The musicians of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) know a thing or two about working without a resident conductor.
Longtime conductor David Loebel resigned almost two years ago. Musical director candidates have taken his place over the past season, conducting symphony shows as they vied for the position that eventually went to Mei-Ann Chen. But the symphony's new Opus One concert series won't require the services of a conductor at all.
Instead, members of the Memphis Symphony's chamber orchestra will conduct themselves in this concert series featuring alternative venues, nontraditional music, and audience participation. Opus One kicks off Thursday, March 4th, at 7 p.m. at One Commerce Square (in the lobby of the former Sun Trust bank) downtown.
"There will be no [conductor] waving [his] arms. Instead, we'll be watching each other's body language and breathing together," violinist and concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore says. "Things are a little more amplified when you don't have somebody to watch. We have to listen at a very intense level. It's challenged and stretched me as a player."
Modeled after New York City's conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the MSO's Opus One series was developed as a way to break down the "wall" between the symphony and the audience with the hopes of attracting a younger demographic.
As for musical choices, musicians will perform classical pieces in the first half of each show, but those will be followed by more contemporary works. The One Commerce Square show will feature big-band chart-toppers, and instructors from the Fred Astaire Dance Studio will provide on-the-spot dance demonstrations.
"We're not going to sit on a stage. We'll be on the floor, surrounded by the audience," says Iren Zombor, assistant principal cellist. "To put people more at ease, musicians will talk before each piece about why they like the music and what it means to them. We want to take out the intimidation factor."
"We didn't feel like we were presenting something that had a broad appeal to a younger demographic — those people who like to hear live music but not if they have to sit for two-and-a-half hours in a formal concert setting," Gilmore says.
A few MSO members traveled to New York City in September to study the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which has worked without a conductor since 1972. Then in December, the MSO held an invitation-only test concert at the Clark Opera Memphis Center.
"We weren't sure what to expect [at the December show]. Artistically and socially, it turned out to be a success. And now we've tried to tweak the flow of the evening based on audience feedback," violinist Gaylon Patterson says.
Not only does the Opus One series have potential to attract a new set of symphony fans, it may also help MSO members develop as musicians. According to principal oboist Joey Salvalaggio, working without a conductor forces musicians to develop their own interpretations of a musical work.
"Everyone is encouraged to listen and comment. If you have an idea, we'll put it in a trial phase," Salvalaggio says. "When we try someone's idea, they know that was their idea. They're very conscious of ownership. That's very different from how we operate with a conductor."
The MSO has developed a code of conduct for Opus One rehearsals. When members have conflicting ideas of how a musical piece should be interpreted, each idea goes on trial, and if necessary, the group will vote.
"If we reach consensus and it's not your idea, you have to get on board and put your ego aside," Salvalaggio says. "It completely opens your mind. You hear an idea you wouldn't have thought of, and it turns out to be amazing. You learn a lot about music that way."
During regular symphony performances, the MSO may operate with as many as 80 musicians. But Opus One will never feature more than 35 musicians at one time. "It's very hard to play without a conductor with more than 35 people," Gilmore says.
Full-orchestra, conductor-led shows at the Cannon Center will continue.
"We're still the artists we were before," Patterson says. "What we want to do is invite new friends into our circle and expose another side of our artistic personalities."