The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is one of the world's most esteemed small orchestras, perhaps most notable for what it lacks--namely, a conductor. Orpheus operates on the basis of rotating leadership among a collective group of equals. Co-founder Julian Fifer, a cellist, says he and a group of like-minded musicians were inspired to found the orchestra in 1972 from various ideals that grew during that era, including "questioning of authority and a renewed emphasis on collective goals, [which] inspired [them] to create an ensemble whose artistic expression was based on shared leadership and responsibility."
For each work the group programs, a concertmaster and principal players are elected to determine the concept for the performance and to direct rehearsals. At final rehearsals, all members contribute to refining the performance and execution; in performance, the members play with chamber-music-like attention to each other. The results, characterized by great precision, character and dramatic flair, have distinguished Orpheus from all other conductorless ensembles, which often lack musical personality.
The basic orchestra normally comprises 18 strings and around half that many winds. The core of their concert life is a subscription series at Carnegie Hall in New York, and an additional series at the city's Riverside Church.
Orpheus' repertory ranges from Vivaldi to contemporary works, nearly 40 of which have been commissioned by the group. Most of their earlier recordings were issued on the Deutsche Grammophon label, but late in the 1990s they began to expand their list of recorded projects, including one of tango-based works by Astor Piazzolla, a jazz-inspired album of Gershwin and Ravel with Herbie Hancock on Verve, and a series of Mozart piano concertos with Richard Goode on Nonesuch. In 2001, Orpheus won a Grammy for Shadow Dances: Stravinsky Miniatures, and in early 2014, the orchestra released its first self-produced album, Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7.
In 1998 Orpheus undertook a major tour of Southeast Asia, including Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Brunei, Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, and Hanoi. This included the first performance in Vietnam by an American orchestra since the end of the Vietnam War. While in Hanoi, members of the orchestra conducted master classes on their instruments and on ensemble playing at the Hanoi National Conservatory of Music. In total, it has performed in more than 300 cities in 50 countries.
Back in the United States, the group has begun to share its philosophy of shared leadership with non-musical organizations, giving seminars to corporate executives (including those of Kraft Foods and Novartus Pharmaceuticals).