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Do we need a conductor? Let’s try this without…

In the early days of Soviet Russia a group of musicians formed a commune, called Persimfans and intended to be the utopian model for all future orchestras. Every player had equal rights and conductors were consigned to history. Much of the repertoire was contemporary and Prokofiev, among others, was astonished at how well his complex rhythms were accomplished without need for a baton.

Founded in 1922, Persimfans played until the Stalin terror descended and its members were dispersed, some to labour camps.

Fast forward to 2012. A group has formed in Russia and Norway to present music of the Persimfans period – some of it quite challenging – without a conductor and with several dramatic reconstructions. Here’s the video. See what you think.


Lenin comes alive from the Double-Bass-Grave
Glinka – Overture Ruslan and Lyudmila
Mossolov – Piano Concerto n.1
Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Eugène Pottier/Pierre De Geyter – The Internationale

The Barents Spektakel version of the Orchestra without Conductor is a collaboration between musicians from PerSimfAns (Moscow), Norwegian Army Band North (Harstad), Murmansk Philharmonic Orchestra, and invited musicians.

The concert program presents three Russian symphonic works of different periods — classicism, romanticism and early avant-garde, and includes two famous compositions (Ruslan and Lyudmila overture by the “father of the Russian music” Mikhail Glinka and Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasy by the most famous Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky) and a rare piece Concerto №1 for piano and orchestra by Alexander Mosolov, the star of the Russian music constructivism of the 1920s.

To crown the concert, the musicians will perform the Internationale — not as a communist hymn, but as a musical symbol of free association of people and a sound interpretation of the PerSimfAns emblem representing the Pan flute — an old predecessor of the church organ, where each pipe corresponds to a particular sound. In our case we use the old organ pipes from the Kirkenes Church, and each musician of our Orchestra without Conductor will play one sound of the huge 48-tone pan-flute. The tradition of such a “human organ” is based on the Russian horn orchestras of the XVIII-XIX centuries. It also refers to a special instrument created in 1923 by a composer Arseny Avraamov that consisted of steam-engine and factory whistles and was steered by many performers. This instrument was used for playing Internationale as part of the legendary Whistle Symphony in Moscow — the first ever musical attempt to organize the sounds of the city.

PerSimfAns, Moscow:
Peter Aidu, grand piano
Ivan Bushuev, flute
Olga Tomilova, obое
Nikolay Dobkin, bassoon
Mikhail Krituk, I violin
Vladislav Pesin, I violin
Tatiana Porshneva, I violin
Irina Chepizhnaya, I violin
Marina Katarzhnova, II violin
Maria Ambartsumyan, II violin
Polina Babinkova, II violin
Daria Filippenko, viola
Anna Zhuravleva, viola
Rustik Poziumsky, viola
Petr Kondrashin, cello
Natalia Gor, cello
Olga Demina, cello
Danilo Chaib, cello
Grigory Krotenko, bass
Alexei Vorobyev, bass

Murmansk Philharmonic Orchestra:
Dmitry Gilev, violin
Olga Gileva, violin
Evgeny Popov, violin
Elena Skorohodova, violin
Natalia Maltseva, violin
Nazeli Brutyan, violin
Marina Pismenskaya, viola
Natalia Andreeva, viola
Natalia Timofeeva, cello
Ekaterina Okhraminskaya, cello

Norwegian Army Band North, Harstad:
Synnøve Li, flute
Sigrid Hansen Holmestrand, flute
Ingeborg Sortvik, oboe
Trond Martin Viken, I clarinet
Heidi Cecilie Fredriksson Kaas, II clarinet
Inga Juul, bass clarinet
Fagott Eline Gran, bassoon
Siv Mehus, alto saxophone
Kari Knardahl, horn
Stig Molvær, horn
Berit Henriksen, horn
John Plucker, horn
Eivind Klæbo, I trumpet
Ole Thomas Gjærum, I trumpet
Bjørn Henning Andreassen, I trombone
Lasse Skalle, II trombone
Asbjørn Abelseth, III trombone
Sjur Lilleengen, tuba
Hans Petter Vabog, percussion
Geir Johansen, percussion
Jon Sjøen, bass

Amund S. Sveen, percussion
Johannes Wik, harp

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  1. They could do with a new horn section and they also could have tuned the piano, but, it’s a really impressive and fun concert.

    I really enjoyed that piano concerto – I wonder if there’s a recording anywhere that can be bought?

  2. Gabriel says:

    Tim Benjamin – I just saw on the description of the video:

    Another performance of Mossolov’s Piano Concerto can be appreciated here:

  3. The recording balance is so poor that it is hard to tell just how good, or bad, the ensemble is. The poor horn section sound like they have recording mics shoved up their bells. I’d like to hear them try and do the same with a Mahler symphony!

    Edited for spelling!

  4. The short answer is,”Yes”.

    • Gabriel says:

      Martin, I want want to hear from someone who is not conductor the word “Yes” for the question – let’s not be bias

  5. There is definetely something very special about this performance! I’m talking just about the Glinka ouverture, didn’t listen to the whole thing yet.

    There is no problem whatsoever with the horn section – it’s just a poor choice of mic positioning.

    I feel sorry for the nay sayers who seem to be unable to conect with the evident joy, good vibes, and musicianship that is so evident on this recording.

  6. It’s interesting re this horn section, clearly I am not the only one to notice that they don’t sound quite right.

    It must be to do with the spiral shape used for the orchestra layout (the same one, I think, as used by Spira Mirabilis [], a modern-day conductorless orchestra). However the drawback is that while all other instruments have the main sound-emanating hole(s) pointing forward, the horns are unique (I think…) in having theirs pointing backwards. So while everyone else can hear and see eachother well (the point of doing the spiral shape), the horns can see, but cannot really be heard, so risk being out of time or at least putting other people off by appearing to be out of time, when they aren’t. Also, any microphone placed outside the spiral will pick up unbalanced horns (as exemplified in this recording). The correct placement for a spiral is presumably to have high overhead mics near the centre.

    I’d really like to turn my local orchestra into a conductorless spiral, I’m sure we’d all be so much happier – having a conductor does lead to such petty politics. Give the section leaders something meaningful to do other than choose bowing (if you’re lucky) and then maybe the best musicians will rise to the top instead of the conductor’s favourites! :)

  7. There is not a yes or no answer to this decades old question. It all depends on a variety factors. Here are a few that may determine the success level for a group without a conductor:

    - repertoire (obviously there are limitations for a conductorless orchestra and some things will be easier and some works will be much more challenging and some works are just plain not possible)
    - quality of musicianship of the players
    - quantity of the players in the orchestra, quantity of players opining and quantity of players involved in actual decision making
    - amount of rehearsal time (simple decisions may take much longer without a conductor and will increase rehearsal costs)
    - ability to resist reaching decisions just to find a common ground
    - ability to come up with an interpretation that is unique and architecturally consistent rather than a bureaucratic committee work

    There are a few good orchestras functioning well without a conductor but that does not mean conductors are not necessary. In the video posted by Mr. Lebrecht clearly the players are having a ball but there are some problems due to a lack of a conductor. But that does not mean that any conductor could make them play perfectly. They could be playing worse under a bad conductor. So it all depends. Thanks for posting it here.

  8. well I was watching the video, so much missing emotion, everything is a question of choice . . . but give me please music with emotion, not machine’s as workers in art !

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