In the 1970’s, a group of musicians with a radical idea about how to create music reached all the way back to the Greek God of Music, Orpheus, for inspiration. Over the last forty years Orpheus has become one of the world’s premier chamber orchestras. The thirty-two members, who may grow to forty or more for certain works, attribute their success to a singular feature: Orpheus Orchestra has no conductor.
Orpheus selects what it performs through a democratic process, and exchanges leadership for each piece among themselves. The members know who is ‘leading’ each piece, but the audience may not: no one stands in front with a baton. “Rehearsals are different from anywhere else. Any musician can stop, put up his hand and say, ‘I heard this at bar 18. How about we try this?’ At Orpheus, everyone is listening to everyone. You would never see a musician do that under Seiji Ozawa.”
Michael Naess, Orpheus’ Director of Marketing (firstname.lastname@example.org), believes the Orpheus process is integral to their success and distinctive sound. “Look at Berlin or Vienna; it is the vision of one director. Orpheus is always about the ‘we’, not the ‘I’. Music is such a creative effort. We don’t want it to be limited by one perspective.”
Michael is a drummer and pianist by training with a marketer’s exuberance. He was a sales rep at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, a subscription salesman in Toronto, and Associate Marketing Director at Carnegie Hall before coming into full bloom with Orpheus. He thrives in being part of an organization where the culture of the orchestra permeates through the Board and administration. “At Carnegie Hall, you get a program and you sell it. At Orpheus, you’re part of the conversation from the beginning. Everyone participates, everyone is heard.”
What are the constraints of this seemingly satisfying process? “It takes time; time that is worth every penny in additional rehearsal and coordination. Everyone understands that disagreements will happen, and they can be beneficial. It’s an ever-flowing process. When they perform the same concert program in fifteen different locations, the last concert will not be the same as the first.”
Orpheus performs four concert programs a year at their musical home in Carnegie Hall and then tour to cities all over the world. Most concerts feature guest soloists; many feature commissioned works. “We like to work with composers like Jessie Montgomery, an African–American who grew up around recording studios. Her music does not correspond to any genre.”
Orpheus runs two educational programs that reflect their musical and organization strengths. Their distinctive organization has earned Orpheus WorldBlu recognition as a democratic workplace and enabled them to provide inspiration well beyond what most orchestras offer. The Orpheus Institute facilitates programs on collective decision-making for a wide array of organizations, such as IBM, where a group of musicians recently facilitated a workshop that included an open rehearsal. Participants witnessed how Orpheus’ collective process impacts the evolution of a musical performance.
Michael, a runner preparing for his twentieth marathon this fall, usually runs from his Astoria home to Orpheus’ Riverside Drive offices. His most memorable marathon to date was along the Great Wall of China. “It’s all steps up and down and the air is poor, so no one has a good time. But you are running along one of the Wonders of the World.” He hopes to run Boston for his fiftieth marathon. Even among New Yorkers, Boston shines as the premier marathon. Michael’s also an avid AirBNB host. “I’ve introduced over 175 people to New York. I would say I do it 50/50 for the money and the experience. I have contacts all over the world. When I travel for marathons, I can meet up with them.”
Learning about Orpheus Orchestra prompts me consider the nature of leadership. We simultaneously want to be free and independent, and yet we clamor for the security of a strong leader. The Orpheus model has been in existence for almost fifty years, yet there are only a handful of conductorless orchestras. It takes courage to give up a fixed leader. We like to have them to guide us, and we like to have them as whipping boys for our complaints. Without a leader, we have more say in our lives, but no one to blame but ourselves for the outcome.
How will we live tomorrow?
“I think a lot more democratically. We need to learn more from different cultures. The price of a democratic process is, you have to have an open mind. Living with an open mind can only lead to good things.”