When the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra began in 1972, it was the upstart newcomer to an already crowded New York classical scene, making a point of playing without a conductor.
Now poised to mark its 50th anniversary, the Grammy Award-winning ensemble has become a well-respected staple of the American classical establishment, but it has lost little of the adventuresome spirit that spawned its creation.
“I think the orchestra still retains that edge and energy that it has had all along,” said Orpheus cellist James Wilson, who serves as one of the ensemble’s three elected artistic directors.
As part of a seven-city, cross-country tour beginning Jan. 12 in Stanford, Calif., Orpheus is scheduled to appear Jan. 22 with soloist Branford Marsalis as part of Symphony Center Presents, the presenting arm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. The group last performed in Chicago in 2018 as part of an 11-day festival celebrating the opening of DePaul University’s Holtschneider Performance Center.
Although the orchestra appeared at festivals in the summer and has performed around New York City, this will be the orchestra’s first tour since the coronavirus shutdown. “It will be really interesting and nerve-racking, too, I suspect,” Wilson said. “I’ll call you in a month.”
While Orpheus has managed to put down firm roots during its nearly five decades, it has never stopped evolving. “That’s an advantage that a small orchestra has,” Wilson said. “As the culture around it changes, the orchestra can change as well.”
It started as a large chamber-music ensemble, morphed into a small orchestra and then put a spotlight on larger musical projects. Now it does a combination of all three, while retaining its chief identity as a chamber orchestra. “In that way it has changed — it has become more flexible and the repertoire has widened out as well,” Wilson said.
The ensemble has emphasized commissions, such as its Project 440, in which it picked four young composers to create new works for its 40th anniversary in 2012. In addition, it has hired composers to create suitable arrangements of existing works, because chamber orchestras have a comparably small repertoire.
Unlike many established orchestras, Orpheus is a part-time, freelance ensemble that performs in multiple halls around New York City and tours frequently. It has a core ensemble of 34 members, who are vetted for extended periods and then voted in, and other players are added as needed for larger works.
“So when we get together and collaborate, it keeps it fresh in a way,” Wilson said. “We’re not with one another all the time, and we all bring different skill sets to the table, because we do so many different things.”
The two distinguishing aspects of Orpheus are its lack of a conductor and the democratic approach it takes to rehearsals and other artistic decisions. Its three artistic leaders are drawn from the ensemble and are elected for three-year terms. One oversees repertoire, another handles personnel and a third (now Wilson) serves in a broader role of artist coordinator.
“Especially these days, you keep hearing that saying, ‘Democracy can be messy,’ ” Wilson said. “So in our case, sometimes it is messy, but I think it is a really wonderful way to work, and I can really roll my sleeves up and work on all aspects of the orchestra, which is really fascinating and interesting.”
When the orchestra began, the then-novel idea of performing without a conductor raised some eyebrows, but other ensembles have since copied the approach. “Now, we look around the world, and it’s everywhere, and that’s something to be very proud of,” Wilson said. “I still have to say that I play in other groups that don’t use conductors, and I’m always thankful to go back to Orpheus because I think we really worked that system out.”
For the most part, Orpheus is performing a program of less-familiar works for its Chicago concert, although some famous composers are represented. Anchoring the lineup is a commissioned work by Courtney Bryan, a Louisiana-based pianist and composer who works in jazz and a range of experimental music.
Wilson praised Bryan’s creative vision and said it was intriguing to work with someone who regularly works across stylistic boundaries. He had been fascinated to see what kind of a work she would create for Orpheus. “You never know what people will write for us, because the orchestra has a reputation for being able to do a lot of difficult things, so some composers really lean into that and write incredibly difficult music.”
In the end, Bryan chose to write a piece titled Carmen, Jazz Suite on Themes of Bizet, which was inspired by Georges Bizet’s celebrated 1875 French opera set in Spain. The piece opens with a bass ostinato drawn from the Habanera, the gypsy Carmen’s introductory aria, and then provides space for an extended improvisatory passage for the saxophone.
Once Bryan’s Carmen-based work was set, Wilson and the orchestra decided on a Spanish-French theme for most of the rest of the concert, including Turina’s La oración del torero (The Toreador’s Prayer), Debussy’s Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, and Ibert’s Concertino da camera for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra. Starting off the program is another taste of opera, Rossini’s overture to his The Barber of Seville.
Bryan’s work was originally set to be premiered last year, alongside the rest of this program at Carnegie Hall as part of Orpheus’ annual New York season, but it was canceled because of the pandemic. The debut will now occur as part of this tour, and the ensemble hopes to repeat this program in New York at some time in the future.
Featured as soloist on this program will be Marsalis, a respected jazz and classical saxophonist who has fronted a quartet bearing his name since 1986. A member of the storied Marsalis music dynasty of New Orleans, he also was the leader of “The Tonight Show” band in 1992-95.
Orpheus has worked with Marsalis previously, including recording a 2001 album of French music with him that included Ibert’s Concertino da camera. “He’s a really wonderful person,” Wilson said. “You learn a lot from somebody like him who is a kind of a chameleon in all kinds of music.”
To achieve a genuine sense of artistic give and take with Marsalis, Orpheus has featured the saxophonist as soloist in three of the five works across the program. “That’s the collaborative spirit of working with Branford,” Wilson said. “Rather than having him come out and play the [conventional] one concerto between the overture and the symphony, we’d rather him be kind of a part of the group during the concert.”