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Fellowship of the Strings, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is Reinventing Group Dynamics

Even the Harvard School of Business is learning from its example 

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

When the Grammy Award–winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra took the stage May 9 at its annual gala concert in New York City’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, the string players were joined by a few unlikely collaborators at the “Bach to Brazil” program: Ivan Lins, a renowned Brazilian songwriter, and Cyro Padilla, a percussion dynamo, as well as two classical guitarists, propped themselves onstage right in front of the orchestra. The performance that followed infused traditional Bach and Chopin with 20th-century Brazilian dance music. Throughout the evening, the audience watched and listened with rapt attention as Orpheus explored the interactions and highlighted the similarities of some very different compositions. 

The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, now embarking on its 40th anniversary season, has become well known for its inventive performances and ensemble methods. Whether it’s playing a concert with violin virtuoso Gil Shaham at Carnegie Hall or mandolinst Chris Thile (a Yo-Yo Ma collaborator on the recentGoat Rodeo Sessions) in Brooklyn’s trendy Dumbo neighborhood, or working with 30-year-old composer and pianist Gabriel Kahane—whom theNew York Timeshas dubbed “a one-man cultural Cuisinart”—as its first composer-in-residence or teaching their innovative Orpheus Process of shared leadership to music and business students, Orpheus musicians always are looking forward. 

“When we started out in the ’70s, we played a fairly narrow range of pieces,” Orpheus violinist Ronnie Bauch says. “I think the things we’ve been playing this year in particular, or things that are scheduled for next year, are things we never would have imagined. 

“We’re fortunate to be able to collaborate with some of the world’s greatest artists.”

For the 2012–13 season, Orpheus will tour Japan with violinist Ryu Goto (the younger brother of concert violinist Midori) and premiere three new works at five concerts that include collaborations with artists ranging from virtuoso violinist Anne Akiko Meyers to jazz ensemble the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Kahane will return for his second year as composer-in-residence with Orpheus, working as writer, curator, performer, and ambassador while piloting a new Brooklyn series at Galapagos Art Space. 

 “Gabe writes wonderful classically oriented ensemble pieces,” Bauch says of Kahane. “He has very broad training and is well versed in all areas of classical, jazz, and pop music. It’s been a great extension of what we’ve been doing.”

Next April, the Orpheus will premiere a Kahane piece based on the Depression-era Worker’s Progress Administration of the 1930s. That concert will be among several broadcast live on WQXR-New York Public Radio.

Cellist Julian Fifer and a group of other musicians who wanted to perform orchestral music using chamber-ensemble techniques founded the 31-member self-governing Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 1972. Since then, Orpheus has expanded the chamber-orchestra repertoire with 34 original commissions while gaining a reputation for collaborations with world-class artists across multiple genres. The ensemble has recorded more than 70 albums, including the Grammy-winning Shadow Dances: Stravinsky Miniatures, one of its earliest recordings. The ensemble's annual Carnegie Hall concert series is broadcast live on WQXR-New York Public Radio 

and rebroadcast on American Public Media’s “Performance Today” and “SymphonyCast,” for a total of 1.6 million weekly listeners nationwide.

“One of the biggest changes was when we finally realized that our process was too chaotic,” says violinist Martha Caplin, a member since 1982 and a member of the board of directors. “For many years, we approached our way of preparing concerts in a truly chamber-music style as if we were a string quartet—everybody just kind of put in their two cents whenever they felt like it.” 

While this produced wonderful results, Caplin says, it took many rehearsals to get everything right. Needing to rethink the way that the members worked together, Orpheus musicians developed a method that rotates leadership among the various members of the group. For each song, musicians choose a “core,” which consists of a concertmaster and rotating cast of principal players for each section. 

This method of sharing leadership has been deemed the Orpheus Process. 

“All the other musicians come after one core rehearsal happens first,” Caplin says of the process. “That way, there is a kind of musical structure and framework put in place first, made up by those people. And then from there, they present the musical structure and everybody kind of fine-tunes it.”

Orpheus’ members have found that this way of working creates an environment in which members realize there are many different ways of doing things.

“There’s a lot of flexibility with that,” Caplin says. 

The success of the process often depends on the musicians paying heed to one another. Bauch emphasizes the importance of developing listening skills for the members of the conductorless Orpheus—it’s one of the main considerations when choosing new musicians for the group. “Traditionally, if you’re in an orchestra, you read the music and listen to the conductor,” he says. “And depending on the conductor you’re encouraged or discouraged from listening to what anybody else is doing. In Orpheus there’s no choice.” 

He estimates that about 70 percent of Orpheus musicians’ time is spent listening to people in their sections or people in other sections. 

“This is much closer to the way that other genres of musical artists work,” Bauch says. “Musicians we’ve worked with have found a kindred spirit in the Orpheus as the classical representative of this kind of ensemble playing.” 

After a Harvard School of Business study found that Orpheus musicians seem to have a more positive outlook on their work and are more inspired than many other orchestral players, the group realized that the innovative way in which they work might have larger implications for the study of group dynamics and collaborative leadership.

Enter the Orpheus Institute. When talking about what he considers his “baby,” Bauch’s voice lights up. Fully animated and impassioned about Orpheus’ groundbreaking educational approach, Bauch realized early on that the orchestra needed to have another way to support itself if things in the classical world continued to change as rapidly as they seemed to be. And the Orpheus Process might be able to provide those means.

“It occurred to me at some point that this is not always sustainable,” Bauch says of earning a living and financing an ensemble solely through orchestral playing. “Many of the members of the group are professors at conservatories and universities and have really extensive teaching careers and backgrounds. This has been true for a really long time.”

He notes the mounting financial pressures on orchestras and chamber ensembles and cites a 2004New York Timesarticle, “The Juilliard Effect: 10 Tears Later,” that found that one-fourth of 44 instrumentalists in the 1994 graduating class had jobs as full-time orchestral players, one-half were cobbling together careers as teachers, freelancers, and part-time players, and 28 percent had left music altogether. “That’s like saying only 40 percent of the students who go to Harvard Law are going to be lawyers,” he says. “The Orpheus Institute is designed to address that.” 

Caplin agrees the institute is one of the most exciting aspects of the Orpheus organization. “I love seeing how younger musicians perk up and get so passionate about owning their group and taking responsibility for everything,” she says of teaching the Orpheus Process. “It helps them gain confidence along with their musical skills and everything else.”

But the Orpheus Process isn’t only applicable to musicians. Bauch, Caplin, and other Orpheus musicians have led seminars at major companies, showing business leaders how their process has applications in the corporate world. “This loops back to our connections to Gabe Kahane and modern composers, and the people that we’re working outside of our genre,” Bauch says. “It’s this idea of, yes, we celebrate the great traditions of the past, but we are always looking toward the future and how to be innovative and how to be inclusive. 

“We’re trying to pass that on.”

*This article appeared in Strings August 2012
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