Our History

The Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey was founded in 1978 by the late Portia Sonnenfeld as a preparatory orchestra for the Mercer County Symphony Orchestra (now called the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra).

Ms. Sonnenfeld shaped this ensemble into a group capable of performing the standard orchestra literature and 20th century works. It then grew to encompass two string orchestras and a wind ensemble, and became known as the String Preparatory Orchestra. In 1999, with increased enrollment, the orchestra was incorporated under the name “Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey.” YOCJ is an award-winning, critically acclaimed organization that has performed throughout the eastern United States, Canada, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic.


Alex_Bragat_Old LargeGroup_conductors2013Venues have included Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium, Rutgers University’s Nicholas Music Center, the Ocean City Music Pier in New Jersey, Mayo Hall at TCNJ, Kendall Hall at TCNJ, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Heritage Festival Competition in Boston, the Niagara International Music Festival, the Canadian Broadcasting Center, the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Haydn Hall in Esterhazy, Austria, Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, the Czech Radio Station Recording Studio in Prague, Peterskirche in Leipzig, and the Französische Friedrichstadt Kirche am Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin.

SONY DSCUnique to the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey are its chamber groups for flute, saxophone, brass, woodwinds and percussion that offer an unparalleled opportunity for small ensembles that feature these instruments in performance. YOCJ relies upon parent volunteers to make our excellent orchestral training available at a reasonable cost to all qualified students.  Board members are parents of current or former student musicians.


The Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey, while maintaining its core large ensembles, continues to explore and expand its chamber groups. New to YOCJ in 2015, was the Woodwind Chamber Players, a variety of small woodwind ensembles comprised of students from the Symphonic Orchestra and coached by Dr. Erin Banholzer. The spring of 2016 saw the formation and debut performance of the YOCJ Saxophone Quartet, coached by Dr. Jordan Smith. Artistic Director John Enz created a Double Bass Quartet as well. Both the Saxophone Quartet and the Double Bass Quartet performed at the 2017 Communiversity ArtsFest in Princeton! After a brief hiatus, YOCJ was thrilled to reinstall an invigorated Flute Choir in 2016, under the leadership of Ms. Sandy Olson. In 2014, YOCJ traveled overseas for the first time, touring and performing in Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague. YOCJ took its second overseas tour to Berlin and Leipzig Germany, as led by the Firebird Fine Arts Tours in June of 2017.


The Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey celebrated its 40th Anniversary Season in 2018, with several special events including a 40th Documentary and a 40th Anniversary Recital, featuring alumni, select current students, past and current conductors. The 2017-18 season also saw the addition of Mr. Chris Colaneri, the new Percussion Director, the expansion of Sandy Olson’s Flute Program to include both a Flute Ensemble and Flute Choir, and the hiring of YOCJ’s first Executive Director, Larisa Epps.

During our 41st Season, we welcomed Oboist Barbara Witmer to our professional staff as the Symphonic Woodwind Coach. Eight Symphonic Violinists performed with The Piano Guys at the State Theatre New Jersey on September 10th. Our soloist for the season was Angela Zator Nelson, the Associate Principal Timpanist of The Philadelphia Orchestra. She performed the Jennifer Higdon Percussion Concerto with Symphonic on Sunday January 19th at Kendall Hall on the campus of TCNJ.

YOCJ was greatly saddened that our spring 2020 semester was cut short by the global pandemic. In these unprecedented times, we were glad to still be able to connect with our students via many creative online Zoom presentations. We are looking forward to unveiling a new format for our Annual Master Class in the near future. The Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey will run separate but simultaneous Master Classes for the different instrumental families, bringing in many professional clinicians to work with ALL of the small ensembles and the 3 string orchestras. We are hoping to reschedule our overseas tour to the Summer of 2021. Our destination will be Finland and The Baltic States: The Hidden Treasures of Europe.

Our 42nd season brought many milestones with it! We congratulated our beloved Symphonic Director and Artistic Director, John Enz on his retirement. Secondly, YOCJ was pleased to embark on a new partnership with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, a venture that has blossomed out of our search for a new Symphonic Director. The PSO Assistant Conductor, Nell Flanders took over the Symphonic Orchestra for the 2020-2021 Season. This collaboration with PSO will also have a profound impact on all YOCJ students by giving our families special access to PSO concerts, Guest Artist “Meet and Greet” opportunities, sectional rehearsals, and future Side by Side concert events. Finally, YOCJ was thrilled that our long-time Assistant Artistic Director, Phillip Pugh took over the role of Artistic Director for YOCJ. In an effort to navigate the pandemic, YOCJ offered online mini-courses during 2020 and 2021 to keep students playing their instruments, engaging with our conductors, and maintaining contact with their peers.

In 2021, YOCJ was one of 7 youth orchestras in the United States that was selected to participate in the 2021 Orchestra Residency Program (ORP) of Midori, world renowned violin virtuoso! Midori’s Orchestra Residency Program featured something for everyone! This collaborative project aimed to provide meaningful musical experiences now for the next generation of youth orchestra musicians. These online activities were offered at no charge to our youth orchestra.

As part of her Orchestra Residencies Program, Midori’s aim is to encourage young musicians to be actively making music with each other, even from afar. “Let’s all unite to keep our young musicians and their families positively connected through their youth orchestra programs.”

The Orchestra Residency Program featured several workshops. Additionally, everyone could apply to be included in 2 select virtual ensembles that rehearsed and performed a virtual online concert with Midori as soloist in a Concertino for Violin and Orchestra by composer Derek Bermel. This new work featured 3 movements: one for String Orchestra, one for solo violin (Midori) and one for Wind Ensemble, all conducted by Nell Flanders. 

The Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) continues its partnership to advance excellence in orchestral performance and foster a greater connection between Central Jersey’s young musicians and their professional counterparts. Integral to the partnership, the PSO has expanded its assistant conductor position to include leadership of the youth orchestra’s Symphonic Orchestra. Starting with the 2021-2022 Season, we were pleased to announce the appointment of Kenneth Bean to this post! The partnership is the formalization of an ongoing relationship established through the PSO’s BRAVO! Education Program which encourages young musicians and their families to be exposed to extensive performance repertoire and be inspired by professional artists.

The 2022-2023 Season saw the return of YOCJ to the West Windsor Plainsboro High School North for their rehearsals and to TCNJ’s Kendall Hall for their annual Winter Large Ensemble Concert. We were pleased to host Billy Hunter, Principal Trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera as our 2023 soloist and clinician.

In the summer of 2023 YOCJ returned to the touring scene by embarking on a short domestic tour to the nation’s capital and performing twice in Washington D.C., at the World War II Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.

For the 2023-2024 season YOCJ is looking forward to hosting Ranaan Meyer, Double Bassist and Founder of the Grammy award winning ensemble, Time for Three. Mr. Meyer will be the 2024 Soloist and Clinician. YOCJ is also thrilled to travel overseas once again to Austria in the summer of 2024 for performances in Salzburg, Vienna, and Esterhazy Palace. 

The Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey is a growing, vibrant organization that looks forward to carrying on the tradition of providing unparalleled, diverse musical experiences to the talented young musicians of our region.