The San Francisco “conductorless orchestra” was founded by five SFCM alumni in 2013 and has co-commissioned a new work by Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian.
By Alex Heigl
For SFCM Woodwinds Chair Jeff Anderle, the One Found Sound Orchestra (OFC) gala on May 21 is something of a reunion: The 32-member group was founded by Conservatory students nearly 10 years ago with the goal of advancing a new model of musical ensemble structure.
Alongside the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra, OFS co-commissioned a clarinet concerto by Mary Kouyoumdjian, “Walking with Ghosts,” which will see its world premiere this Saturday (coincidentally hours after SFCM's commencement ceremony).
"A lot of people talk about bringing new audiences to classical music, and OFS is really doing that,” Anderle said. “People who would never go to orchestra concerts or never have been will attend their shows because of the atmosphere they're creating." (The group now includes a videographer, Max Savage, as part of their ranks; previous performances have included dancers and other cross-disciplinary elements.)
“It’s really a part of our mission to break down the barriers around classical music,” flautist and OFS founder Sasha Launer, who graduated from SFCM in 2011, said, “and to make sure it feels really inviting and welcoming to everyone. We have a ‘rules-free’ policy at all of our concerts: People can clap whenever they want, they can come in late if they want, we’re not going to punish them for getting up and going to the bar during a piece.”
“I’ve wanted to do something with them for a long time,” Anderle said. “When I was talking with Mary about this piece, I immediately thought of them, and it was funny, because she was on their list as well, so as soon as I suggested it, they were like, ‘Perfect’ and we were all on the same page right away. There aren’t a ton of bass clarinet concertos, but I just thought she would write something really interesting.” Anderle and Kouyoumdjian have a history that goes back further than the four years they’ve been planning “Walking With Ghosts:” He’s premiered several pieces of hers after meeting through a mutual friend. As their conversations about this work evolved, he and Kouyoumdjian, a first-generation Armenian-American, settled on the loose theme of “what we carry with us from our heritage and our ancestors. It’s not a programmatic piece, but that’s the inspiration—the positive and negative things that come with our history.”
Launer and Kouyoumdjian have a similarly deep backstory. "Mary started New Music Gathering, which is an annual festival that brings together performers and composers and so I had actually been at the very first one of those, which was actually at the Conservatory, and I met her there.” While the co-founders of OFS mostly make up its admin team, artistic decisions are put to a group vote, and Launer said that when “Walking With Ghosts” was put to the musicians, the “ayes” were nearly universal.
“We want to empower individual musicians to be able to voice their opinions about the music and have a say in the outcome of something that typically they don’t get to have a say in," Sarah Bonomo, another of the group’s founders, explained. “We have an annual town hall meeting so the musicians in the orchestra can give their feedback and opinions. It’s basically just how the government is supposed to work.”
“It’s been really amazing to see how it’s worked out,” Launer added. “There’s no conductor, there’s no single artistic director, so having, even within rehearsal, folks vote on these different matters has had such an effect on the loyalty to the group from the musicians. There’s so many amazing orchestras in the Bay Area, and a lot of us play with them, but it’s such a different experience to have artistic decision-making in the hands of the musicians. Audiences see the communication that happens on stage with this model, and so it’s been really cool to see the response from them to that.”
Learn more about studying woodwinds at SFCM.