The Violin Channel recently caught up with James Wilson – one of three Artistic Directors of the acclaimed New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
In a VC-exclusive interview, James gives us insight into the unique characteristics of the innovative conductor-less ensemble – in which all 34 musicians rotate leadership roles democratically.
Thank you James. Please tell us about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra?
“I always joke that Orpheus is like the magical unicorn of orchestras.
It was started in 1972 by a group of young musicians in New York City who wanted to approach the orchestral literature through the lens of chamber music.
Over the years, we’ve developed an approach to rehearsing and performing that leans on cooperation, body language and group interpretation.
To this day, the members have strong professional backgrounds in the chamber music world, and we look to play with musicians who not only have technical brilliance, but have something unique to say both in their music and their lives.
As you can imagine, unleashing thirty or so strong and opinionated personalities at once can sometimes be chaotic, but it produces energetic, engaged and glorious results”
The orchestra is obviously unique in its approach, being conductorless and without leadership hierarchy amongst its members – tell us about this progress and philosophy?
“Orpheus is unique in that it was the pioneer of the conductorless approach to orchestral playing.
Now there are many orchestras across the world who use this model, but there are still very few that have the same egalitarian approach among its members.
We rotate fully in each section, rotating concertmasters as well. In our model of hierarchy there have even been times when the concertmaster of the orchestra was not a violinist.
That being said, we do have an internal structure to facilitate rehearsals and performances.
The group of players who lead the sections form what we call the “core.”
The core players often rehearse by themselves in advance of the entire group to discuss major ideas with tempi and concept.
Then in rehearsals the core provides guidance in the interpretation, but any musician is empowered to suggest interpretive ideas.
We also have designated listeners who put down their instruments and simply listen to hear what is working and what isn’t. Again the listeners can be anyone from the orchestra.
The concertmaster meanwhile gathers the comments, keeps an eye on the clock, and with the rest of the core players makes interpretative decisions through the rehearsal time.
While a lot of this is verbal, as in chamber music much of the creative spark of the process comes from the unspoken – hearing our colleagues play and interacting with them”
What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to chamber music making?
“In Orpheus, the high level of engagement from all members of the orchestra creates a tremendous energy. The last chair of any section plays at 200%. This creates tremendous drive and excitement.
The trick is to reign it all in and produce music that is cohesive and polished – and that brings us to the reality of time management!
As many of your readers know, the chamber music approach to music-making takes hours upon hours of playing and experimentation.
Being a unionized orchestra in NYC with members who wear multiple professional hats, Orpheus doesn’t have the luxury of unlimited rehearsal time.
That’s where the beauty of the rehearsal techniques outlined above which we call the “Orpheus Process” comes into play.
On the personal level, sometimes things can get pretty heated in our discussions. People feel very strongly about their opinions, and have to come to Orpheus with as thick a skin as they can.
But at the end of the day, we all have tremendous respect for each other and the orchestra, and the music making goes onwards and upwards”
What is your process for putting together your programming?
“More like a large chamber ensemble than a small orchestra, Orpheus is a touring group with a large local presence in NYC.
So we work with our various presenters and venues to produce programs that work for both them and us.
We have an Artistic Planning Group (comprised of three orchestra members who are Artistic Directors, our General Manager, Executive Director and Director of Artistic Planning) who work together democratically to design programs based on musical dreams, cultural messaging, financial practicality and ease of operations.
Sounds complicated? It is! But it is also a lot of fun and makes us feel engaged with the values of our home city and the cultural network world-wide”
Outside of the concert stage, the ensemble also puts together a number of education and leadership initiatives. Could you tell us about these and why they are important to your overall mission?
“Orchestras cannot simply play concerts and not engage with their community and culture. They have to be good and inspiring citizens as well as accomplished artists.
This is especially true for Orpheus, as our orchestra embodies democratic principles as well as the inspiration of music.
Our educational programming for public school students in NYC, Access Orpheus, brings music to young people across the city through visits to schools, invitations to rehearsals and free tickets to performances.
At our concerts in Carnegie Hall, we sometimes have up to 600 students attending our programs free of charge!
Orpheus Music Academy is our umbrella program for hands-on training for intermediate through pre-professional musicians.
Our Orpheus Reflections program brings live music (and now digital content) to people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia and their caregivers.
This has become a powerful program not only for communities we engage, but for the orchestral members themselves, many of whom have personal experience dealing with these illnesses.
And for decades now we have been consultants and presenters of our unique process through our Orpheus Leadership Institute programs – we travel nationwide to help corporate, educational and other professional teams learn and benefit from our model of inclusive leadership”
What are you most looking forward to this season?
This is a good place to address the reality all performing arts institutions are facing right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around the world and in my own household, the big questions are “when can we get back to making music together?” and “what will it be like when we do?”
At this point no one knows the answers to these questions, and yet music is something that we’re used to turning to during times of crisis.
Like many arts institutions, Orpheus is pivoting to digital content to fill the important need for art. So in the near future, I’m looking forward to seeing how we fill that need and bring our beauty, humor and inspiration to the world online.
It’s a great challenge but there are so many ideas and possibilities!
That being said, the concert season we have planned for 2020-21 is full of exciting collaborations and important cultural touchstones. It kicks off with an unusual mash-up of Beethoven’s “Egmont,” featuring the amazing soprano Karen Slack and an engaging new adaptation of the Goethe’s Egmont, created by Philip Boehm, juxtaposed with Valerie Coleman’s “Phenomenal Women” a concert suite inspired by famous women like Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama.
It’s a concert all about justice, courage and inspiration, personified by two great composers from different cultures and times.
I’m also really looking forward to a national tour with our long-time collaborator, the brilliant saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
He’ll be seated within the orchestra for a new commission by Courtney Bryan based on the familiar story of Carmen.
When I think about this next season, it’s exciting to part of Orpheus as we take off in this new direction where programming, historical tradition and social justice all take the stage together”
What’s the future hold for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra?
“This is the big existential question that I’m sure all orchestras, and all performing arts organizations will be asking themselves for the next year.
As completely disruptive as this time is for Orpheus, I’m confident that in the end it will help clarify what kind of group we want to be in the future. What kind of music do we want to play? How can we better help to serve our community in NYC and those where we tour? What kind of skills do we want our players to have? How can we continue to embody the spirit of freedom and leadership in a time of crisis?
In a couple years, Orpheus will be celebrating its 50th anniversary season and I’m sure that the group at that point in time will be different from what is it now, I just don’t know how yet. Orpheus is an orchestra that is always evolving, and this is just a step in its evolution.
The VC Orpheus Festival will have a two-day fundraising goal of $25,000 – with all donations made going directly to support the Orpheus Emergency Fund to bolster the orchestra’s commitment to continue paying musicians and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic | Donations can be made at www.orpheusnyc.org/donate