The Orpheus Business Model

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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 27, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Musicmaking by Consensus

Most of the time, a conductor stands before an orchestra,

controlling tempo and traffic. But not always. Neither the New Jersey

Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) concert on Friday, November 29, in Richardson

Auditorium, nor the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert on Sunday, December

8, in New Brunswick’s State Theater will use conductors. Although

the NJSO normally has a conductor on the podium, Orpheus shuns a single

musical leader. Nonetheless, Orpheus has grown a unique international

reputation for its marriage of musical excellence and free-wheeling


The NJSO program, balanced toward the classical, includes Rossini’s

overture to "Semiramide a work for full orchestra;" Dvorak’s

"Serenade" in D minor, a chamber piece for winds plus cello

and double bass; and Vivaldi’s set of four violin concertos, "The

Four Seasons," which is frequently led by the soloist. NJSO concertmaster

Eric Wyrick solos in the Vivaldi.

The eclectic Orpheus program includes Faure’s "Masques et Bergamasques

Suite," Osvaldo Golijov’s "Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra;"

his "Last Round," for strings; and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39

in E-flat major, K. 543.

Golijov is a contemporary Argentinian-born composer who studied at

the University of Pennsylvania and is now on the faculty at the College

of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Soprano Dawn Upshaw,

whose freshness survives her mega-stardom, sings his "Three Songs."

Upshaw first performed the song cycle in March with the Minnesota

Orchestra, which commissioned Golijov’s new orchestrations of the

pieces. The cycle makes its New Jersey debut in the State Theater

concert and its New York debut on December 12 at Carnegie Hall.

The cycle draws on diverse ethnic materials. In "Night of the

Flying Horses" a Yiddish lullaby composed by Golijov for Sally

Potter’s film "The Man Who Cried" morphs into gypsy music.

A poem by the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca is the basis for "Lua

Descolorida," although Golijov says that its strongest inspiration

was "Dawn Upshaw’s rainbow of a voice." Two poems by American

poet Emily Dickinson provide the text for "How Slow the Wind."

Upshaw is equally at home in opera and musical theater; with baroque

and contemporary music; and at television and recording studios. Her

conversations with U.S. 1 appeared December 19, 1990, and October

27, 1999. Named Musical America’s vocalist of the year in 2000, she

is a frequent guest performer with Orpheus.

Orpheus’ process of sharing and rotating leadership roles is the key

to its personality, according to a spokesman. For each work an elected

committee of musicians chooses the concertmaster and principal players

of each section. Looking into tempi, the shape of phrases, their sonic

profile, and how to connect and separate individual notes, the core

group delineates an overall vision of the music. It then presents

its interpretations to the whole orchestra. In the final rehearsal

all members of the orchestra refine the interpretation and its execution.

Members take turns listening from the auditorium for balance, blend,

and clarity.

Orpheus’ roster of players includes instrumentalists

who have made parallel careers in conventional musical circles. NJSO

concertmaster Wyrick and NJSO first-chair cellist Jonathon Spitz are

among them. At one time or another almost a dozen NJSO instrumentalists

have played with Orpheus.

"With a conductorless orchestra the concertmaster becomes the

focal point of musical intent," Wyrick says in a telephone interview.

Does he consider himself a substitute conductor for the NJSO program?

"No," Wyrick says, "not any more than I do in Orpheus.

As concertmaster, I need to do some leading, but I need to follow

others’ initiative. My job is to lead the rehearsal and coordinate


Wyrick has put in place a modified Orpheus process for the NJSO concert.

"This is probably the first regular subscription concert without

a conductor," he says. "In the interest of expediency, I’ll

do a lot of preparatory work. The Orpheus model requires a lot of

rehearsal. You never know how people will respond. It depends on their

role in the music. If there is a strong oboe presence, hopefully that

player will take a strong initiative in determining how the piece

will be played."

