Orpheus played four pieces of music during its late-January concert series. Each piece included thousands of details that required hundreds of adjustments. Most of those tasks happened on the fly, often wordlessly, while others that appeared simple often took days to accomplish. A case in point: One measure of music that seemed to take forever to figure out actually involved only ringing a few bells.
The bells in question rang out at the end of "Within Darkness," a piece by Susan Botti. Orpheus was performing the piece's world premiere; no one had ever heard or played it before. Botti had her own idea: She wanted the bells, which came at the end of the piece, to evoke a shaft of light. But she didn't want to force her view. After all, she was working with a group committed to self-governance.
"When we started working on the piece, we were kind of fishing," says violinist Ronnie Bauch. "We had to focus on all of the small areas." The first run-through of the 17-minute piece took more than 90 minutes. The musicians decided to spare Botti the pain of listening to them plow through it, figuring that it would be easier for her to help them once they could actually play the piece all the way through without stopping.
Unlike other pieces that Orpheus has premiered, "Within Darkness" came together rather quickly. "The sound is atmospheric and enjoyable," says flutist Susan Palma-Nidel. "Botti didn't write things that were physically impossible to play, the way some composers do. It's easy to dislike an impossibly difficult new piece, but nobody felt that way about this one."
That is, not until the group began rehearsing with the bells. Once the bells were in the picture, a number of questions came up: How many beats should be counted between the last note of the violin and the first sound of the bells? How long should the tones last? How loud should they be? Where should the bells be kept during the performance so that they won't make noise when they're not supposed to? What if the applause begins before the bells have sounded? Who should cue the bells? "Maybe we should have auditions!" suggested one smart aleck. Everyone agreed that only a few beats should elapse between the violin's last note and the bells' first chime, lest people think that the piece were over before it really was. "Great," Botti said. "Let's try it."
"When we're doing a piece for the first time, we really rise to the occasion," says cellist Melissa Meell. "I think that the process we go through can be liberating for the composers we work with, because we're willing to try so many different things. We don't pick just one interpretation and stick with it."
Botti was something of a special case, since the idea to commission her work came from the orchestra, specifically Martha Caplin, whose father was Botti's childhood voice teacher in Cleveland. "I wrote a solo especially for Martha," Botti says. "But the orchestra parts were written for all of Orpheus. I made sure to consider who would have to communicate with whom where, and I included a ton of places for cues to be given easily."
But the bells remained elusive. After hearing the piece performed in Easton, Pennsylvania, Botti decided to make a small refinement. During the dress rehearsal for the next performance, at Carnegie Hall, she told Orpheus of her idea: three seconds of silence, during which Caplin would keep her bow on her violin so that the audience would know that the piece was not yet over. The bells would then sound loudly and slowly fade away to conclude the piece.
At the performance, all of those thousands of details came together. The result was a perfect performance: The silence was electric, the bells rang out brightly, and the applause was generous.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.