Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
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New York, NY 10027-5788

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Back of group credit Neda Navaee

Orpheus Never Looks Back

A Group Portrait at Fifty

By Aaron Grad

On a frosty January morning in 2004, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was where it had been so many times before: rehearsing for hour upon hour in room 411 of Riverside Church. The room was just big enough to fit the thirty-odd musicians who would rehearse Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Sarah Chang, the 23-year-old superstar who was making her Orpheus debut.

"At first, I was terrified about having no conductor,” Chang recounted in a 2008 interview with Community News. “I didn’t think I could play without a conductor. But I fell in love with Orpheus.”

With its dreamy prelude full of mood swings and momentum shifts, Bruch’s concerto is wide open to diverse interpretations and riddled with potential snags. Way back in 1980, Orpheus settled on a rehearsal strategy that proved extraordinarily effective; for the first rehearsal of a piece, only a “core” group of principal players participates, allowing the democratic process to be most responsive and nimble. With the basic contours settled, the whole orchestra then joins for the remaining rehearsals. Every player is free to speak up and inject new ideas, and musicians take turns listening and commenting from a small landing at the top of the twin staircases that descend into the room.

“Our rehearsals were amazing,” Chang recalled. “I’ve never had such special rehearsals. We’re all equals. We try things. There’s a camaraderie, a chamber music feel.”

Playing with this communal mentality makes Orpheus unusually responsive to concerto soloists, and guest artists over the years have marveled at how freeing the experience is. In the case of Sarah Chang, the sound and feeling of the Bruch concerto swelled to match her explosive tone and emotional intensity. They would soon take their powerful rendition on tour to Florida and ultimately to Carnegie Hall, but first there was another item on the rehearsal agenda. At one tour stop, Orpheus member Liang-Ping How was scheduled to appear as the soloist in the same Bruch concerto, and so after Chang left, L.P. (as he’s known in the group) took his place up front, within the radius of principal string players.

An open secret of the industry is that no major orchestra rehearses as much as Orpheus, and it’s standard practice to make rehearsals of bread-and-butter concerto repertoire the most cursory of all. (An hour usually suffices to prepare a 25-30 minute piece.) The fact that L.P. would even get a rehearsal of his own in such a situation would be considered a luxury, and it would have been reasonable to assume that a perfunctory run-through would be plenty.

As soon as the rehearsal with L.P. started, it became clear that the careful attunement of Orpheus was backfiring. The orchestra was still playing Chang’s Bruch concerto, a gross mismatch for the understated, poetic nature of L.P.’s sound and personality. After some fumbling with how to proceed, someone in the orchestra landed on the only possible solution. They needed to erase the Chang rehearsals from their collective memory, and start over with a blank slate. And so they put their parts away, scratched with those arcane pencil marks musicians make for themselves, and asked their young orchestra librarian to quickly find unmarked copies of the sheet music. That was my cue to snap out of my awestruck stupor and get back to work.

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“One of Orpheus’ greatest strengths is its collective artistic memory,” says Ronnie Bauch, a violinist who was one of the group’s earliest members. “At the same time,” he notes, “it is actually the orchestra’s collective amnesia that has permitted it to survive intact.”

It was a form of artistic amnesia that allowed Orpheus to reimagine Bruch’s concerto in an instant. Equally important was the interpersonal amnesia that would allow these strong-willed musicians to wrangle a piece for hours on end, debating, arguing, occasionally throwing fits, and still come back the next day or next concert with no grudges. For Graham Parker, who served as General Director and then Executive Director from 2002 to 2010, he saw Orpheus as “a group that was determined to make music in a radically different way from its contemporaries, doing it the hard way to produce a better result.”

Orpheus has always functioned as a democratic band of equals, which has sometimes obscured the extent to which it began as the audacious product of one young man’s imagination. Julian Fifer was an accomplished cellist who grew up playing chamber music at home with his sisters, a violinist and pianist. A formative experience came in 1964, when the 13-year-old Fifer made the Dean’s List at his junior high school, and won a pair of tickets to see the New York Philharmonic play at Lincoln Center. Leonard Bernstein was on the podium, conducting a premiere by Varèse and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. Still indignant all these years later, Fifer recalled being “shocked by what I saw on stage, because there was this falling off of energy and involvement and commitment from the string players as you moved away from the center of power—the conductor.”

Fifer ended up attending Columbia University while studying cello privately with Claus Adam of the famed Juilliard Quartet, and he played chamber music under the guidance of another member of that quartet, violinist Robert Mann. Fifer thought seriously of forming his own quartet, but all the time he spent around string quartets also clued him into the interpersonal challenges that can fester in such a close-knit ensemble.

