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"THIS part is always screwed up with a conductor, but we've played it perfectly twice," concludes Leon Fleisher during a recent Orpheus Chamber Orchestra rehearsal of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. "This is proof that conductors should just sit down."
In the dictatorial world of orchestras-where conductors choose the repertoire, organise rehearsals and tell musicians how to play-Orpheus is fond of proving that it thrives without a baton. Whereas the first violinists in other ensembles, such as the Prague and Australian chamber orchestras, are de facto conductors, Orpheus rotates leadership in an artistically collaborative version of musical chairs. A different core group shapes each piece and then works with the whole ensemble. Initially, this chaotic democracy resulted in inefficient rehearsals and bruised egos, but a recent rehearsal of a Bach orchestral suite suggests that it is now an efficient and civilised process, if long.
Soloists hesitate sometimes about playing with Orpheus, but then enjoy the rare chance to voice their own ideas. The orchestra does not pay huge fees, but it does require almost twice as many rehearsals, which Mr Fleisher says leads to deeper music making. "Everyone knows the standard repertory and most orchestras are wonderful sight readers. But they don't have time to get behind the notes."
Orpheus proves that size is less important than vigour, and its string section's lush, powerful sound belies its small stature. The broad repertoire ranges from Bach to Schönberg. Despite the complex tempo fluctuations of music of the 19th century, when concertmaster-led orchestras began to be replaced by composer-conductors, Orpheus convincingly performs romantic music including Mendelssohn and Schubert symphonies, and Chopin piano concertos. Next season it even plans to perform a Schumann symphony.
"We are trying to stay true to the composer and the sound they had in mind," says Ronnie Bauch, a violinist. For that reason, Orpheus does not play the big Mahler, Bruckner or Tchaikovsky symphonies. Orpheus musicians rely on being able to see and hear each other, and limit their ensemble to approximately 40 players.
Some conductors do not agree that their services might be dispensable. Benjamin Zander, known for his mesmerising Mahler recordings with the Philharmonia, says "the greatest and most subtle orchestral music must be guided by one mind. A collective mind is unlikely to produce the level of subtlety and musicianship that one mind will produce."
What Orpheus does produce are performances that are rarely humdrum, unlike all too many big-name orchestras. Playing without a conductor is risky, but the free-spirited energy of these keenly attentive musicians results in an edgy spontaneity. Eric Bartlett, a cellist with Orpheus and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra says there is a lower level of individual intensity in the latter. "If even a great conductor is empowered to make all the important decisions musicians start to play in a more passive way. Orpheus has removed a barrier between the audience and the music, the conductor himself."
So why aren't there more conductor-less orchestras? Star conductors sell more tickets than co-operatives. And then there is the difficulty of establishing a successful collaboration between many opinionated musicians. Orpheus has begun leading workshops at the Manhattan and Juilliard schools of music, and students are learning at first hand about some of the difficulties that Orpheus has taken years to overcome. "Sometimes I'm tired and don't feel like thinking and just want someone to guide me," says one student clarinettist. "On the other hand, conductors often aren't inspiring and just get in the way."
Listening to a brilliant conductor leading a superb orchestra is very special. Even Orpheus members admit it can be thrilling working with energetic and inspiring maestros. But as orchestras struggle to redefine themselves, a few brave Juilliard and Manhattan students could do worse than follow the Orpheus example.