Certain large organizations don’t lend themselves to democracy: national banks, NFL teams, North Korea. Someone at the top must hand down decisions to the multitudes to preserve order.
Symphony orchestras function pretty much that way. Members of string quartets may debate from first bar to last, but groups of more than a dozen musicians need somebody to wave a baton before their obedient faces.
For 46 years, through six dozen albums and three Grammy nominations — including a 2000 win for a recording of Stravinsky miniatures — the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has played music from four centuries with assurance, insight and skill.
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You can hear these 30 musicians Jan. 9 at Halton Theater, in the kind of varied program they enjoy: the second performance ever of a work by James Matheson (“Still Life”), Dennis Russell Davies’ re-orchestration of Antonín Dvořák’s heart-melting Five Bagatelles, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 and Piano Concerto No. 27, featuring Javier Perianes. (The Spaniard was named Artist of the Year for 2019 by the International Classical Music Awards.)
This will be Orpheus’ fourth appearance in 23 years for Charlotte Concerts. Though membership changes, the philosophy never has. As violinist Miho Saegusa says, “People consider us a leaderless orchestra. We’re not. We’re an orchestra with 30 leaders.”
The players do elect an artistic coordinator, a programming coordinator and a personnel coordinator (Saegusa) to work closely with the executive director and marketing staff. But musicians may make suggestions about anything from repertoire to tempos to potential collaborators to composers who ought to be commissioned to write or re-orchestrate pieces.
This could lead to chaos, but Orpheus has refined the approach so well it won a 2007 Most Democratic Workplace award from Washington-based WorldBlu. The Orpheus Leadership Institute even teaches corporations how to imitate these musicians.
“We basically have a rehearsal for them,” says Saegusa. “They see how we interact with each other. A comment we often get is that we’re frank and honest, but there’s still respect.” (Wagner Denuzzo, IBM vice-president of leadership and management development, has said Orpheus “mirrors the collective leadership behaviors we are engendering at IBM….Their creative process is a perfect metaphor for the changes driving our transformation.”)
Musicians also have the freedom to pursue personal projects, whether teaching or recording or working in other ensembles. Saegusa, who plays with the Aizuri Quartet and IRIS Orchestra, believes “Whatever we do outside of Orpheus brings more to what we do in Orpheus when we get together again.”
So how does this democratic endeavor work?
It starts with auditions. Unlike big orchestras, Orpheus doesn’t put candidates behind screens that conceal age, race and gender. Saegusa sat in with the orchestra for seven or eight years before joining full-time in 2017.
“Because we are such a close-knit family, we need to see many sides of a musician,” she says. “They wanted to know not only how I played but how I worked in rehearsals, how I functioned as a contributing member, how I interacted with colleagues on tour, how I responded when asked to speak (publicly). Most musicians play for a number of years before they join us.”
Principal string and wind players come together for core rehearsals to iron out details such as bowing and discuss “big-picture shapes, the character we’re after in each movement. So when we go to the first full rehearsal, there’s a direction. But anyone is welcome to give ideas at that point.
“A musician can say, ‘This feels fast,’ and we’ll discuss whether we can keep the energy we want if we play slower. Then we’ll try it that way. Maybe it’s a matter of getting more comfortable with a fast tempo by practicing; maybe everyone will feel we bring out more details if we play slower. We might pick a certain way at one concert and something else the next. Nobody feels their ideas are shot down permanently.”
She admits this process may not always be efficient: Many ideas float around at once, musicians may not reach consensus, and someone in the core group may ultimately have to press forward toward a firm decision. Yet for a certain kind of player, this is the only satisfying approach.
Long ago, founding member Donald Palma left for a year to play double-bass in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He recently told San Francisco Classical Voice the bigger orchestra made him feel “artistically disenfranchised. I just hated it. I didn’t like to be told what to do all the time, being treated like I wasn’t really worth anything other than to be a good soldier….I felt powerless to affect things, particularly when they were not going well.”
Saegusa diplomatically notes that big orchestras suit some personalities better than others.
“Conductors can inspire you and bring out different ideas, and it’s your job to translate those. If that’s what you like doing, that’s a great fit. But if you want to generate those ideas on your own, that’s what Orpheus does. It takes a lot of time and energy, but we believe in this model.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Jan. 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave. Tickets $45-$65. Details: 704-330-6534 or charlotteconcerts.org.