Turned off by traditional symphonic and chamber music career models, Fifer landed on a Goldilocks solution: he would form a small orchestra that operated like a string quartet. From his time hanging around the Juilliard School and attending a prestigious summer festival in Aspen, Fifer already knew plenty of talented young string players. He enlisted his roommate, horn player Dennis Lawless, to recruits the woodwinds. Nineteen musicians appeared on their first concert in 1972, on a program that mixed chamber music scores and works for small orchestra, culminating with the Beethoven Contredanses. An essential feature of Orpheus was present from that first concert, with musicians switching chairs between pieces to rotate in and out of leadership roles. And, of course, there was no conductor.

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This “conductorless” aspect of Orpheus has been the headline for much of the orchestra’s existence. There were times when Orpheus leaned into its most visible trait—like for its splashy Lincoln Center debut in 1974 at Alice Tully Hall, in a concert it dubbed “Music Minus One.” But more often, Orpheus has tried to refocus attention on what it actually is, namely an orchestra that operates according to the democratic principles of chamber music.

It’s a bit of a running joke within the organization how the “conductorless” thread has played out on the pages of The New York Times over the years. A preview of that pivotal 1974 program ran under the headline, “This Orchestra has 24 Conductors.” Four years later, previewing Orpheus’ debut at Carnegie Hall, the headline read, “The Orpheus Ensemble Has No Conductor to Blame.” (Let us give credit, though, to the critic Harold Schonberg, whose review in the same paper seemed to get it: “The musicians have been well trained, they listen to one another, their performances have polish and spirit. The tone is uniformly smooth and unforced, and solo work is handled with unostentatious flair. In effect, this was chamber music from a chamber orchestra.”)

It’s worth taking a step back to put the conductor question in context. The core repertoire of the chamber orchestra comes from the eighteenth century, spanning from the Baroque intricacies of Vivaldi, Bach and Handel to the Classical perfection of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The idea of a non-playing “conductor” would have been foreign to all of those composers, for whom part of the job description was leading the ensemble from the keyboard or first violin chair. The composer Louis Spohr is usually credited as the first conductor who stood in front of the orchestra with a baton starting in 1820, and the cult of the “maestro” as we know it is really a late-Romantic phenomenon. The era of commercial recordings and radio broadcasts only accelerated the divide between the subservient orchestra and its nominal master, elevating conductors into mythical mononyms: Toscanini; Stokowski, Bernstein.

The basic fact of playing Baroque and Classical repertoire without a conductor was not radical; it was simply a return to an earlier practice, which led many of the fledgling groups within the “historically informed performance” scene to experiment with the same idea in the 1960s and beyond, especially with Baroque repertoire. In Europe, the Prague Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1951 to perform the core classical repertoire without a conductor. Still, the lack of a conductor should not be confused with a lack of leadership structure and hierarchy. In those “conductorless” situations, there would still typically be one person with ultimate authority, usually the concertmaster (i.e. the first chair of the first violins, known as the “leader” in England). Players held fixed positions in their sections, and responsibility was far from equal.

In tune with the countercultural movement of the 1970s—the time of food co-ops and off-the-grid communes—the truly radical aspect of the Orpheus model was its rotating leadership. Longtime Orpheus violinist Martha Caplin puts it this way: “There are some who do more than others in a democratic process. At Orpheus, we take turns doing more than others, in the leadership roles. If a player is in one of those positions for a piece, like concertmaster, then that person’s responsibility is to inspire, to take the reins, to try to help create the energy.”

Like many in Orpheus, Caplin was an accomplished chamber musician, winning the Naumberg Prize in 1977 with the Primavera Quartet, which also included cellist and fellow Orphean Melissa Meell. When everyone in an orchestra plays with the same level of responsibility that they would in a chamber music setting, you achieve the opposite of that “falling off of energy” that Fifer lamented from traditional symphony orchestras. For Frank Morelli, a bassoonist with Orpheus for forty years and counting, the collective accountability within the group made it much more than just another gig; as he put it, “We played like our lives depended on it.”

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As the career of Orpheus gathered steam throughout the 1970s, this gang of twenty-somethings couldn’t stay stuck in their egalitarian idyll: rehearsing at all hours, planning concerts over Chinese food in Fifer’s apartment, staying up late to spin records on the hunt for repertoire, making copies of grant applications by writing them out longhand.

With its Carnegie Hall debut in 1978, followed soon after by noteworthy collaborations with Isaac Stern and Richard Goode, Orpheus was growing up. It was also becoming an international force, with a landmark seven-week tour in 1979 that took the orchestra to Israel, India and the greatest concert halls of Europe. Fifer assumed a clearer administrative role as Executive Director, and the group relied increasingly on a team of professionals from outside the orchestra, including Norma Hurlburt, whom Fifer referred to as his “right and left hand.”