"When we play the Rossini," Wyrick says, "it’s clear that

we’ll be taking a fresh look at who we are." Traditionally, the

piece uses a conductor. Planning the rehearsal of the work Wyrick

says, "looking at the score you can see that it begins with a

tympani tremolo, then the cellos begin a rhythmic motif at bar five,

then the violins join four bars later. Everyone playing must know

the score before we sit down and rehearse. Everybody has to be prepared

in a special way: they need to know when to come in, and from whom

to expect a cue. There’s a horn quartet in the Rossini. It will require

the horns to be self-sufficient. I’m not going to tell them how to


Wyrick has confidence that a conductorless NJSO will perform well.

"Hopefully, we’ll learn that since we have self reliance with

a conductor, we’re ahead of the curve. This is a very conscientious

orchestra. But I think we’ll all learn about how to prepare differently."

"The preparation using a score that has to be done without a conductor

is the studying that conductors do. I hope that people will assume

the skills of a conductor, so we’ll have a lively exchange. Even with

a conductor people bring to rehearsal a broad knowledge of score.

I hope we’ll go even beyond what we’ve established as our normal preparation."

"I like to believe there is no limit to the level of responsibility

that players can achieve even with a conductor. Whatever we do on

our own enhances the performance. The conductor gets the credit, but

we shouldn’t be afraid to be responsible just because of that."

Are there situations that demand a conductor? "Yes," says

Wyrick, citing big romantic symphonies. However, he thinks that Orpheus

can manage without a conductor in pieces where other groups might

have difficulty. "Difficult repertoire requires people accustomed

to working together. There’s so much trust involved. Orpheus manages

things where other groups would need conductor. It’s a team development."

Still, Wyrick says, there is something to be said for the experience

of playing under a conductor. "Each group has its own skill,"

he says. "The New Jersey Symphony has certain skills that Orpheus

doesn’t have. A Brahms Symphony is a little too big to play without

a conductor. The problem is how to lead it effectively. There’s an

advantage in the experience that the NJSO brings to symphonies."

Wyrick’s ultimate test of a performance is the quality

of the music, not the presence or absence of a conductor. "Say

we’re playing the same piece, the goal is to make music, not to promote

one political idea over another. Playing without a conductor, musicmaking

by consensus, is more democratic. With a conductor it’s autocratic.

In that sense performing is political. But when we’re trying to make

music, we want to be as true as possible to the wishes of the composer.

He’s the real boss of the evening."

There are some practical differences. Without a conductor, who will

start the piece? There’s no one to stand there and beat. "The

real difference is in rehearsal. That’s when we work out how it’s

done. Without a conductor the interpretation has to evolve. It’s more

efficient with a conductor; we know who’s going to decide, who will

start things, and who will tells us what the interpretation will be."

Wyrick was born in 1960 to a vocalist father and a pianist mother.

He grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York. He started violin at four, when

his parents brought home a tiny violin. "I liked the idea,"

he says. He began studies with Dorothy DeLay at age six, and continued

with her until he reached 20. His brother Peter is associate principal

cellist of the San Francisco Symphony.

Wyrick’s first professional orchestral position was with the Hudson

Valley; he was 14 at the time. His varied career includes a 15-year

stint as assistant concertmaster of the New York City Opera, where

he gained significant musical insights. "Listening to vocal music

and playing in an opera orchestra develops intuitive music making,"

he says. "The voice is what instrumentalists try to "

In 1998, performing with Orpheus, Wyrick was one of the first Americans

to play in Hanoi after a 30-year hiatus. "It was very important

to me to play there," he says. "It was a beautiful opera house

and a receptive, warm audience. The people of Hanoi were generous

and welcoming. Music is truly the international language."

In international communication sometimes a translator is a necessary

link between sender and receiver. A conductor does something of the

same sort when he intervenes between composer and performers on one

side, and the audience on the other. In both the NJSO concerts and

the Orpheus performance performers and audience are in direct touch

with each other. Look, Ma, no translators.

