Inside the Midwest’s conductorless orchestra

Inside the Midwest’s conductorless orchestra


norman lebrecht

November 30, 2018

Our diarist Anthea Kreston is in the hot seat this month at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the state of Minnesota. The SPCO has no chief conductor. Its concerts are directed by artistic partners. Could this be a model for orchestral democracy in the heartland of Trump? Read on:


I am having a blast playing with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. This week‘s program is English Baroque music, conducted by Richard Egarr (the SPCO just named him an Artistic Partner), who is quite the eccentric. He is frighteningly intelligent, naturally energetic, passionate, and informed – his halo of curly, semi-greying hair frames a face which transforms as the music changes – one moment he looks as if he is haunted, the next – a goofy grin sweeps over his face and his eyes are cross-eyed. He lives the music, and in rehearsal takes up a huge amount of real-estate – hopping from one side of the orchestra to the other, connecting to each player, then barely making it back to pounce on his embedded harpsichord.

He disagrees with pre-determined dynamics – anything can and will happen – which creates a necessary engagement between player and director. He sprinkled his stream-of-conscious rehearsal instructions with Monty Python quotes, extrapolated bits from various Baroque treatises, and references to 50’s crooners. And he plays something different every time he touches the keyboard. You have to be your sharpest to even have a dream of keeping up with him.

The orchestra is small – 4 violins per section, 3 violas and 3 celli, 1 bass, and a smattering of winds and brass. This week, the first desks of the violins is entirely made of Curtis grads – my standpartner is Eunice Kim (we share Ida Kavafian as a former teacher), the assistant concertmaster is Maureen Nelson (formerly of the Enso Quartet) and concertmaster is Ruggero Allifranchini (formerly of the Borromeo Quartet). Sitting across from me are the incredible violist and cellist Maiya Papach and Julie Albers. What a treat.

Concerts start tomorrow – four this week. Next week Patricia Kopatchinskaja, another artistic partner of Saint Paul, leads and directs the orchestra. There is snow on the ground already here, and I have to duck my head against the wind as I walk the blocks between my hotel and the Ordway, but things inside are warm and crackling.


  • Meg says:

    Minnesota went for Clinton in 2016 and St Paul is definitely not “the heartland of Trump”. What an insult!

    • The View from America says:

      Yes, a total non sequitur. But it’s just part of NL’s shtick …

    • William Stahl says:

      Minnesota has voted Democratic in 11 straight presidential elections, which is the longest streak for Democrats in the U.S. The state is different in many ways–politically, economically, culturally– compared to other states in the Midwest.

    • SVM says:

      “Minnesota went for Clinton in 2016” — as if that were any better than being “the heartland of Trump”? Killary [not a typo] Clinton broke security protocol with sensitive files, spearheaded the destruction of Libya (now a hotbed of terrorism and anarchy), intimidated (as a young lawyer) a court into acquitting a man who was almost certainly a paedophile, and ensured that the Democrat-party nomination would be rigged in her favour (since Bernie Sanders was too great a threat to the corrupt establishment that controls the USA). And, to boot, she has such a disgusting sense of entitlement that she resorts to insulting both the USA electorate (and before someone replies with a rant about “the popular vote”, why the selective outrage? Has everybody forgotten Bush vs Gore in 2000, with its deliberate disenfranchisement of many voters in Florida and its curtailed recounts?) and foreign governments to account for her failure to win the presidency.

      Until the USA electorate has the sense to elect a president outwith the Democrat-Republican monopoly (and it is essentially a monopoly, *not* a duopoly, despite all the posturing), they *deserve* to be insulted by the rest of the world.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      St. Paul is a far more conservative city than Minneapolis, and that is probably what she is thinking of.

    • Bruce says:

      I don’t believe Norman meant it as an insult, and you can’t really expect a Brit to know how individual states voted (except possibly New York & California).

      The way I read this, the USA is “the land of Trump,” and the Midwest is known as the “heartland,” so therefore Minnesota is in the “Heartland of Trump” — because it’s in the heart of “Trumpland,” not because they love him there.

      That was how I connected the dots before reading your comment, anyway.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    The orchestra isn’t “conductorless”; it just doesn’t have a music director? How does an Artistic Partner differ from a guest conductor? Are they more vested in the orchestra? I’d love to hear the concert.

    • William Stahl says:

      The SPCO Artistic Partners typically play 2-3 programs each over the course of a season. Some but not all are conductors. For many years previously they had conventional music directors but changed directions in 2004 to a model that gave much more authority to the players and added multiple Artistic Partners, among other changes. The added variety of programs, venues and personalities has worked very well. The orchestra doesn’t seem to miss having a permanent conductor. The Partner list over the years is formidable:

      Joshua Bell (2004 – 07)
      Stephen Prutsman (2004 – 07)
      Nicholas McGegan (2004 – 09)
      Pierre-Laurent Aimard (2006 – 09)
      Douglas Boyd (2003 – 09)
      Dawn Upshaw (2007 – 13)
      Edo de Waart (2010 – 14)
      Roberto Abbado (2005 – 15)
      Christian Zacharias (2009 – 16)
      Thomas Zehetmair (2010 – 17)
      Jeremy Denk (2014 – present)
      Patricia Kopatchinskaja (2014 – present)
      Martin Fröst (2014 – present)
      Pekka Kuusisto (2016 – present)
      Jonathan Cohen (2016 – present)
      Richard Egarr (2018 – present)

    • Bill says:

      Yeah, conductorless is generally understood in this context to mean a group which performs without a conductor, not one that doesn’t have one on staff. No one calls the Wiener Philharmoniker a conductorless orchestra.

    • Anthea says:

      Hello –
      I really think it depends, week to week. Many weeks are completely without Conductor (and without an Artistic Partner). This week, Egarr plays the harpsichord, and so he directs from there. Next week is PatKop – she will play a little concertmaster, but I also think there is no real “conductor”, just a partner. It is a very interesting organization!

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      It means it is completely lacking in real artistic leadership and artistic standards. They could not commit to anything. Zukerman stayed too long. The board does not care enough about quality.

    • X.Y. says:

      They have no conductor (with rare exceptions for very difficult works, like Michael Hersch’s violin concerto), as is evident in their huge library of free video (and audio) recordings:

  • tom says:

    welcome to st paul. is this a tryout for principal violin?

    • Anthea says:

      Hi Tom – I am just a guest – I will come another 2 times in addition. They are looking for a new Principal though….

      • tom says:

        you mentioned the position a few months ago. at that time, the position was listed but is no longer. i assume that means finalists have been chosen. the spco regularly has guests that become members after a satisfactory year. ask eunice kim and maureen nelson.
        monday nights in the tc can be dull but tonight is an accordo concert-the best we have for chamber music. you can probably catch a ride

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    He sounds like a complete ignoramus.

  • Marg says:

    I’ll enjoy hearing your reflections on playing in this setting vis a vis playing in the Quartet. And a different type of music. Interesting to get your impressions of Egarr whom I have never seen in action. One just assumes he stands there like most other conductors but apparently not!

  • Anthea says:

    Ok you guys – settle down a tad. I’ve got great news! Post all your questions below (I am a newbie here so I really don’t know the answers). I am going to grab a beer and have a chat with Ruggero (assistant concertmaster) this week, and I will get to the bottom of it! Just load me on up…..