Conductors are all but a given in symphonic performance today. Front and center, they provide a dynamic focal point for the audience while guiding the artistic experience onstage. But what if there were no conductor? Who would run the show?
In chamber music, the artists themselves are usually tasked with determining the artistic interpretation and then communicating together to play in an artistically coherent way. But what about on a larger scale?
Enter Unsupervised, Chicago’s conductorless orchestra.
Orchestra co-founder Daniel Meyers, a bass player, shares that he has not had many opportunities to play chamber music. In an undergraduate student ensemble, though, Meyers did enjoy a uniquely collaborative musicmaking experience. “Our conductor worked hard to make sure that [each section was] aware of what was going on on the other side of the orchestra. Each of us personally committed. That made for really rich performances.”
Since then, he’s been looking to kindle that synergy in an ensemble. Meyers says he was aware of other conductorless ensembles, such as Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and The Knights, but he intended to establish such a group in Chicago. The result is, as Meyers and other Unsupervised artists describe, an orchestra that is at once communal, empowering, and creatively enriching.
Violinist Rachel Lee Zhao describes the sense of responsibility of playing without a conductor as “quite exhilarating. I get this in chamber music, and this is the only orchestra I’ve felt this with.”
Harpist Autumn Selover says Unsupervised is the most tightknit orchestra she’s ever played in: “I’ve played in groups where violins don’t know their stand partner’s name. [In Unsupervised,] you have to know everyone’s name. Everyone has equal responsibility.”
Part of this shared responsibility is in achieving a high level of performance, sometimes a difficult undertaking in a group environment. Zhao sums up this challenge as, “Loving each other enough to give criticism and to take the feedback. When we’re in a regular orchestra, you only get that from the conductor… It takes a lot of courage to speak.” Selover adds, “I think it’s important to have an opportunity for group collaboration.”
“It’s also refreshing to deliberate together about the interpretation side of things,” Meyers offers. “Debating together, what do we want this tempo to be? How can we get everyone on the same page so we can be in this together?” Undoubtedly, conductors must confront these questions too, but Meyers says that “those thoughts aren’t usually conveyed to the orchestra. You don’t get that group buy-in.”
This spirit of collaboration extends beyond the stage. The orchestra makes programming decisions as a committee, which trombonist Elena Grijalva shares can be a painstaking but ultimately rewarding process. “It’s nice to have concerts that have some of each of us,” she adds. “As a person of color, I always try to have a POC or woman composer featured in all of the performances.” Unsupervised’s upcoming concert speaks to that process: Haydn’s Symphony No. 43 rounds a program featuring music by Missy Mazzoli and Alberto Ginastera.
The artists feel that this dynamic collaboration translates directly to an engaging performance. Without the unifying presence of a conductor, orchestra members must use physical cues to communicate. Performances feature “a lot of eye contact,” trombonist Elena Grijalva explains, which has the added benefit of making “us more approachable [to audiences]. We want to be collaborative with ourselves as well as the audience. It’s nice to bring that vibe to classical music and instrumental music.”
Unsupervised performs music of Alberto Ginastera, Missy Mazzoli, and Haydn at Curtiss Hall in the Fine Arts Building on Thursday, February 6 at 7:30 pm. For ticketing and information, visit unsupervisedchi.org. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.