— Elaine Strauss

Virtuosi of the NJSO, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, 800-ALLEGRO. With Eric Wyrick, violin.

$17 to $54. Friday, November 29, 8 p.m.

Orpheus with Dawn Upshaw, State Theater, 15 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Pre-performance lecture ($6)

at 7 p.m. $25 to $50 Sunday, December 8, 8 p.m.

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The Orpheus Business Model

Since its founding in 1972, the conductorless Orpheus

Chamber Orchestra has won its way into the hearts of music lovers.

Through concerts and a discography of more than 60 recordings, the

intimacy, immediacy, and precision of its playing appeal to discerning


Members of the orchestra, as well as outsiders consider the key to

Orpheus’ musical intensity and vitality to be its unique system of

multiple leaders, rather than a single head. Musically at one in performance,

members of the orchestra also experience a unique harmony in personnel


The orchestra has developed a double-faceted niche in the world as

both a model of musical excellence and an inspiration for effective

management. It has occupied residencies at schools of business. It

has been a force at seminars about management, such as the workshop

earlier this month of the Peter J. Drucker Foundation in Philadelphia.

Its operations have been tracked on film, television, and in print.

Orpheus is featured in the book "Leadership Ensemble: Lessons

in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestra"

by Harvey Seifter, who served as the group’s executive director, and

Peter Economy. A case study by J. Richard Hackman, a Harvard professor

of social and organizational psychology, is to be released during

the 2002-’03 academic year.

In a phone interview violinist Ronnie Bauch, presently

Orpheus’ managing director, talks about his role in the orchestra’s

entry into the world of business. "As artistic coordinator, it

fell to me to lead the seminars," he says. The artistic director

is one of three elected directors; the term is three years. The personnel

coordinator and the program coordinator have two-year terms. Terms

are staggered and there are no term limits. "These positions are

fairly complicated," Bauch says. "They require training and

hands-on experience."

The Hackman study, Bauch explains, looked into job satisfaction in

orchestras throughout the country and found that Orpheus’ members

were generally happier than members of traditional orchestras. "As

additional study of Orpheus went on companies came to be interested,"

he says. "We started doing little talks and demonstrations. I

saw it as an opportunity for us to make contact with corporations,

and also to devise a business model having to do with managerial structure

and modes of leadership and communication."

"There have been objections to our model," he says. "Critics

say, `Orpheus is an ivory tower. How could we apply the Orpheus model

to our hospital, with its rigid organization? Or to a university?’

But in fact the University of Chicago School of Economics modeled

their structure after Orpheus. These ideas can be applied to flat

management or to hierarchy. Our philosophy is not to say that one

managerial structure is better than another. We look for a system

that best fits the particular organization. There are always ways

to improve leadership and communication. Refinements and improvements

are always possible."

Bauch points out that the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has been exploring

ways to involve musicians in all activities of musical organization,

but that it is not the only orchestra to do so. "We’ve helped

expand Orpheus principles to other orchestras," he says.

Musically speaking, the benefits of the Orpheus model are beneficial

for both new music and standard repertoire, Bauch says. At once, he

sets aside the single drawback of the Orpheus process.

"Up front, we need to invest more rehearsal time," he says.

Then he expands on the advantages. "Because the whole orchestra

is responsible for knowing the score, it’s much easier to put together

new music for repeat performances and over time. The other pros are

not exclusive to new music: First, there’s a tendency for details

to come out in our performances that won’t come out in a conducted

performance. Partly that’s because of the time we spend. But also

it’s because we have in the orchestra advocates for inner voices and

for specific details."

The Orpheus procedure is a plus when complex timing is involved, Bauch

says. "My experience is that often pieces with complicated rhythmic

schemes are easier to play when the rhythms are internalized by everybody,

rather than when players react to a single individual."

For new music Bauch points out an Orpheus advantage that combines

musical and management benefits. "We’ve had a lot of experience

doing new music," he says. "There are places that are easier

without a conductor. It leaves out a layer of administration."

— Elaine Strauss

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