John Enz

Here’s the dilemma that confronts many orchestral instrumentalists. After thousands of hours mastering their instrument, they join an orchestra. As a member of an orchestra, they spend the bulk of their time silently counting measures until it’s time for their flute, bassoon, or trumpet to sound.

John Enz, artistic director of the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey (YOCJ), who came to the organization in 1985, has devoted himself to correcting this oddity. As head of an eight-member staff of conductors serving more than 200 participants, he oversees YOCJ activities. He is devoted to giving instrumentalists a chance to play their instruments, rather than to monitor the absence of their sound.

The late Portia Sonnenfeld founded the orchestra in 1978. Enz took over seven years later. And now it celebrates its 40th anniversary.

YOCJ’s next appearances take place Sunday, May 20, at 3 and 7 p.m. at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North.

“When I came,” he says during a telephone interview, “there was only a string preparatory orchestra. Its members were of elementary and middle school age. As they grew older, I wanted to give them the experience of playing in a full orchestra with woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Ellen Wightman, a teacher West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional Schools, helped set it up. We did this in the early 1990s.”

In addition to exposing students to the full instrumental range of an orchestra, Enz wanted them to focus on the moments when they played, rather than the expanses where they merely waited to play.

“Counting measures is not very enticing,” he says. “Instrumentalists want to play music instead of just keeping track of silences. Sitting and counting rests is an age-old problem in music. It’s especially important for winds. Their sound is so distinctive; a good composer would not have them play all the time. For a young, vivacious brass player it’s a burden to spend most of the time counting rests. That’s why we have separate ensembles.”

More than a dozen groups make up the constellation of YOCJ ensembles directed by YOCJ’s team of conductors. “There are four large groups,” says Enz. “Starting from least advanced, there are the string preparatory orchestra, the string ensemble, and the wind symphony, consisting of woodwinds, brass, and percussion, and which combine to form the complete Pro Arte Orchestra. The most advanced ensemble is the symphony, made up of advanced strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.” Enz conducts the symphony.

In addition, as many as 10 smaller instrumental specialty groups exist within YOCJ. Providing for different levels of achievement, the roster includes two brass ensembles, two woodwind ensembles, two saxophone ensembles, two flute ensembles, and two percussion ensembles when personnel is available.

Members of YOCJ must be privately taught and must continue to work with their school orchestras. Auditions are required. Membership is also open to homeschooled students.

Typically YOCJ gives two concerts open to the public on the same day. The less experienced ensembles perform in the afternoon. More experienced ensembles perform in the evening.

Members of YOCJ’s team of conductors direct the ensembles. Guest student conductor Ian Briffa of High School North joins them in the 7 p.m. concert, which presents concerto competition winners trombonist Justin Bi and flutist Sarah Chen.

Trained as a cellist, Enz tucks in an interview immediately after giving a private cello lesson. His private teaching is in addition to his YOCI duties.

“I make sure that the other conductors have what they need,” he says about his involvement with the orchestra. “I help plan concerts. The other conductors are wonderful and sensitive musicians, who are directors of the orchestras; we work it out together. Working things out is my responsibility. The executive director, Laura Epps, takes on many duties.”

“It’s collaboration,” he says. “It’s collegial.” Turning metaphorical, he adds, “Musicians work in harmony. Every now and then one of us sings the melody.”

Enz looks for “creative solutions, rather than a rigid plan. As more flutes auditioned,” he says, “we created a flute choir. We answer to the needs of the music community. We take advantage of what’s available and do reasonable things. We see what we have and make the most of it. That’s what musicians call improvisation.”

As a high school teacher and music director Enz has seen the benefits of repeated tours to Western Europe. “These trips cost a lot of money and energy; they could be a waste,” he says. “But students find European audiences very receptive and gracious. European listeners are very impressed that we have youth orchestras that play so well together and enjoy the music they make. European audiences are hearing the performers for the first time. They don’t speak their language, but they feel their warmth. In the United States it’s mostly parents in the audience. To have strangers come means a lot to performers.”

“Then there are other advantages to visiting Europe. Frequently our instrumentalists play music with conservatory students abroad; we’ve asked our tour leaders to arrange this. Our visit to Austria in 2014 was a great success. Our tour company found us a 21-year-old composer, Daniel Muck, who reveres John Williams. We played Muck’s piece in Esterhazy with Muck conducting. [Esterhazy was the home of the noble family that employed Franz Josef Haydn]. And we played a Haydn Symphony in the Esterhazy castle where Haydn worked.”

Before coming to the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District in 1977, Enz spent two years working in Haiti, where gross domestic product (GDP) per person today is almost 70 times less than GDP in the United States. He discounts the role of socio-economic conditions on making music. “The socio-economic differences among musicians may be extreme, but musicians have a common thread,” he says. “All those things outside of music dissolve as we learn music together and learn to play together. Musicians develop a common spirit of focusing intensely on music. That focus transcends socio-economic differences.”

A member of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) for more than 30 years, Enz arrived at his first retirement in 2015. At the time he was teaching high school and conducting for YOCJ. “I felt spread thin,” he says “and decided to give up the PSO. The repertoire was becoming more contemporary and required extra work because the demands differed from standard repertoire.”

Enz also retires from High School North this year as a teacher of strings and orchestra on July 1 but will continue as conductor with the Youth Orchestra. “I want to return to playing cello, and increasing my private teaching,” he says. “I would like to revisit repertoire that I formerly played and would like to teach my students. I am especially interested in the Bach’s cello suites. But I do not have enough time for them at the moment. The only exception is Bach’s ‘C major Suite,’ which I’ve memorized.”

Born in Newton, Kansas, north of Wichita, in 1950, Enz grew up in northern Indiana where his father was a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart. His mother was a minister of music, juggling roles as an organist, pianist, and choir director. “Wherever my dad went, she became music director,” Enz says.

Starting cello in fourth grade with a half-size instrument, Enz, with his mother acting as his pianist, entered competitions as a child. He completed his undergraduate studies at Goshen College in Indiana. He holds a master’s degree in cello performance and music education from Temple University.

Enz lives in Bordentown with his wife, Susan, a retired teacher of remedial reading and writing as well as English as a second language. The couple has a son and daughter and five grandchildren.

The “tremendous energy” of YOCJ participants delights Enz as he looks forward to the May 20 concerts, which include music by Dmitri Shostakovich. “When we put the Shostakovich in front of them they just played the socks off of it,” he says. “Everyone gets a workout in that piece — strings, winds, and brass.”

“I love music, and I love teaching kids,” Enz says.

Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, 90 Grovers Mill Road, Plainsboro. Sunday, May 20. String Preparatory Orchestra, Pro Arte Orchestra, and Wind Symphony at 3 p.m. Saxophone Choir and Symphonic Orchestra with concerto competition winners trombonist Justin Bi and flutist Sarah Chen at 7 p.m. $5 and $10.

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