In many respects, the concept of an unconducted chamber orchestra or unconducted large ensemble playing has been a given in my concept of music education. Doing unconducted projects in conservatory was something I just assumed was part of any solid musical training, especially for string players. I also had been to several chamber orchestra concerts that were performed unconducted - a performamce of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on tour in Baltimore was perhaps one of my most memorable and profound concert experiences. I was a little surprised therefore in our last class discussion that the concept of an unconducted chamber orchestra was understood to be unique to Orpheus in New York City. I decided to look into unconducted chamber orchestras and find out if Orpheus was indeed the first such orchestra.
Orpheus indeed was not the first. In 1922 the Pervyi Simfonicheskii Ansambl' - First Symphonic Ensemble) was formed in the USSR (http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/orchestra/a-conductorless-orchestra.html). The founding of this orchestra was more political than artistic in nature, and it did not survive past 10 years. In 1951 the Prague Chamber Orchestra was formed. (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/PKO.htm) The idea has flourished since, and now many self-governed orchestras can be found from Orpheus in New York City to the Australian Chamber Orchestra in Sydney. Some establish leadership in a democrtatic way, as Orpheus does, and others rely on the artistic direction of the concert master. But the unifying component is the idea of chamber music interaction in large ensemble form.