They've been called "the headless wonder" and "the orchestra with 26 conductors." A more pedestrian description of the chamber orchestra Orpheus might simply be one of the finest musical ensembles in the world, distinguished by the fact that its 26 members collectively guide the orchestra's every move - from the foremost artistic concerns to the day-to-day business matters. In the absence of a conductor and artistic director, Orpheus is "a ship where everyone is captain."
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Allan Miller's new documentary on the group, "Orpheus in the Real World," is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall peek at the sensitive and intricate dynamics at play in the musical and decisionmaking processes of this renowned orchestra. A deft combination of glorious musical performance and candid behind-the-scenes glimpses, "Orpheus in the Real World" goes way beyond the typical glossy celebratory tribute to present a surprisingly frank and unflinching portrait of the 25-year-old group.
Julian Fifer, the group's founder and executive director, explains, "The main principle of Orpheus is to provide a setting in which all the musicians feel that they can have a voice and that their opinions are respected, and not only respected but put into play." As one might imagine, that guiding principle involves a constant spirit of negotiation, persuasion, compromise, and respect that is very much the focus of the hour-long film.
We are allowed to eavesdrop on a rather heated meeting of the group's executive committee as well as a rehearsal of "the core," the ensemble's principal winds and strings, who get together prior to the first full rehearsal to make some of the major decisions about interpretation. As the group plays through the opening bars of a work, they discuss the various possibilities of phrasing, articulation, dynamics - the parameters that lift a piece of music beyond the written notes on the page. There is good-natured bantering, some respectful requests for change, "what if" suggestions, and unapologetic disagreements. But decisions are made, and the work moves on.
"We've developed our own rehearsal technique in a chamber-music style of knowing when to accept, in a democratic sort of way, when your idea's just not gonna fly," explains bassoonist Frank Morelli. The film also chronicles the chamber orchestra's work with two guest soloists, pianist Radu Lupu and violinist Gil Shaham.
"Orpheus in the Real World" bogs down in spots, and there are a few jarring changes of focus. But it provides a compelling reflection on this ensemble's intriguing and rather bumpy development from a loose-knit collective of players just wanting to make music to a top-ranked chamber orchestra with an international touring and recording career.
It is perhaps this quarter century of history freighted with emotional baggage - ex-spouses, current couples, players of completely opposing temperaments - that makes the group's functioning all the more remarkable.
"It's an intense social scene," admits oboist Matthew Dine, "but in a sense, that's what makes it. It's amazingly exciting."
* 'Orpheus in the Real World' premires on PBS Jan. 29 at 10 p.m. Check local listings as dates and times may vary.