Conductorless orchestras: The leading edge


For those ensembles willing to take the plunge, performing without a conductor can lead to a greater sense of collaboration, fulfilment and, ultimately, responsibility. Jacqueline Vanasse hears from some of the string players involved in such groups

There is something quite seductive about the democracy of the conductorless orchestra. That musicians can share an artistic vision without having to go through the intermediary of a conductor renders the experience of playing in an orchestra less autocratic and more collaborative. But the absence of the maestro is really only the start of it. The conductorless experience goes much deeper: it gets to the core of what it is to be a musician and can be a tremendous learning tool.

While such ensembles have no conductor per se, for the purposes of efficiency they still maintain a certain hierarchy of authority. In a traditional symphony orchestra, the conductor makes the majority of decisions, but without that authority figure, all decision-making must naturally be distributed among ensemble members. The musicians of the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and others such as the Belgrade-based string group Ensemble Metamorphosis, push the distribution of leadership one step further by rotating the seating. Every piece in the programme has a different concertmaster, making any sense of hierarchy completely fluid.

One aspect of conductorless settings that cannot be entirely hierarchy-free, however, is rehearsing. Violinist Todd Phillips of the Orpheus CO recalls the early days of the ensemble’s rehearsals. ‘I started playing in the group in 1982 and remember rehearsing for nine hours a day every day for a whole week when preparing for a tour. That’s a lot of rehearsals! It was much more of a free-for-all as far as decision-making was concerned. With time, this became streamlined into what we call the “core group”, which comprises those who are section leaders in any given piece. Rank-and-file players are still allowed to say anything at any point, but given the limited rehearsal time, you have to pick and choose when you might want to say something if you are not in a leadership role.’..

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