I’ve been playing the violin since I was five, and I joined my elementary school’s string orchestra when I was six. Needless to say, I’ve played in more orchestra rehearsals in the last fourteen years than I can count. While every orchestral experience I’ve had has been unique, one thing has been the same for all of them: there was always a conductor, and because of that, every rehearsal I’ve played in has followed more or less the same rules. You sit in your seat (hopefully) attentively, you start playing (or “faking it,” if you haven’t practiced) where and when the conductor tells you to start, and when you’re not supposed to be playing, you (try to) listen without whispering with your stand partner.
Watching the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra rehearse was one of the most interesting musical experiences I’ve ever had. The group was rehearsing a newly composed work by the young composer Cynthia Wong; Orpheus is playing the world premiere of the piece, “Memoriam,” at Carnegie Hall on October 13. One of the main reasons I was so intrigued by their rehearsal was that it made me cringe. This wasn’t due to their playing, of course, but to their rehearsal process. They were breaking so many of the “orchestra rules” that have become so indoctrinated in my very being that it was hard to watch without becoming just the tiniest bit antsy. While certain sections of the orchestra rehearsed one part, others whispered to each other, and it didn’t always look like they were discussing the music. And there was no conductor to yell at them! How strange! After the initial shock, however, I found the whole thing incredibly refreshing. The musicians all seemed genuinely happy to be there, something that seemed unusual to me even for a renowned professional orchestra. Their amazing playing reflected this sentiment, with each individual musician appearing to be more genuinely engaged with the music and the process of practicing it than I had really witnessed before.
Halfway through the rehearsal, the orchestra took a break, and I stepped outside. As I got in the elevator to return for the second half, a young woman who looked barely older than I got in with me, and it was clear that we were going to the same place. She asked me what I was doing at the rehearsal, and I told her I was listening to write a blog post about it. “What about you?” I asked casually, expecting her to say something similar. “I’m the composer,” she replied nonchalantly, adding that I had heard her own piece before she had, because she had yet to hear it played. My jaw dropped. As we entered the room, I expected her to take command of the room as a conductor would. However, she merely listened for a while, and when she did get up in front of the orchestra to give her input, her suggestions were just those. She didn’t direct the rehearsal process in any way. The musicians continued to do their own thing, even with the very person who created the music they were playing standing in the room. Ms. Wong seemed very pleased with the way her work sounded.
Conductors clearly play a very important role in the orchestral world, and there’s no doubt that without them, most orchestras would not be able to perform some of the monumental orchestral works that have been written throughout history. However, watching this rehearsal taught me that for some of the best professional musicians around today, a little independence can go a long way. Perhaps rehearsing without a conductor from time to time could be beneficial to any group. Performing without one, on the other hand…well, not everyone can be Orpheus.
-Emily Ostertag, CC ’13