Classic NYCHA – The NYCHA Symphony Orchestra
In February 2011, when the NYCHA Symphony performed at Carnegie Hall, that was the first time many even realized that the New York City Housing Authority had a symphony orchestra. But the NYCHA Symphony actually has quite a rich history that began back in 1971 with Janet Wolfe, a single mother of two daughters, who founded the classical orchestra for NYCHA residents. Simeon Golar, the NYCHA Chairman at the time, is said to have asked Ms. Wolfe to create the orchestra as a way to expose NYCHA residents to classical music – a genre of music that he wished he had been exposed to as a child.
When Ms. Wolfe began the NYCHA Symphony Orchestra, the musicians were exclusively NYCHA residents. Later on, it became home to non-resident minority musicians, who often found it difficult to obtain work playing classical music in other orchestras. As quoted in the February 2011 program, ‘the late composer-percussionist, Max Roach, who graciously performed with the Orchestra, said of Janet: “She has provided more work for Black, Hispanic and Asian players than anyone in New York. It’s probably the only orchestra in the country that gives minority musicians, including Black composers and conductors, an opportunity to perform classical music with a symphony orchestra.”‘
Over time the orchestra grew and flourished, and eventually became known as just “the NYCHA Symphony,” rather than “the NYCHA Symphony Orchestra.” Small and large groups played in various NYCHA developments for the pleasure of the residents, as well as at NYCHA employee functions and at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.
Lloyd Carter, a NYCHA Community Coordinator, also played at the Carnegie Hall event; he joined the orchestra as a teenage violinist shortly after it was founded. He became a NYCHA employee in 1999, and was instrumental at computerizing the once paper-based administration system of the Symphony, preserving decades of rich history.
Ms. Wolfe worked diligently to maintain what she started, by developing a reputation for her tireless fundraising efforts. “Janet was instrumental in keeping the orchestra going, and especially in obtaining funding,” recalls Yvonne Armstrong, Executive Assistant at NYCHA and formerly a classically trained professional singer. Ms. Armstrong also noted Ms. Wolfe’s ability to attract some famous musicians to play with and for the orchestra, including Awadagin Pratt (pianist) in 1996, as a conductor, Victor Borge (pianist/humorist), and others.
Ms. Wolfe has since retired from her role with the NYCHA Symphony, but she returned last February for the February Carnegie Hall show.
Article written by Diane Chehab with contributions from Yvonne Armstrong and Lloyd Carter