"Wave arms around until music stops." That was the caption of a cartoon showing a conductor's "music" on his podium as he stood before his orchestra. From those newly approaching orchestral music all the way to accomplished instrumentalists with decades of playing experience (and many in-between), the role of the conductor is often viewed as a perplexing and misunderstood mystery. Just what is his/her purpose? Conductors don’t play an instrument, so why are they even needed? Can’t groups just play without one? The last question is the most interesting, and this evening we experienced a resounding "yes" to that question and theory.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was formed in 1972 as a self-governing organization (both musically and as a business) whose philosophy was that the musicians, individually and collectively, can select, rehearse and present orchestral concerts without the presence of a single autocratic figure. Perhaps it was the eventual trickle-down effect of a 1960s mentality that finally found its way to classical music: give people the power and don't trust authority. It is also very likely that several excellent musicians just got tired of tyrannical conductors and a single voice dictating how the music should be played. After all, if eight musicians can play the Mendelssohn Octet sans arm-waver, how much of a stretch is it to the next level? Well, this is no longer a wild theory of classical, counterculture anarchists – Orpheus has proven that, at least for its members, musical dictators are superfluous and anachronistic.
After 34 years of remarkable success, Orpheus does not need to prove anything to anybody. Yet, this evening’s concert, presented in UNC's Memorial Hall by Carolina Performing Arts, struck me as programmed to show to any lingering doubters that they can play any style, difficulty, or genre as a communal group without an all-powerful maestro. They began with one of the predecessors of the above-mentioned Mendelssohn Octet, the Sinfonia No. 10, written when Felix was just 14. Rather than noodling around onstage prior to the start of the concert, the 21 string players all came out together. The first notes hit you like the rush you get from the first sip of an outstanding wine. Their sound was a unique combination of erotic warmth and pinpoint brightness that seemed to come out of one organism. Their rhythmic cohesiveness was precise yet not metronomic as they gave life to what many dismiss as an immature composition.
Well, OK, an early Mendelssohn string work is one thing – it has few rhythmic difficulties, it is a delightful yet somewhat predictable work, and it is basically written as a large string quartet. You'd surely need a conductor for a contemporary work with full winds, brass and percussion sections added. Ingram Marshall (b.1942) wrote the appropriately-named "Orphic Memories" for Orpheus, and it is being given its world premiere during Orpheus’s current tour. Loosely based on the ancient Orpheus legend, it is a musical and psychological tour of memory. It is filled with frighteningly complex rhythms, both individually and between sections, virtuosic passages, and heart-wrenching expressive moments. This is a major new work that was played with such finesse that it is hard to imagine any other composition where the lack of a conductor would present any peril.
Part of this orchestra's modus operandi is that the seating and leadership are reassigned for each piece, so no one person ends up always controlling a section. It also serves as a nice visual variation. Now we're in the second half awaiting a performance of the warhorse Beethoven Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham. Surely this is where a conductor becomes indispensable. Don't you need an arbiter of tempi and rubato between the opposing forces? Not if you have trained musicians who listen, adjust and keep their heads above water and their music stands!
One day I hope to be able to write well enough truly to convey my impression of Orpheus and Shaham' performance, but for now excuse me if I resort to timeworn clichés. From the familiar five-quarter-note tympani opening to the rousing final statement of the Rondo, this was a microcosm of everything that music should be. One of the attributes of great performers of our era – like Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman – is that their love and enthusiasm for the music is infectious. Shaham is such a player. There is such joy and unabashed love for the music and his performance that it is literally impossible to lose focus for one second. Especially mesmerizing was the brilliant first-movement cadenza. It slowly built until he reached what must have been the limit of violin velocity. Then there was that exquisite moment where all the themes are brought together in glorious counterpoint; you'd swear that a fiddler from the section must have been playing along. The beautiful Larghetto second movement was an emotive gem that made the contrast with the peppy and upbeat Rondo even more thrilling. This will move into the top five greatest performances that I ever heard or witnessed.
So what’s next? Can an orchestra perform a Mahler symphony without someone directing traffic? What about works for chorus and orchestra? That remains to be heard.
(To the conductors for whom I play who are reading this – don’t take it personally. I love you guys!)