfonia, Concertino Strings, Primo Strings, and the Paterson Music Project Concert Orchestra will perform works by Jenkins and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Also joined by the Newark Boys Chorus and the Paterson Music Project Chorus, the Festival String Orchestra will give a world premiere performance of Three Poems of Langston Hughes by Jack Bender, a newly commissioned work to commemorate the New Jersey Youth Symphony’s 40th anniversary.

MG: What do you enjoy about working with kids?  How does it differ from conducting adults?

HCP: It’s meaningful to work with young musicians who are talented, dedicated, driven, passionate and full of life! They inspire me to be my very best when I’m with them and I am truly grateful to have the privilege of being a part of their journey.

The most challenging aspect of working with youth these days is the fact that our society has put so much unnecessary pressure on these young people to excel in every area of their lives and they are feeling no matter how hard they try, their best is never good enough for those who are sitting in the college admissions office making decisions about their future.

It’s extremely important to me as their conductor and mentor that I do my very best to create a welcoming community in which they can simply be who they are and thrive in joyful pursuit of excellence through music. This community is often considered as their second home, where life-long friendships are made.

As a conductor, how I approach a rehearsal is very different between a professional orchestra and a student ensemble. Working with a professional orchestra is fantastic — the high level of music-making is so satisfying and the thrill of collaborating with my colleagues is always wonderful.

I can’t say one is better than the other, but one thing I know for sure is that the student musicians need my guidance much more than professional musicians would.

MG: Can you share a little about your musical background?

HCP: I grew up in Seoul, Korea, until I was 12 years old, playing the piano intensely.  My early musical training in Korea still serves me well in that I received the highest quality music education from some of the best teachers in the field.

In my teenage years, I continued to study piano, but switched to the organ as my main instrument and studied at the Juilliard School Pre-College division.

I attended Oberlin College and Conservatory (OH) where I received a bachelors degree in Music — Organ Performance, and went on to study conducting and organ at the Eastman School of Music (NY), and received my masters of music degree.

MG: Do your kids play in the NJYS?  What’s it like conducting them?

HCP: My son, Christopher, was a member of NJYS when he was younger as a violinist, but before my time here.  However, he successfully auditioned and played in the NJ All-State Orchestra several years ago when I was the guest conductor. It was very special to share a concert together at NJPAC that year.

My younger son, Michael, will be singing in the bass section of the Carmina Burana chorus with his high school chorus this Sunday at NJPAC, and we can’t wait to share this special concert together.  As a mom, it’s my dream come true to see my sons’ faces in the ensemble I’m conducting! It’s very special.

MG: Any other kids from Greater Morristown in the symphony?  

HCP: Yes. We currently have six students from the Morristown area participating in different NJYS ensembles this year. Dylan Quattro is a senior at Morristown High School and is a trumpet player in the Youth Symphony, our flagship ensemble.  He will be performing Carmina Burana this Sunday.

MG: Why did you choose this particular piece for Sunday’s show?

HCP: Carmina Burana is probably one of the most popular choral-orchestral repertoires of the 20th century.  This iconic work is fun for both the performers and the audience, and I am confidently hopeful that this performance by our young people will transport everyone to a happier place, at least for the 60 minutes of this glorious music.

MG: Thanks, and good luck!

The New Jersey Youth Symphony performs Carmina Burana at NJPAC in Newark at 3 pm on Sunday, May 19, 2019. Tickets are $20-$50, available at the center’s website.

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