Orpheus broke new ground in 1981 when it recorded two Mozart albums for Nonesuch, with one LP headlined by Richard Goode as the soloist in a pair of piano concertos, and another featuring the orchestra alone. A recording followed the next year for Pro Arte Records, featuring neoclassical scores by Stravinsky, including the Pulcinella Suite and “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto. That recording was engineered and produced by Wolf Erichson, who remained the architect of Orpheus’ recorded sound when it soon joined the roster of one of the world’s most prestigious record labels: Deutsche Grammophon.

The recordings that Orpheus made for Deutsche Grammophon in the 80s and 90s captured a group sound unlike any other chamber orchestra. No matter the repertoire, Orpheus always sounded free and flexible, daring to take speedy tempos and pivot instantaneously through extremes of dynamic contrast. Part of their recording ritual was that the entire orchestra would squeeze into the control booth during breaks to hear the playback of their takes, bringing the same stance of personal responsibility as in their performances.

As CDs spiked in popularity, Orpheus produced new albums for Deutsche Grammophon at an astonishing clip, usually recording two discs at a time. They tore through the chamber orchestra repertoire, releasing about four discs each year from 1985 through 1996, and sometimes more. Orpheus had a strong touring career even before the recordings, but the international reach of Deutsche Grammophon put them on a whole different level. Tours of Europe and Japan brought Orpheus worldwide acclaim, and all those opportunities to play together kept the ensemble in top shape. It also kept members away from home, and these weren’t single people in their twenties anymore. As it touched the highest peaks of artistic achievement, cracks in the Orpheus foundation were opening up.

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Fifer himself saw the writing on the wall in 1989, when his daughter was born. He played his last concerts that year and shifted to a purely administrative role to minimize his time on the road. Orpheus was trying to serve a global audience, which meant touring as much as possible, but the sacrifices that members made to serve the worldwide Orpheus “family” came with steep costs for their real-life families. Mounting tensions within the organization about its purpose and future eventually led to Fifer being asked to step aside from his executive leadership role, and before long he left the organization entirely amid a wave of management upheaval.

At a time of maximal instability inside the organization, and right when the CD industry began to crater from the onslaught of pirated file sharing, Orpheus was still soaring artistically. Deutsche Grammophon released a disc of Stravinsky miniatures under the title “Shadow Dances” in 2000, using masters it had stockpiled from sessions in 1995-96, and it earned Orpheus its first Grammy Award after three nominations. It also turned out to be the last Orpheus album that the label would release for nearly 20 years, until the orchestra partnered with pianist Jan Lisiecki for a disc of Mendelssohn concertos in 2019.

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Even after the drama of Fifer’s departure and some troubling administrative lapses in the aftermath, the Orpheus that I began working for in 2003 was still making music at the highest level. I was Production Manager and Librarian for an epic 17-day swing through Europe with the chanteuse Ute Lemper in 2004, and even though I worked like a dog, I felt like royalty tagging along with these wise, worldly musicians. It wasn’t just the music, like when they played for a packed house in Vienna’s fabled Musikverein. It was the dinner in Valencia, where I joined a group of musicians and feasted on paella from a pan the size of a truck tire, sampling a local wine that violist Nardo Poy bought for the table at a price I couldn’t fathom. It was the bone-numbing exhaustion and satisfaction of riding a coach bus to a new city each day and putting on a great show among great company, then waking up before dawn to do it again the next day. It was the graciousness of working musicians who treated me like an equal and pitched in far more than they had to.

That cabaret-style production with Ute Lemper was one of the innumerable directions Orpheus tested in the 2000s to try to keep its career moving forward. When Graham Parker joined the administration, he saw his role as trying to honor “the essence of the group, which was to constantly push the boundaries of what anyone thought was normal or acceptable for chamber orchestra.” Under his watch, the orchestra tried playing as a bigger orchestra and stretching into Romantic repertoire; they crowdsourced input and commissioned emerging composers through Project 440; they performed choral music for the first and only time, in Bach’s Magnificat; they crossed over into popular genres in collaborations with Gabe Kahane, Brad Mehldau, Ravi Shankar and Wayne Shorter. And they still managed to produce a string of CDs with notable concerto partners, like a Four Seasons disc with Sarah Chang and more Mozart piano concertos with Jonathan Biss.

Even amid an industry-wide downturn in touring and recording that followed the Great Recession, the musicians continued to play with typical Orpheus flair: There they were, performing Mozart with André Watts and Tchaikovsky with Vadim Gluzman; commissioning Jessie Montgomery and Vijay Iyer years before the rest of the orchestra world started clamoring over them; earning rave reviews like the one from 2016 in The New York Times that celebrated Orpheus’ “magnificently detailed expression” and “springy lightness” that “left a profound impression.”

