Interview with Ben Hogwood
It’s another hot, sunny morning in New York, and Arcana is talking with violist Dov Scheindlin, a member and former director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion Deutsche Grammophon have just issued all the ensemble’s recording for the label on a 55-CD box set. Dov has graciously given part of his early morning to talk about his time with the orchestra and some of their philosophies. We begin – naturally – by asking how the relationship started.
“I’d been a fan of Orpheus for a long time, and was a fan long before I was lucky enough to start playing with the orchestra. In 1988 I entered the Juilliard School. As a present I got my very first CD player, and I got a CD with it! It was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing Dvořák Serenades. I listened to that CD, over and over, and it remains one of my favourites. That was the first time I really got to know Orpheus. Then I got to see them in Carnegie Hall a few years later, and the live experience was totally transforming. I was really lucky because I was living in London for six years, and when I came back from there in 2004 I was lucky enough to begin playing with the orchestra. I knew some people in common, and they were generous enough to let me come in and sub, and gradually it became a permanent thing.”
He has vivid memories of his first concert with the orchestra. “Oh gosh, yeah – we did something fiendishly difficult, which was the John Adams Chamber Symphony. Without a conductor it’s extremely complicated, with 15 moving parts, and I think they threw me in the deep end! I played principal viola, which was amazing to me because I was playing with them for the very first time. I think the idea behind Orpheus of shared responsibility, and seeking leadership, it meant they were good about allowing people to step into big roles right away. One of the things they wanted to find out was how you would do in that situation. It was a great experience. We took it on tour to a number of places and then we played it in Carnegie Hall. It was great fun. I don’t remember what else was on the programme but the Chamber Symphony sticks out in my mind, an amazing experience.”
The Adams, presented in that concert as a ‘one part per player’ version of the Chamber Symphony for the first time, is typical of the orchestra’s adventurous approach. Scheindlin agrees. “One of the things about the small orchestra is that we love our repertoire, but it is a bit more constrained – we don’t play Rachmaninov symphonies or anything like that. We’re always looking for things to play, and we actively commissioned new pieces for a formation of our size. One of the things we also do is to look to the existing repertoire to see what could be done, convincingly, musically and tastefully for an orchestra of our size. That broadens the repertoire, and the Adams was an example of that. There are more examples coming up in our next season, and we think of ourselves as trying to broaden the mission of the chamber orchestra.”
Scheindlin had a great deal of experience of membership with string quartets, which stood him in good stead for joining the orchestra. “Absolutely. That was one of the things that made it a really good fit. Orpheus is not ‘leader-less’, it’s ‘leader-full’. I think they’re looking for everyone to contribute. Occasionally a great player comes in, but doesn’t have anything to say, or is just looking to follow the leader, and that doesn’t work out as well. We’re really looking for people who can contribute ideas, bring ideas to the table, and we bring them all together and make them larger than the sum of the parts. Playing in a quartet, and having that experience of being responsible for 25% at least of the interpretation, has been great training for being in Orpheus. It’s about knowing when to contribute, when to sit back. It’s one of those subtle dances, because everyone has hundreds of opinions about everything. You need to pick the right moment to make your mark, and not overplay your hand. I think that people with a chamber music background do very well at Orpheus for that reason.”
Scheindlin finds the viola section a particularly stimulating place to be, right in the middle of the musical action. “It’s one of the things I love about playing the viola. Aside from the warm sound, and the timbre of the instrument, it is the position in the middle of the ensemble. It really makes you sensitive to everything that’s going on in the music. You’re not like likely to get lost at one end or the other. That’s another thing that’s been great for Orpheus, is that everyone knows the score very thoroughly. As the violist you’re right in the middle of the score, and what you’re playing often doesn’t make sense without having the whole context, so you’re constantly aware of all the other parts. You’re not just playing your part, you’re playing the whole piece – it’s just that you’re only sounding your own part. As a violist I love that.
As well as the DG box set, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has accompanied Brad Mehldau on a recent Nonesuch release, Variations. The recording was made some time ago, but has fond memories for Dov. “That was really fun. We did a whole tour of Europe, and he was such a low key personality, we were all kind of in awe of him. He would just sit down and focused, and when we played we felt like it was brand new every time even though it was a classically written out sort of piece. Although there I remember there were there there’s a cadenza in there I think where he did something totally different at the time and we were just sort of sat there in amazement. But yeah, that was a great experience with Brad Mehldau. I think we did that tour about 10 years ago, so I’m so happy to see that recording has seen the light of day.
Fast forward to performing in the light of a pandemic, and we start to talk about the experience of playing live while wearing masks, as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra did recently in their concert of Haydn’s Seven Last Words. Scheindlin admits that performances can be compromised. “It’s a somewhat disembodied experience. I’m so glad for the existence of the masks, and they make it possible for us to play together, those and now the vaccines, of course. I’m not against them, but they are definitely an impediment to direct communication. That said, you get over it and we do a lot of eye contact. I got used to looking for people’s eyes, though you do feel like you’re missing part of the picture also sometimes. If the mask isn’t positioned properly it can affect your own perception of your sound, but you get used to it. Certainly we’d much rather play with masks than not play with them.”
