Since my early childhood, my parents wanted me to become a musician. They sent me to music school where I learned to play the piano, and took me to the movies to watch films about great composers and musicians. I hated it, but I learned to love music, especially opera. I also learned to appreciate the intricacies and complexities of playing in an orchestra. So when I heard that there is an orchestra in New York City that plays without a conductor, I was intrigued. What’s more, I learned that it is not some short-lived experiment, and this year, the orchestra, called Orpheus, is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and its motto is “Extraordinary musical experiences through innovative collaboration.”
Orpheus prides itself in its “unique capacity to create collectively,” and has been playing regularly at Carnegie Hall. To date, it has recorded more than 70 albums with labels such as Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch and others. According to the Orpheus’ website, “The sound of Orpheus is defined by its relationships.”
As a music fan, I know how challenging it must be for an orchestra of 30 musicians to create good and moving music. “It’s one thing for the four players of a string quartet to lean in to the group sound and react spontaneously,” admits the orchestra’s own website, “but with 20 or 30 musicians together, the complexities and payoffs get magnified exponentially.”
I think it is almost unnatural. The conductor is the mind behind the notes that each musician plays. Without a conductor to channel each musician’s ego for the good of the ensemble, it is a wonder that such a group can feel each other and play together harmoniously.
However, if musicians agree to “conduct” their own egos, and the musicians in Orpheus clearly do, then they can truly listen to each other and create a new level of harmony. Such a level cannot be achieved if a flesh-and-blood conductor imposes his or her will on the players. Only if the players “choose” to listen to the orchestra rather than to themselves can they reach a new level of musicianship.
It takes great inner work to do this. In this orchestra, not only the string, woodwind and brass instruments must be in tune, but above all, the hearts of the musicians who play them.
by Chris Lee Photographer
(For more information see their web site https://orpheusnyc.org/)