A “Noisy Orchestra”

Posted by jlubans on January 16, 2013

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Caption: Advert for Persimfans Revival, January 2009 in Moscow.
Speaking of democratic workplaces, there once was a conductor-less orchestra in the Soviet Union: “Persimfans”, short for Perviy Simfonichesky Ansambl, or First Symphony Ensemble (1922 – 1932).
The group interests me since I often blog about the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (now in its 40th year!). There are no less than a dozen Orphic mentions, for example, “Committing to Magic”. And, Chapter 6 in the book, “Leading from the Middle”, “The Invisible Leader: Lessons for Leaders from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra” is among the book’s most frequently cited.
I dwell on Orpheus because they are a living, breathing example of a democratic organization, one that is self-managing and - while there are many leaders - “leader-less.”
Since I am eager to learn of other musicians running their own show, I was drawn to a brief article,* written in 1928, during Persimfans heyday. As you might expect, Moscow’s “Noisy Orchestra” was founded in 1922 with revolutionary fervor. That year’s prevailing sentiment was echoed in Persimfans’ one-day revival in 2009: "Just as the government didn't need a tsar, so the orchestra didn't need a director!"
While celebrating Persimfans’ considerable accomplishments (200 concerts) – all without a boss in sight – the authors offer up some insights and reservations about the inner workings prior to its demise in 1932 “as infighting among the musicians, pressure from the Bolshoi and Stalin's purges tore the group apart.”

From the beginning Persimfans was a revolt against the conductor. The main leader, Lev Moiseevich Tseitlin, saw conductors as superfluous entities claiming credit for work they did not do. Mr. Tseitlin (aka Zeitlin) was a first class violinist and the concertmaster of S. A. Koussevitzky’s symphony orchestra in Moscow.
As a result of the revolution, the stellar conductors had flown from Moscow and Tseitlin had at his disposal a world-class orchestra, one that had been led by the world’s best. These musicians already had an accomplished repertoire and some notions about musical interpretation.
Most Persimfans performances required 20 rehearsals – a huge investment of time and energy for reportedly very little money. In concert, the Persimfansians played in a circle, the better for the 100 players to see each other.
The orchestra was an immediate favorite with the Russian public, their comrades, but it had a few detractors. Among the latter, one termed the quality of the music “a mean arithmetical affair,” probably alluding to the now-missing inspiration of a truly great conductor.
Another critic, said that any good conductor could have led – without any rehearsal - this already expert orchestra. After all the musicians had played the repertoire countless times.
This last criticism echoes the effort and time it takes for self-managing teams to become effective. Yes, at the beginning of a team’s formation, a single leader can accomplish an assigend task more quickly than a team. However, a really good team keeps getting better over time, and eventually outperforms the solo leader.

Persimfans was not exactly self-managed: Tseitlin conducted all the rehearsals! And, in performance, all kept an eye on Tseitlin’s bow just like musicians do with a first violin or concertmaster. Perhaps that is why, for some critics, the orchestra’s quality never reached the highest level. While some will argue that Orpheus would be better if conducted, there is little dispute that Orpheus has its own soaring voice and achieves levels of beauty usually attributed only to the very best conductors.
In 1932 the music died for Persimfans. But conductors were soon back on Moscow podia for other orchestras. While Persimfans might have flown apart on its own, there was some recognition among the comradeship that while all are equal, some are more equal than others. If Mr. Stalin was “Father” to Russia, then a leader-less orchestra might be perceived – with dire consequences - as undermining the concept of a great leader for the masses. Mr. Tseitlin did survive the purges, dying a year before Stalin, in 1952.
Obviously, as demonstrated by Orpheus’ success, the “shtick” of being conductor-less is not enough to carry a musical group to greatness. Orpheus doesn’t hate conductors. They love music, are accomplished musicians, and want to have a say on what to play and in how to perform the selection. That is enough for inspired and talented musicians to make something beautiful happen. Or, put another way, you won’t go far if your motivation is to define what you are not. Instead you need to define who you are, what you want to achieve and how to you will get there. When that happens, a team or an orchestra, is well on its way to greatness.

*Sabaneev, Leonid and Pring, S. W., "A Conductorless Orchestra", The Musical Times 69, No. 1022 (1928): 307–309.
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