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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,
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
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, 800-ALLEGRO. With Eric Wyrick, violin.
$17 to $54. Friday, November 29, 8 p.m.
Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Pre-performance lecture ($6)
at 7 p.m. $25 to $50 Sunday, December 8, 8 p.m.
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
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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