The Orpheus Process™: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Jennifer Koh at Bing

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra-formal hero (c)Ken Nahoum0506

I strode into Bing, feeling really cultured for being one of the sole representatives of the under-65 age bracket and invigorated by the thought that everyone else on campus was probably doing a p-set right about then. I walked through the crowd of grandparents and settled in for a performance by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and solo violinist Jennifer Koh.

The Orchestra walked out donning the traditional all-black uniform, a contrast to their innovative approach to the musical process. From the Stanford Live brochure, “Orpheus rotates musical leadership roles for each work and strives to perform diverse repertoire through collaboration and open dialog.” The orchestra is known for not having a conductor, and has even trademarked “its signature mode of operation, the Orpheus Process.”

Upon entering Stanford I would have thought a chamber orchestra with a trademarked musical process would be a good premise for a South Park episode. Two years later, and I didn’t even notice the irony until I sat down to write this article.

Anyway, Orpheus began to play Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite and even to my untrained ear, the notes sounded surprisingly muddled. The sections weren’t completely in sync with each other, and the lackadaisical opening was not helped by an uninteresting composition.

Jennifer Koh then stepped on for Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, and her bob and bright purple dress foreshadowed a rapid change in tone. She attacked her violin with maniacal enthusiasm, her bob bouncing along with her head, which seemed to physically reach for the next note. She started with her back to the audience, slowly turning through the orchestra and making slow and deliberate eye contact with the members before turning to face us. I think she may have also been underwhelmed by their opening act and felt it was upon her to directly introduce sharpness and enthusiasm. Her efforts worked, and Koh performed masterfully, accompanied by a reinvigorated Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

After a brief intermission, they began Rest These Hands, a 2014 composition written by Anna Clyne and commissioned by Orpheus. The piece was delightfully eerie and dissonant. To finish, Koh slowly played a scale as the audience anxiously waited for an unexpected note. Instead, the members of the orchestra slowly and quietly entered , creating waves of melancholy harmonies before defering back to Koh’s scale. Sufficiently mesmerized, I hadn’t noticed the slow shift from a well lit stage to a spotlight for Koh, which would then darken to signify the end of her performance.

With Koh finished, Orpheus played Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 in C Major. That performance was much better than the opener, helped by a louder and more energetic piece along with the introduction of a drummer and a winds section. Orpheus finished to a respectable amount of applause but no standing ovation, a ritual I’ve come to expect from Bing concerts (and really most concerts). I left Bing blown away by Jennifer Koh, satisfied by Orpheus, and anticipating continuing to take advantage of our underappreciated gem.

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Photo credit: Ken Nahoum

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