Wait, wait, where's the conductor?

Inside New York's massive Riverside Church, an eager audience awaits the concert. Orchestra members file out, and settle into their seats. Then suddenly instruments are raised to cheeks and lips. Rodrigo's "Three Ancient Airs and Dances" pours forth. The ensemble playing is tight and precise, the phrasing and interpretation nuanced, altogether beautiful.

Wait - where's the conductor?

For nearly 30 years, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has been making a name for itself as a world-class ensemble run by the musicians themselves and performing without a maestro.

It's not that Orpheus members have anything against conductors.

"That's really not the case at all," says Ronnie Bauch, an Orpheus member for 25 years. Many in the group also play in conducted orchestras.

"We don't eliminate the role of the conductor," explains Harvey Seifter, executive director of Orpheus. "We divide it. We share it."

Granted, that doesn't mean that conductorless playing would be practical for a large symphony orchestra of 80 or 90 players. Orpheus has 27 members and occasionally performs with as many as 40 or 45 musicians on stage.

"You could do it as a stunt," Mr. Bauch says of a large orchestra playing without a conductor. "But we're pretty much at the optimal size." Orpheus relies on leaders in each section being able to see each other to set tempos, operating in much the same way a conductorless string quartet might.

But other than avoiding pieces that require an army of players, Orpheus has few limitations. It performs works from Baroque to those with "the ink still wet on the page," Bauch says. "In terms of complexity of music, there's no conducted orchestra that's done anything more complex than we've done." The orchestra plays regularly around the world and at Carnegie Hall with top guest artists like flutist James Galway and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Last month, it won a Grammy award for "the best small ensemble performance (with or without a conductor)."

But on top of its reputation for musical excellence, Orpheus is now a rising star in another line of work: management consulting. Major corporations and business schools are interested in how the orchestra succeeds without a "top down" system - an authoritarian conductor who calls the shots. In May, Henry Holt/New York Times Books will publish "Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from Orpheus, the World's Only Conductorless Orchestra," written by Mr. Seifter and Peter Economy. Harvard University's Kennedy school is publishing a case study about the "Orpheus process," and a documentary film called "Orpheus in the Business World" is in the works.

In a typical seminar, business people or students watch as Orpheus rehearses a new piece. The group designates leaders for each piece who have studied it ahead of time and formed ideas on how it could be approached. But everyone is encouraged to share ideas.

In fact, the orchestra sometimes uses a technique called "Changing Perspectives" to draw out someone who's feeling reluctant to speak up. The players "go out in the [concert] hall and listen and come back to the group with their insights" about how the work sounds to the audience (the customer), says Orpheus member Melissa Meell.

One thing businesses are interested in, Seifter says, is how a "leaderless" group comes to such clear, forceful decisions. Orpheus's interpretations are never "watered down," Seifter says. "We don't compromise ... between an allegro and an adagio by doing an andante."

One key may be who the group accepts as a member - namely people who are eager to work in a collaborative environment. Most "try out" as part-time players before gaining membership.

"Everyone shares the same dedication and passion for the mission," Seifter says. "Nobody questions that." Members "criticize each other's ideas forthrightly and energetically."

Playing with Orpheus provides "the ultimate amount of insight" into a piece, says saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who solos with the ensemble on the new jazz-classical crossover album "Creation" (Sony Classical) and will tour with it this spring. Orpheus makes the construction and logic of the works come so clear, he says: "You can hear the French horn line, the bassoon line."

In fact, the give-and-take of leadership in Orpheus is like that of soloists in a jazz group. "We all have to be leaders and followers," Ms. Meell says.

"You can't coast.... We're using our ears and our brains all the time.... The ability to think about music is as important as the ability to play."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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