One byproduct of Orpheus’ success is that its democratic approach, which once seemed so outlandish, has become an attractive template for emerging ensembles all over the world. The spread of this model is a proud part of the Orpheus legacy, and it also helps in the never-ending quest to shift the focus off of the matter of how it makes music. What really counts is what is being played—which for Orpheus, has leaned increasingly toward adventurous programming of new works and arrangements that spotlight diverse composers at all career stages—and, above all, how it sounds in the end.

It’s impossible to separate the collective Orpheus sound from the individuals who co-create it, which surfaces the biggest question facing the organization as it reaches this milestone anniversary. A number of founding and early members have retired in recent years, and the few players left from the old guard are in their 70s now and dealing with the inevitable challenges of keeping up a physically demanding job. Many longtime members also hold other high-profile positions as players and teachers in New York and beyond, limiting their ability to play every Orpheus set, but until they relinquish the membership seats they hold so precious, there is no way for new members to rise into the ranks. Orpheus addressed this predicament by adding a category of Associate Member to open up a different path to include trusted musicians, and after some tough conversations, senior members are being more transparent about their paths to retirement.

Personally, I find these questions of aging to be among the most inspiring facets of the Orpheus story. How do you pass the torch without breaking the chain of collective wisdom? What does it take to create an intergenerational culture of honesty and honoring? In a society that warehouses and trivializes its elders, within a humbled and divided country unable to work together, I don’t see many examples of leaders owning their vulnerabilities and choosing to put others before themselves. But if any powerful and privileged group can model a way to let go of the past and lift up the future with humility and grace, it might just be this 50-year-old experiment in self-governing musical democracy. If Orpheus can reorient its identity around selfless leadership and service to its community, can’t we all?

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Cellist James Wilson has seen Orpheus from both sides, starting with a memorable concert he attended in 1980 as a 15-year-old, when the orchestra visited his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. He moved to New York after a long run as a member of the Shanghai Quartet, and in 2006 he played his first Orpheus concert. The retirement of longtime member Julia Lichten opened up a cello chair for the first time in decades, and Wilson was elected a member in 2014. He went on to be elected as one of three rotating artistic directors, and his duties cover everything from community engagement programs to the orchestra’s dress code (which recently removed gender delineations in its concert attire options).

“We’re an orchestra in this age when everyone is trying to reinvent what a chamber group can be,” Wilson explains. “I think you can also reinvent what an orchestra can be to your community and to the world. Who are you really serving? You can shoot for the big glamorous things, like world tours and recordings, and then that becomes what you serve. But the small things remain super important.”

Among the musicians and administration, the program they speak about with the most excitement is Orpheus Reflections, in which members bring music to those living with dementia. The musicians receive training from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America and CaringKind, and the program is expanding with massive new support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Orpheus is also bringing concerts to smaller venues—echoing the very first grant in 1972 that funded chamber music performances around the city. That way, says bassoon member and artistic director Gina Cuffari, “We can start to connect and develop different audiences. That's the whole point for me. Who are you playing for? Who are you engaging?”

In Wilson’s view, “I would love to see Orpheus become the artistic embodiment of New York City, with all its creativity and fracas and diversity—all that, and sophistication too, and a can-do spirit, which has always been an Orpheus trait.”

Orpheus is betting on its future by finding musicians like Abi Fayette, the only member in her twenties today, and one who is pushing the orchestra forward since first subbing in 2017 and becoming a member in 2020. She is a natural-born Orphean, coming from a musical family and bringing years of chamber music experience. “I am very stubborn as a person,” Fayette says, “and I am very outspoken and feel very strong in my beliefs. So I just go out and do what I do, knowing that I have this massive support system behind me.”

As Alexander Scheirle sees it from his perch as Executive Director since 2016, “It's not enough to just play on the world's greatest stages. You have a responsibility within society, and you have to be relevant for your community. Our future may not only be about how we play, or what repertoire we add to the canon. It’s about how we ground ourselves in our community, how we cooperate, how we collaborate, how we treat others with respect.”

To fans of classical music, Orpheus is thrilling because of how well it executes a particular set of tasks to play complicated music as a cohesive ensemble. For the much larger part of the population that doesn’t yet have that musical frame of reference, Orpheus is thrilling because it is a visible and audible demonstration of the power of trust. These musicians continually test the limits of what can be achieved cooperatively, not by getting along quietly, but by infecting each other with their enthusiasms and passions and being willing at all times to hear and affirm an idea that’s better than their own. One concert at a time, they do in music what it seems like we all would like to master in personal relationships, politics, and any other thorny aspect of life that goes along with being an individual in a collective society. At every gig, for fifty years and counting, Orpheus shows up attuned and present, ready to play hard and listen intently. Their future may or may not look anything like their past, but it hardly matters, since they’re not looking back.

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