These days a social media platform is de rigueur for arts organizations, and the Grammy Award-winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is no exception. Not only does this talented group musicians perform classical music at the highest level, but it's also involved in music education, through programs like Orpheus Institute and the celebration of the arts, with the help of the ever-growing online social hub. Orpheus, in partnership with WQXR, has created Project 440, a commission competition in which young composers compete to see their pieces premier during the orchestra's 2011-2012 season. Unlike other competitions in which experts alone choose the winners, Project 440 invites the online community at large, in addition to a panel of experts, to narrow down the entries from sixty nominees to thirty, then to twelve, four, and finally, just one. (There's a blog that follows the contestants and online contributors, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages.)
Orpheus's opening night concert is this Thursday, October 14th, at Carnegie Hall. In addition to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major—in which Garrick Ohlsson, known worldwide as the "master of Chopin"—joins Orpheus, the program includes Schubert's Symphony No. 4, "Tragic," and Berg's Lyric Suite. During intermission, WQXR will announce the winners of Project 440. Last week, Orpheus's new Executive Director Ayden Adler spoke with us about what brought her to Orpheus, and where the orchestra is headed.
What does it mean for you coming from the Philadelphia Orchestra to New York? Have you ever been based here before? Well, I did my graduate work at Julliard so I lived here for a couple years and I actually studied with one of the members of Orpheus and went to all their concerts. I studied French horn.
At what moment did you realize that this profession was for you? Did you have a specific experience that led you to music and then specifically becoming an executive in the music industry? Yeah, well my first love was playing music. I started playing piano when I was eight and then I played the French horn when I was in 6th grade. All through high school I played in an amazing youth orchestra and I just knew I loved it so much. The first part of my career was actually playing in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for nine years as a musician, and while I was playing in that orchestra, I had a lot of more administrative opportunities; I served as the chair of the musicians committee, and I served on the negotiating committee, and the education committee, and through those experiences I realized that I was really fascinated by, and also had a really good feel for, the administrative side of the business. So I ended up doing my doctoral work on the Boston Symphony and really learned a lot, historically, about cultural values and how that ties to all these great orchestral institutions and their business model. It was a really smooth transition after I played in that orchestra for about nine years and served on the board, as well as on the board of some other local arts education institutions. Then I took my job with the Atlanta symphony and it was immediate—I felt like a fish in water. I always say that music is my first love, teaching is my passion, and my real talent is the administration.
As an executive, specifically working a lot in education, you’re constantly seeing the definition of music in this industry reinvented. How have you seen it change since you first started and how does classical music factor into that ever-changing industry? Well, classical music itself has always been great music and certainly an institution like Orpheus plays it at the highest level. And we know that there’s a lot of crossover into pop-culture. There are definitely songs that…you know…I think there’s a song now that uses some Bach as a basis for it. Basically what has changed is how people want to experience that music in a concert hall. And so I think one of the things that Orpheus does really well is incorporating the whole social media revolution in terms of how they communicate the music.
I think this Project 440 is really great example of that. One of the big priorities of Orpheus is to commit to new works but instead of just picking a composer, what they did was they pulled together a pool of 60 composers that hadn’t yet received broad recognition and then they allowed the general public to weigh in on those choices. They used public opinion as well as a panel of experts in the field, but together they’ll narrow it down to 30 and then to 12, and the winners will have their pieces premiered next season. The winners are going to be announced at the opening night on the 14th. WQXR is going to announce that. What is really exciting is that then we’ll have this year to follow these young composers in a public way about how their pieces are coming together and how their pieces are rehearsed by the orchestra; I think it’ll just really be a great way to allow the public an eye into the inner workings of the institution and to learn more about these young talented people.
What made you decide to make this change to Orpheus? I absolutely care—I mean I’ve always been (for) “education through orchestra” so it’s that combination that I really love. The core of what I love is the fact that creativity and innovation and communication and collaboration are so key to great education and we know that in the 21st century, in that global inner connected world, that those are the qualities that educators are actually worrying about and those are the same qualities that the arts really focus on and help kids accomplish. What’s exciting for me is that Orpheus really embodies that so much, in the fabric of how the musicians work together and how the whole organization works together. They have a program called the Orpheus Institute, which works with kids in higher education and they’re really seeking to expand that. So it was a really great fit for me to take everything that I’d already done working in the arts and education, and focusing on things like creativity and innovation and bringing that to Orpheus and helping them support this new program that’s really taken off for them.
For those who might not be well-versed with chamber music, in terms of this performance on Thursday and others, how does the absence of a conductor inform the experience? You mentioned that the audience is really interested in changing how they experience live music. Well, I think that listeners will find at Orpheus performances there’s a certain kind of immediacy, energy, and connection with the audience members because the players are communicating among themselves in a very obvious way and also with the audience, unmediated by the conductor standing in between, so I think it’s a really exciting way to listen to music.