It was clearly a thrill to return to the live environment. “Absolutely. We hadn’t played together in about six months, and finally in September we did our first live, chamber music concert. It was Egmont. My very first concert was a chamber music concert in the courtyard of a church. They had drawn circles in chalk on the lawn, and everyone was able to bring their own lawn chair to sit in there, maybe 50 people in all. It was a beautiful late afternoon, and we started with the Sextet from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. It is such a beautiful, nostalgic and reflective piece, and something about it was just a transcending moment. I just felt so grateful and realised I would never take the experience of playing a live performance for granted again. The pandemic has obviously not been a net plus for humanity, but if there’s one thing I take out of it it’s rededicating myself to the power of what we do.”
Scheindlin speaks candidly about his own experience of lockdown. “It was a challenge,” he says frankly. “I have two young children, aged nine and six. When the pandemic came their schools closed down and we were suddenly teachers and chefs and all kinds of things that we’ve never been before. That took a tremendous amount of our energy, particularly the first six months up until September when school reopened, which freed up a little more time. It was a tough period, but it was great to spend more time with the family. I’m used to playing so many concerts at night, and my wife is a violinist as well, so also plays a lot at night. Three or four nights a week we wouldn’t be putting the kids to bed, but now suddenly we’re putting them to bed all the time! That part was nice, but having to stand over their shoulder while they did remote learning wasn’t that great, I’ll confess. It took up a lot of our energy. I made it an iron law to practice an hour a day. That was about the most I could consistently muster. I had to have that hour as a moment of sanity, a moment of focus and purpose when we didn’t know when we would get back to playing. I practised Bach Suites every day.”
He vividly recounts the start of lockdown. “I remember three or four days into it I got very shaken. They were starting to cancel things – the next few weeks, the next month – and then it became “Oh sorry, we’ll see you in the fall”, and I was wondering when is it ever going to change? Fortunately, with distancing, masks and amazing vaccines which I think I certainly didn’t expect to work so quickly, we’ve been able to get back together. It’s miraculous.”
With those revelations came an awareness of the orchestra’s importance in the community. “When we started performing again, the audiences were so grateful. Everyone was grateful, it was almost like a religious experience. One of the great things we did when we couldn’t be together in person was play a series of concerts, which we called reflections, on Zoom for audiences in elder care homes, and for people with severe medical issues and dementia. It was a great way to stay in touch with our audiences, to see the joy on their faces when they were able to hear music, even if they weren’t physically there. We did those fairly regularly, one person, or I would play with my wife. That was a great experience during the shutdown. We strive to serve and represent our community, and we’ve missed everyone, and we’re trying to reconnect right now and looking forward to next year when we can go back to performing in the places that we usually do.” A chance to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary, too? “Yes – and a personal recovery from when I turned 50 too!”
In celebration of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s 50 years, Deutsche Grammophon have released a box set of all the ensemble’s recordings on the label. From experience, when you think you’ve heard every recording another one pops up that DG sneaked out in the 1990s, especially. “There is such a repository of amazing repertoire”, says Dov. “I’ve been digging into it myself.” We talk about shared favourites, such as the disc of Respighi pieces including Trittico Botticelliano. “That’s a great, lesser-known bit of repertoire that’s just beautiful music and which hasn’t seen the light of day. I’m not actually on it because it was before my time but I love that recording and am proud we brought that repertoire back.”
Asked for a personal favourite, Dov is quick in his response. “We recently did a Mendelssohn CD with Jan Lisiecki playing both Mendelssohn piano concertos. I know the first one but had never heard the second, and they are charming pieces. He does an amazing job. We also did the Italian Symphony, which is on the box, and that’s a piece we come back to again and again. The first chord makes me think of Orpheus straight away, and it’s great that we have it on CD now. There are so many that are really wonderful – the Ives recordings, the Stravinsky. There is such a rich bunch of stuff, and I hope we get to continue making them and finding new repertoire to bring forward.”
The orchestra is famous for working without a conductor, and I ask Scheindlin what the secret behind their success might be. Is it because they are a team of leaders? “I think so. There is a certain verve that comes from everyone interpreting a piece in real time without an intermediary. We’re all directly connected to the score and to each other, and we don’t need to follow a human metronome. There are great and inspiring conductors, and when you get to a certain scale you need one, but I think what makes our music making so fresh and live is that we’re all leading all the time and playing our hearts out.”
The forthcoming season is packed with exciting concerts. “We’re really excited about our tour with Branford Marsalis,” he says. It was supposed to happen this past year but we’re really thrilled it could be rescheduled. We’re doing our sort of first concert of Cuban-style music, with Arturo Sandoval, which should be really great, and we also have a tour coming up in in Japan with Nobuyuki Tsujii who we’ve also recorded with. We’ll be taking the Chopin concertos to Japan, assuming that we can still get around the world by then. We’re so happy to be coming Carnegie Hall, which we haven’t been in for a year and a half now. January will hopefully be a triumphant return! We’re optimistic for the season.”
There is clearly a thirst in New York for the return of live music. “Everything was so quiet for a year, and suddenly I’m getting calls all the time to play something next week! Suddenly people are deciding it’s possible and feasible to have live music again. I know there are these variants out there, and obviously we’re watching that, but so far the situation in New York is good and coming to life.”
With the orchestra committed to new music, have they received extra numbers of commissions? “It’s been tough for composers, because it would never have occurred to great composers of the classical time to write anything without an idea of when it would be performed. We’re actively bringing in new pieces next year, and we are continuing commissioning and we’re planning to commission for our 50th season in 2022 to 2023. That’s part of our mission, and we’re looking forward to getting back to that.”
For more information on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, head to their website. To hear clips from the Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, head to the label website, where you can also purchase the set, on 55CDs or as a download.