A Glendale Symphony Orchestra violinist spoke about conductors some years ago. One Hollywood film composer, in particular, had charge of her organization as musical director for a number of years.
"He knew his own music very well," she said wearily. "But when it came to the standard repertory, he didn't know half as much as he thought he did. We play that music and in many cases, we know it better than he does." She noted with resignation: "But he was the conductor, so we had to go along with him."
Classical musicians have a love-hate relationship with conductors. When they're well versed in the intricacies of the music at hand and display compassionate leadership, they're heroes to the orchestra. When they approach the task as martinets or are taken with their own autonomy and celebrity, they are, as music journalist Lawrence Vittes has pronounced, fools.
Clarinetist Benjamin Mitchell, 35, has addressed the issue in a concrete and exciting way. Two years ago he began the conductor-free Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra. "We're not anti-conductor," he qualifies. "The main idea here is the special process to create music in a very democratic way. As classical musicians we usually only find that kind of intimate exchange in the chamber quartet setting, where we watch each other all the time for direction. It's much harder to do that with an orchestra."
This Sunday at the Glendale City Church, Kaleidoscope performs two long-form pieces by Olivier Messiaen and John Russell.
A Kaleidoscope performance adds layers of intensity to the usual chamber orchestra recital. Other than the players who have to sit (piano, cellos, harp, etc.), the other players stand, taking their cues visually and aurally. Oboist Claire razeau, 29, who also plays with the L.A. and the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestras, gives an idea of the circuit of performance energy. "It keeps you engaged," she enthuses, "in a way that you don't normally do when you're sitting, looking from the page to the conductor and back again. And it engages the audiences, too, as they see what you're involved in."
The process requires self-study for each piece. Percussionist Kevin Schlossman, 26, stresses: "You need to know the music thoroughly; you can't come into the first rehearsal and expect to pick it up along the way."
The idea of a non-conducted chamber orchestra is not new: the earliest ensembles relied on concertmasters for direction. In the modern era, Russian orchestras did away with leaders as early as the 1920s. Though the concept is a rarity in practice, Kaleidoscope has made believers out of skeptics.
One believer is Rich Capparela, veteran KUSC broadcaster. He attended last year's performance of Gustav Mahler's free-flowing Fourth Symphony (written in 1899-1900). He's a fan of the hourlong work but didn't know what to expect from the ensemble. "That Mahler Four with Kaleidoscope was in my top handful of best concert experiences I've ever had," he emphatically states. "They're taking standard repertoire and somehow making it feel fresh again."
Actually, Kaleidoscope essays new music too. Last year it held an invitational for contemporary composers and first-place winner John Russell's "Bass Clarinet Concerto" (in its West Coast premiere) shares the Sunday bill with Olivier Messiaen's mystical "L'Ascension" (1932-33).
"We love music from all periods," Mitchell says. "We've played Bach, Brahms and Mozart; Dvorak, Prokofiev and Ives. But we've played Schoenberg, too."
Mitchell was raised in Cupertino, Calif., but has lived in Boston, Zurich, Louisiana, Chapel Hill and Bloomington. He moved to L.A. two years ago and he's currently working on his fourth graduate degree at USC.
Schlossman sees something intrinsic to L.A. in Kaleidoscope. "It would be possible to do this elsewhere," he believes, "but it's much easier with all of the great musicians here. Ben knew exactly what he wanted when he created this and he's worked to the nines to get it."
What: Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra
Where: Glendale City Church, 610 E. California Ave., Glendale
When: Sunday, Feb. 28, 3 p.m.
More info: www.kco.la
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.