The New York–based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has achieved something unique in the world of contemporary classical music performance. There are plenty of chamber orchestras performing without the benefit of a conductor, but Orpheus, which has been in continuous operation since 1972, has taken this concept and created a distinct musical identity with it, something that few if any of these other ensembles have been able to do. Through a democratic process resembling that employed by a graduate faculty or a research institution, members rotate through multiple leadership positions on a regular basis, and every player is expected to participate in the development of the ensemble’s programming. With a Grammy, two ASCAP awards, and more than 70 recordings, Orpheus has established itself as the world’s most successful chamber orchestra formed on this model. For its upcoming Santa Barbara performance, the group will be joined by Augustin Hadelich, who plays the 1723 “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivarius.
In anticipation of their show, I spoke with violist Dov Scheindlin. He filled me in on the logic behind the program and the mission of the group.
How did you select the works for this program? One theme that ties this program together is the idea of pieces that have been repurposed. The Stravinsky began as a ballet, and for The Birds, Respighi took works by five different baroque composers, all of them based on birdsong, and arranged them for chamber orchestra. Fortunately for us, he wrote this piece for an ensemble of exactly the size of Orpheus, and although the works he was drawing on are different, through his arrangement he was able to create something that coheres. He viewed these compositions — a prelude, and then “The Dove,” “The Hen,” “The Nightingale,” and “The Cuckoo” — very much through the prism of the music of his own time, which was the late 1920s. In this piece, Respighi employs virtually every technique of orchestration known to that period, and the result is extraordinary.
Are any of the pieces new commissions? The Stravinsky arrangement is new. Augustin [Hadelich, the violinist] suggested that we find someone to take this piece, which was already derived from a ballet score and performed by Stravinsky himself along with his frequent collaborator, Samuel Dushkin, and turn it into a concerto so that he could play it with us. Dmitry Sitkovetsky, who is probably best known for his string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, did the arrangement, and it is wonderful.
What about the Handel? Handel’s Concerto Grosso is also a repurposed work, but this time it is the composer himself who did the borrowing, and he took the material from his own earlier compositions.
Orpheus is an unusual organization. Could you reflect on the concept and mission? We screen our members carefully because they have to be more than just good players; they have to contribute ideas, as well. The ability to receive ideas is also a big part of being in Orpheus, as we are constantly developing our repertoire along three distinct lines. We try to freshen the standards, we do substantial archival work in order to bring interesting and neglected pieces and arrangements to the world’s attention, and then we commission completely new pieces, as in our American Notes program.
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will perform with Augustin Hadelich at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Monday, November 30, at 8 p.m., as part of CAMA’s International Series. For tickets and information, visit camasb.org or call 899-2222.