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J.C.O.: An Orchestra of the People

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This semester, 33 Juilliard musicians participated in the eight-year-old Juilliard Chamber Orchestra (J.C.O.) under the guidance of alumnus and faculty member Eric Bartlett (B.M. ’78, M.M. ’79), culminating in an April 22 concert at Alice Tully Hall. Those in attendance may have at first been struck by a rather glaring omission from the onstage personnel. In a challenging program of Mozart, Dittersdorf, and Stravinsky, the musicians managed to maintain coordination and poise—as if by magic—without the presence of a conductor.

Faculty member Eric Bartlett (far left), a member of the renowned conductorless ensemble Orpheus, helps students learn to lead themselves. From Bartlett’s left: James Garlick, Clare Semes, Justyna Jara, Robyn Quinnett, and Simon Polezhayev.

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Though no special effects were actually involved, the experience of rehearsing for a J.C.O. concert was more akin to the preparation for the high-tech Broadway adaptation of Spider-Man than it was for a traditional Juilliard orchestra concert. For Bartlett, a cellist who holds dual citizenship in both the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, coaching such an ensemble is rather paradoxical activity: his primary role as an authority figure, after all, is to minimize his authority and let the students realize their own self-managed ensemble.

“We start with a meeting where we all just sit around and talk about all the various roles that a conductor plays when he’s conducting,” Bartlett said in a recent interview with The Journal. “Then we talk about how each one of these responsibilities is going to be taken on by the students individually.”

It’s no cakewalk, to be sure. For one thing, the distinction between “leading” and “following” is blurred. Fourth-year Christine Lamprea, who took a turn as principal cellist in the recent concert, pointed out the perceptual challenges inherent in such a position. “Understanding what other people think when they see your own cues is very difficult,” she said.

For first-year master’s violinist James Garlick, the challenges run deeper than coordination. “Playing together is something we naturally do relatively easily,” he said, “but in the decision- making process, it’s a hundred times harder to come to a consensus.”

Without a conductor, interpretation becomes a collective responsibility, creating new and unforeseen dynamics within the orchestra which constantly threaten the ideal of equality, yet which nonetheless restore a kind of order to the ensemble. Is inequality inevitable in a democracy? For third-year flutist Daniel James, it’s a regrettable fact. “The idea of the whole thing is that everyone is equal. But that’s just not true. In all situations a hierarchy exists,” he said. “Your personality makes the biggest difference as to whether your ideas end up being accepted by everyone else or not.”

Yet by distributing interpretive responsibility, such participatory environments are more likely to empower otherwise passive individuals. “We want that personal involvement to extend to every musician,” Bartlett said. “You’re doing two things simultaneously: you’re creating this tremendous esprit de corps where everyone feels valued, but you’re also expanding the range of ideas.”

While such a radical egalitarian conception of the orchestra certainly sounds attractive, it is time-consuming, not least because of the presence of a pre-existing institutional structure predisposed to top-down, status quo arrangements. “It is slightly less efficient,” third-year bass-player Alex Jenkins started to say. “Let me rephrase that: drastically less efficient. But it does give everyone a chance to have a say in what they want in the music.”

Though such a model can hardly become standardized at a Juilliard that thrives on efficiency and productivity, it nevertheless imparts the value of individual responsibility, which can enhance the quality of a conventional orchestra experience. “Everything that comes out of this project should transfer into the orchestral setting,” James said. “Because what should ideally happen is that for every vague statement a conductor makes, we should be making 10 different decisions amongst ourselves.”

Ultimately, it is the alluring ideal of communal self-realization that redeems the project, despite its current practical deficiencies. Such a radical experiment in orchestral self-governance provided its participants with feelings of empowerment and solidarity that express promise for the future of the orchestra. “Basically from start to finish, the whole process of rehearsing in a chamber orchestra where everyone is, in spirit, equal is a process of getting everyone’s mind to the same goal,” said fourth-year horn-player Craig Hubbard. “It takes time, it’s not easy, and sometimes it’s frustrating. But it’s worth it in the end.”

 

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