Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: 42 years without a conductor 

click to enlarge Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - LARRY FINK
  • Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
  • Larry Fink

The Orpheus Method might not work for everyone. But unlikely compatriots have been singing the praises of the conductor-less (or boss-less) leadership approach developed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra over four decades of collaborative trial and error. Like the staff at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Jonathan Spitz, one of Orpheus's three artistic directors — yes, there's still a hierarchy within the orchestra, but leadership is always shared — recalls presenting the method to a group of doctors and nurses. "No place is more hierarchical than an operating room, but there was a sense that the free flow of opinion and communication that happens in an Orpheus rehearsal has very strong relevance in terms of what goes on in medical situations, where if nurses and doctors have very free lines of communication, sometimes you can get better outcomes," he says. Spitz talked with NUVO about the virtues of conductor-less living ahead of an Oct. 18 performance at the Palladium featuring pianist Jonathan Biss.

NUVO: Can you give me a play-by-play of the Orpheus process?

Jonathan Spitz: Orpheus was founded on the principal that all of the musicians in the room have good and strong opinions about the music that we're playing, ideas about how it should sound, ideas of how to solve the different problems that the piece presents.

What we've developed over the years is a rotating system of leadership so that on each work on the program, we have a group of "core" musicians, led by the concertmaster, the first violinist, who rehearse separately and make the preliminary interpretive decisions about the piece. Then in the full rehearsals of the whole orchestra, they present their ideas or ways of playing the piece, and that "core" group is responsible for leading the development of the interpretation of the piece, identifying and solving its problems. But as we rehearse with the full orchestra, all of the musicians can weigh in with their ideas, with the idea that that "core" group still has the final say.

It's definitely a democratic process, but it's one that still involves specific leadership roles. An important part of our process is that when we get into the concert hall, we have members of the orchestra, not necessarily the "core" musicians, who will go out and listen to what we're doing, and will report on how successful the interpretation seems to be and what kind of further problems they've identified.

The key point is that then on the next work, the "core" rotates out and there'll be a different "core" on the next piece. That way, each musician is going in and out of a leadership role. There are a lot of benefits to this. One benefit is the degree of engagement that all of the musicians feel. That's not always the case in a conducted orchestra, where the musician's job is to make the conductor's interpretation happen.

Another benefit is [we're able to take advantage] of the many musical minds in the room, strong minds, via a process where the ideas can get filtered, embedded and experimented with. We end up sometimes going in a direction we never would have anticipated because someone has what seems to be an outlandish or impractical idea — but we'll try it! And sometimes seemingly bad ideas end up giving great fire or originality to our interpretation.

The sound of an orchestra where everyone's playing with full commitment is very, very different. We're not a large orchestra; we play with string sections that are very small for some of the repertoire that we play. But the amount of sound, the quality and beauty of the sound that's produced is directly a result of the engagement in the process.

click to enlarge Orpheus Chamber Orchestra artistic director Jonathan Spitz
  • Orpheus Chamber Orchestra artistic director Jonathan Spitz

NUVO: One argument for a conductor would be, I'd think, that she can shape a single, coherent interpretation on the fly, during a performance, whereas with the conductor-less model, all of that interpretation has to take place during rehearsal, so that one person doesn't go way into left field during the concert.

Spitz: There are very few conductors who really take big chances who really take big chances in concert — and I can say that as someone who plays in and conducts an orchestra. The way we play is so much based on listening to each other that if an individual in an orchestra starts to go in a different direction — and I mean the leader on the piece, a solo oboe or the concertmaster — we absolutely go with them, and we feel our rehearsal process actually puts us in a position where we can be more flexible in concerts, simply because we're exploring the nature of the score and the character of the music. We don't want a mechanical recreation of the rehearsal in the concert. We really want the concert to have its own life, and we keep rehearsing after the concerts have started because we recognize that there's always room for more development.

NUVO: How did what you do develop into the "Orpheus Method?" How'd it come to be codified and trademarked?

Spitz: When we had played together successfully for 20 years and had a body of highly praised recordings, people recognized — both the public at large, as well as business schools and corporations — that we had a very special way of doing things. I need to give credit to one of our former trustees, Dr. Richard Hackman, who did a study through the Harvard Business School that found that our workplace satisfaction at Orpheus was higher than any other orchestra that was studied. We were a complete aberration in the orchestra world. Then there was further work done trying to find out why. It really is because of the degree of engagement. As we became a Harvard case study, a lot more attention got paid to what we were doing.

NUVO: I wonder if you're kind of a zealot, for lack of a better word, for the conductor-less gospel, and if you think that all orchestras ought to do away with conductors.

Spitz: I think there's absolutely a place for conductors in the majority of orchestral situations. Our way of doing things has been emulated by other groups, particularly younger groups, who form themselves around a collaborative model. I think it's easier to start from scratch with that kind of organization than to evolve into it because people become more comfortable in some orchestras with being accountable to the conductor and not with being accountable to each other as individuals. And I can't imagine a fine performance of a Mahler symphony without a conductor. The most we've had on stage was 41 musicians, and the logistics become very, very challenging beyond that.

click to enlarge Pianist Jonathan Biss - BENJAMIN EALOVEGA
  • Pianist Jonathan Biss
  • Benjamin Ealovega

NUVO: What can you tell us about the concert at the Palladium?

Spitz: This is our third collaboration with Jonathan Biss and our first time playing Beethoven with him. We're coming to this collaboration with a deep investment in our Beethoven playing, and Jonathan Biss is recording all of the Beethoven sonatas right now. So it'll be interesting with these two entities — orchestra and soloist — coming together to play Beethoven with a lot of ideas on both sides.

This is the first time we're playing the Poulenc symphony, which many of us have wanted to play for many, many years. It's a 20th century masterpiece. We've twice commissioned Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and while her piece we're playing wasn't written for Orpheus, in a sense we feel like it was. It's a piece we've wanted to play and we're celebrating her 75th birthday performing it. Rossini has been a staple of Orpheus repertoire from the very beginning. We had a very successful recording of the Rossini overtures early in our relationship with Deutsche Grammophon, so we love to revisit that repertoire.

NUVO: Why has Beethoven been a big interest recently?

Spitz: We started playing a lot of Beethoven about 20 years ago, and we've found that there's a real affinity of our styles. Beethoven writes music about the individual in the world. I won't pretend to know what he was thinking, but there's this sense of an individual struggling in the universe. And with the sense of individual commitment that Orpheus musicians bring to everything we do, there's a natural kind of affinity for his music in our group.

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Scott Shoger

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Scott Shoger staggered up to NUVO's door one summer afternoon, a little drunk, poor and crazy-haired, muttering about future Mayor Ballard. He was taken in, hosed down, given NUVO-emblazoned clothes to wear and allowed to work in exchange for food and bylines. Refusing to leave the premises, he was hired on as... more

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