The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was one of the first small orchestral ensembles to adopt the model of playing without a conductor, and they remain one of the most acclaimed such groups critically.
They have premiered numerous new compositions, have broadened their work beyond classical genre boundaries, and have drawn many of the world's top musicians as collaborators. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1972 by a group of musicians who endorsed the anti-authoritarian goals of the counterculture of the era. Cellist Julian Fifer was one of the original founders. The orchestra comprises between 25 and 30 members, and turnover has been slow: as of 2019 it had only 14 emeritus members, and two of the original members were deceased. The group's rehearsal process takes place in two stages: first, a concertmaster (a rotating position) and a group of players determine the overall interpretation of the work, and then in full group rehearsals, other members refine the performance. The ensemble rests on a foundation of extreme mutual attention akin to that of a string quartet. By the early 1980s, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra had established a strong reputation in New York, and it went on to give regular concert series at Carnegie Hall and at New York's Riverside Church. Since the group's repertoire took a turn toward the contemporary, it has also performed at experimentally oriented venues such as Brooklyn's ShapeShifter Lab. The group has commissioned more than 40 new works. Audiences have been drawn by the presence of superstar collaborators including Yo-Yo Ma, Isaac Stern, and Martha Argerich. They have also backed the likes of Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, and Anne Sofie von Otter in vocal music. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has toured internationally, including, unusually, in Southeast Asia; they gave the first performance by an American orchestra in Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War, leading master classes in Hanoi. In 2019 the group gave a series of performances at the Palacio Euskalduna in Bilbao, Spain. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra began its recording career in the early '70s on the budget Nonesuch label, but in 1985 they signed with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label in Germany, releasing an album of Dvorak's Serenades. The group has recorded works by Fred Lerdahl and William Bolcom, but most of their recordings take up standard repertory. The orchestra has remained on Deutsche Grammophon throughout the late 2010s, releasing the album Mendelssohn in 2019 with the young Polish-Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki.