Follow the Music

While some may see an orchestra without a conductor as a recipe for helter skelter, others see it as a breeding ground for talent, inspiration, and expression. Just ask the 31 members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, who forgo a conductor in favor of a democratic approach to orchestral execution. 

   Founded in 1972 by Julian Fifer, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has spent decades honing the Orpheus Process, an original method that trades the totalitarian role of the conductor in favor of coming to a common concensus. In doing so, the group behaves more like a chamber music entity than a traditional orchestra.

   On January 25, Orpheus arrives at the Kravis Center along with guest soloist Khatia Buniatishvili. The evening’s program is  typical of Orpheus repertoire in that it features some pieces once designed for chamber groups that have now been arranged for a full orchestra, such as Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for two pianos. To get a better sense of the Orpheus Process and what to expect from the concert, we chatted with Eric Wyrick, a violinist who has performed with Orpheus since 1988 and is now the group’s artistic coordinator.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Matt Dine How would you explain the Orpheus Process to someone unfamiliar with the concept?

Wyrick: We call it a democratic process, but I don’t know that it is. We do some voting on things, but we don’t vote on interpretations, for instance. In a rehearsal, it’s not democratic at all. It’s kind of like committee work where everybody just gives their opinion. You have certain people who have a strong public way of presenting their ideas and then you have to find a way to either refute them or agree. You have to find alliances within the group.

But the structure is kind of interesting because we do vote on certain higher functioning [details] in a hierarchal way. We vote on artistic directors, which I am now one of three. One person is a program coordinator, and that person is in charge of generating programs. One person is the personnel coordinator, and that person is in charge of the strategy for hiring and distributing the talent. The other person is—what I am—the artistic coordinator, which is meant to be in liaison with management in a structural way. I work on the rehearsal scheduling and I also meddle in other people’s business. … We do a lot of sharing of responsibilities. Our biggest job is being consultants with the management. They need an artistic point of view, being not necessarily professional musicians themselves.

How does this structure encourage artistic expression and growth?

Eric Wyrick

Because we are trained in an overview. We’re trained to be like a conductor listening to the entire thing and making value judgments based on a higher level perspective—not in terms of the position but just in terms of looking at the whole and trying to figure out which details matter for that whole. We’re trained in that way, whereas an orchestral musician may have those skills, but they’re not required. 

The way this is most effective is we rotate people to go out into the audience to hear the entire show, and then that person comes back and gives that higher perspective, but everybody has to do it because then you’re informed as to how to play your own part. What’s coming across in the viola section, for instance.

It’s very different than if someone tells you to do it because there’s trust involved. [You have to ask] do I agree with that person’s assessment of how I’m playing? But if you go with them, you realize ‘oh my, I really have to exaggerate that.’ You have to commit to that change of character or change of projection, and it’s really very effective. I don’t see anything more effective as a self-training than that kind of perspective and self-evaluation. It’s really important. So we all do that. We’re training ourselves and then we get to trust the others who are listening because we know what they’re saying is true because we were there. The growth in a rehearsal based on that is unlike any other orchestral experience.

Do you feel there are any downsides or inherent obstacles in this structure?

Oh sure, there are tremendous downsides. It’s really hard to come to a consensus because you have several different opinions working and you have to respect the different opinions. To rehearse a different program can, if you do it well, take twice the amount of time as an orchestra where the decisions are being made for you.

How do you all make up for a lack of a conductor at performances? What forces keep everything together?

We all walk out on stage as if we are the soloists and we all take a bow; we all take the credit for what’s going on. We sit down, and the concert master generally starts the performance. [In the rehearsal process] we’ve already done one session of core players, which are the principals of the sections; a string quartet base and principal wind players will get together and go over the piece and work on gestures for staying together and work on phrasing that will be disseminated throughout the rehearsal to the rest of the group. Then we get to the next rehearsal with the rest of the group and it gets torn apart, so we modify our ideas, but we agree to them. Now we’re on stage and we use that as our final agreement and what happens on stage might be very different than in rehearsal but we know where the gestures are coming from, we know the overall structure, we know the characters we want to achieve. Then there are intangibles that happen that are reacted to like a chamber music performance. It becomes a big chamber music activity and we are all on the edge of our chairs, so you develop this sixth sense about where we’re going and what could happen. The performance energy is kinetic and it’s like another state of being.

Why is commissioning new work such an important mission to the orchestra?

Chamber orchestra repertoire is wonderful. It’s very deep and satisfying, but it’s not quite as varied as symphonic orchestra repertoire. We have to expand the repertoire all the time, and we’re very committed to new music and living composers. We work hard to commit to commissions, and that’s one of our core values. We don’t shy away for fear of losing audiences. We try to program and hire soloists and so forth as part of a balanced program to make it possible for us to commission, to make it possible for us to play serious music and also to be popular with our audiences.

Let’s talk about your performance at the Kravis Center on January 25. This performance will feature a guest soloist. How does the task of bringing in a guest soloist work within the Orpheus process?

It’s hard to find soloists who fit into our process of making music and rehearsing and so forth, so we have to research very carefully. We find people’s recommendations very helpful in that regard. We haven’t played with Khatia yet, but this is going to be a good program for her, I think. There’s a very dark and mysterious Mozart concerto, and she certainly projects that persona in her publicity material.

For the soloists, do you find they’re often more intimidated by the prospect of performing without a conductor or more excited by it?

I think it’s more exciting. I’ve played as soloist with the orchestra many times and it has more challenges, but then it’s also easier in a way because the musicians follow in a more immediate way. They’re not reacting to a conductor who’s following you. It’s not once removed, it’s direct reaction to the soloist.

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