By James Wilson | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
The concert season of 2022–23 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. It is a celebratory and momentous birthday for this ensemble, founded in 1972 as a rebellious group, eschewing the historic model of an orchestra headed by a single artistic leader. It grew to become a democratic creative home where everyone has a say in how the music is made, what the culture of the group should be, and how the everyday details of running its business are managed. As the orchestra’s reputation and career expanded in the 1980s and ’90s, it honed its craft touring the globe as one of the best ensembles of its size and creating an iconic archive of recordings.
I saw Orpheus perform live for the first time in 1980 when I was 15 years old. It was an electrifying experience, and I was taken by its energy and style. Sixteen years ago, I began my professional relationship with the group, first as a sub in the cello section, then as a full member of the orchestra seven years ago. I am now in my fourth year as one of its elected artistic directors. Both personally and professionally, I truly feel I have grown up with this orchestra.
I am now in my late 50s, and I feel a kinship to the age of the group, appreciating the wisdom and perspective that a half century of experience gives. And much like birthdays at my own stage in life, this landmark anniversary for Orpheus feels simultaneously like a well-earned milestone and a crossroads. Looking back on the group’s history, what comes to mind is the constant change that the orchestra has undergone since 1972. Now in 2022 and looking forward, we find ourselves in a time during which growth and change still feels appropriate and necessary.
Orpheus, like many classical music institutions of a certain age, has stayed its course while societal and cultural change has happened around it. As an artistic director, I believe the trick to staying relevant and culturally vital during these changes is to face the mirror and take a good look. And believe me, it can be challenging!
As a cellist, I think about relevance a lot and look into my own mirror every day. While I sometimes miss the days when I could just practice the cello, rehearse with my groups, and perform in concerts, I also realize that being an artist in 2022 demands more.
Orpheus’ artistic mission developed from the question “How can we provide the best musical experience for our audience?” The current questions are more complex: Who is that audience? How can we serve the people around us? For the self-led musicians of Orpheus, our goals have grown from being excellent musicians to also being excellent citizens who serve the community we live in.
Orpheus is a touring orchestra—the globe is our artistic territory. But our home is New York City, a vast complex of neighborhoods, cultures, arts, and audiences. To paraphrase a famous song, “If we can make a difference there, we can make a difference anywhere!” So, an important challenge of staying relevant to NYC has been to tailor our mission of service to those parts of our community where it can make an impact. Over the past several years, we have shaped our concept of service into two rough areas—opportunity and support.
The most impactful service to our city is found in Orpheus Reflections, our program for New Yorkers living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and their caregivers. This is a segment of our population that has few chances to experience the magic of live music. And yet music is one of the sparks that stimulates the brain long after many other cognitive functions have been eroded. Here is where opportunity and support live side by side: opportunities to hear live music provide vital and welcomed support for this audience. A Reflections program brings trios of Orpheus musicians directly to assisted living facilities, support groups, and day programs to provide an hourlong musical performance. It offers a chance for stimulation, peace, remembrance. For caregivers, it provides a respite or even a few minutes of downtime during a stressful day, and often the ability to see their loved one in a moment of recognition.
Orpheus musicians must undergo training to participate in these programs. Many of us (including me) have experience with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in our families and with other loved ones, so it can be a profound experience to play for this audience. Expectations of a normal concert experience are dismissed. This community reacts on different levels—with clapping along, dancing, verbal expressions, and applause and smiles as well. Their reactions speak volumes. We can tell we are reaching people at their core.
Our umbrella program for New York City Public School students is called Access Orpheus. We provide opportunities on many levels for young people across the city, such as chances to play with and learn from our musicians or free tickets to our concerts at Carnegie Hall. In the first phase of the pandemic, we worked with students online and even created an opportunity for composer Jessie Montgomery to work on a composition project with WHEELS, a magnet school in Washington Heights.
Working directly with students to demonstrate how the musical leadership and communication skills needed in Orpheus can translate into their daily lives is empowering. It offers an involved and rewarding experience that is as challenging as any concert performance.
These ways of reaching our community have brought changes to the orchestra itself. The musicians of Orpheus are known for their musical excellence, leadership, communication skills, and can-do spirit. Now we are also developing ourselves into “musician citizens” who can use various skills required to participate in the orchestra in order to engage our community and provide opportunities onstage and off. This has also become an important criterion in considering future Orpheus members.
Who knows what the next 50 years of Orpheus will bring, or who will be elected to lead next? But at the crossroads of 50, this combination of musical excellence with a strong spirit of engagement is how we plan to navigate the road ahead.