Orpheus and the “Underworld” of the Conductor-less Chamber Ensemble

The orchestra’s chosen namesake, the Greek mythical hero Orpheus whose music could charm wild beasts and coax trees and rocks to dance, evokes the orchestra’s founding aspirations from 1972. While Hermes was said to have invented the lyre, Orpheus was the one to perfect it, imbuing it with power – even over Hades – allowing him return passage from the Underworld. What has been perfected at Orpheus is its groundbreaking initiative to introduce democratic choice into the traditional orchestral hierarchy, historically led by a single conductor. At Orpheus, it’s all about the music, experienced and performed by equally important musicians in a collective, self-governed environment.

Photocredit: Matt Dine

Sitting down at Orpheus’ offices at Manhattan’s Riverside Church with Alan Kay, principal clarinetist and one of the three artistic directors of the ensemble this season (the others being Laura Frautschi and James Wilson), allows for a glimpse into the now historic transformative ideas of the famously conductor-less orchestra.

Recommended by the great clarinet virtuoso Charles Neidich, Kay started his collaboration with the orchestra as a young substitute performer in 1985. He was elected as a member shortly thereafter, when a spot in the ensemble opened up.

“It is a lot about friendship. We do care about each other on a personal level and that comes from listening to each other,” he exclaims. “We are not about one single point of view, but about group decisions. How to play music is constantly re-evaluated and up for discussion by giving multiple performances of the same repertoire with alternating positions, which keeps things fresh at all times,” he says. Kay describes the invigorated spirit that characterized Orpheus’ initial formation and ongoing development: “The ideas that came from the sixties when we were young musicians, this uninhibited feeling of being able to achieve anything with our lust for freedom of expression…this got implemented in this new way of making music at Orpheus, which quickly became a sensation, and wildly recognized with a legendary long term contract by Deutsche Grammophone, previously unheard of for such a young ensemble.”

Photo credit: Matt Dine.

Producing four LPs every year in bi-annual recording sessions with the German label put Orpheus on the international map. With international star soloists flocking to record with the group, and composers submitting new commissions, Orpheus proudly looks back on its 71 albums, including its Grammy Award-winning take on Stravinsky in its 2000 recording, Shadow Dances, and 43 premieres of original, commissioned works.

Kay says Orpheus’ “amazing” recording streak lasted into the nineties, but has functionally ended as the recording industry has entered into an era of tumultuous change. “Recordings of Orpheus performances are still done, occasionally, mostly consisting of live recordings with patching sessions in the studio, but they have not gained the same recognition as marketing tools as our recordings from those previous years,” he remarks. “A decisive factor for our Carnegie Hall concert series and connected outreach tours remain our guest artists. Their choice depends a bit on logistical reasoning these days, but they all are established artists, who bring interesting ideas and enjoy collaborating in this personal interaction that we are about,” adds Kay.

Indeed, musicians at Orpheus remain involved on every level of the ensemble’s artistic, and by now quite elaborate administrative, process. From branding and ticket marketing, to setting the order of rehearsals, rotating concert masters and parts – which alternate for each performance and even each piece – every musician is involved.

Michael Volpert, renowned for his almost encyclopedic musical knowledge holds the title of ‘Director of Artistic Planning’ at Orpheus, and modestly describes his role as “making sure that everyone shows up at the right place at the right time.” While offering me coffee, Volpert shares his insights with me about Orpheus’ complex three-headed system, which comes up for election every three years. “With the orchestra’s growing success and mounting outreach strategies, the administrative system’s scope has to adjust,” he explains. Yet, the concert master committee makes sure the essentials continue to be in place. “The concert master tells me for each and every performance where the musicians are sitting, and who they want to sit with, who their stand partner for each piece will be, and who will play 2nd violin in this setting. It remains a totally democratic structure,” says Volpert.

This signature democratic mode of operation has been trademarked as the ‘Orpheus process,’ and has led to leadership research in other fields; studies and seminars on democratic leadership models inspired by Orpheus have been conducted at Harvard, Morgan Stanley and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospitals, among others. ‘Access Orpheus’ and the ‘Orpheus Institute’ are further symbols of the ensemble’s active outreach initiative, and the academic and entrepreneurial value of their method. These programs bring Orpheus’ process and institutional values, but also its engaging performances to students of all ages, and create opportunities for further artistic growth. After all, building new audiences is recognized as a premium responsibility of modern arts organizations and ensembles. Photo Credit: Matt Dine

This year, Orpheus has followed up on the salon concert format, with smaller ensemble performances held at the intimate space of violin and bow-maker Tarisio. “These concerts are ideal for getting to know young artists, and our commissioning process now also includes Jazz repertoire. Repertoire has to follow performance practice, and arranging larger works for smaller ensembles becomes also an important factor for staying relevant in a constantly changing music environment,” recognizes Kay.

To find out how Orpheus’ musicians will spend the next season, check out their concert schedule.