Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why are the strings sitting there?

You may wonder why I change the seating of the strings from time to time. It may appear to be random or arbitrary, but hopefully, if you've been paying attention, you already know the answer.

One thing is a given: of the two groups of violins (every string section has five sections: first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses), the first violins always sit on the left side, downstage, in clear view. Most orchestras have the second violins seated just inside the first violins, with violas and cellos to the right, and basses behind them.

Then why do I sometimes place the second violins opposite the first violins, downstage right?

It wasn't my idea. Berlioz did this in the early 1800s, and Mahler did the same in the early 20th century. First and second violins seated next to each other is a relatively new phenomenon, within the past 75 years or so. Why did it happen? I'm not sure, but I can guess..... perhaps during a recording session, back in the days when recording was still a new venture, some wiseguy producer might have asked, "hey, why are the violins separated? Put them together!" Or maybe a second violinist approached a conductor and respectfully asked, "Maestro, can we please sit next to the first violins? We have so much of the same music, and it would be so much easier for us to play together if we were seated together." The idea caught on, and stuck.

But in the last 10-25 years, more and more orchestras began seating the violins like Berlioz, Mahler and Wagner seated them -- on opposite sides of the stage. And the reason is a decidedly musical one, for which the benefit is mainly yours, not ours: because composers such as Vivaldi, Beethoven and even Bruckner wrote for violins stereophonically. When we did Vivaldi's Four Seasons with Sarah Chang last year, did you notice how the violins often talk with each other? In Bruckner symphonies, the violins often trade a musical idea back and forth. And in the finale of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which you will hear later this season, the first and second violins engage in the musical equivalent of a fencing match, parrying back and forth right up to the movement's climax.

For some composers, writing stereophonically for violins is not a feature of their musical style. So if we do a program of Ravel, Debussy and Poulenc, I'll put the violins together. (Whether the violas or the cellos take the downstage right position is a matter of preference.)

You may ask, then, when violins are opposite each other, "how do you decide where to put the violas and cellos? Who sits inside the first violins, and who sits inside the seconds?

Toscanini liked the cellos inside the first violins, and I think Mahler did this as well. (Indeed, for Mahler symphonies, it makes a lot of sense, as the first violins and cellos often play the same melody together.) For this season, you will often see the violas inside the first violins, because we are in a Beethoven year, and B. loves to group the first violins with violas, and second violins with celli. Indeed, in the 3rd movement of his Symphony no. 3, in the Trio, which features the french horns prominently, both pairs strings seem to be involved in a bit of gamesmanship.

So you know -- most second violinists dislike playing from the downstage right position. They would much prefer being inside the first violins, in their comfort zone. I can understand why. When they share the melody (or an intricate accompaniment) with the first violins, it's easier to keep the ensemble tight and taut when playing side by side.  But it's nice for audiences to hear the music the way it was intended to be heard.


Jennifer said...

What a gem this blog is! I don't know why I didn't know it existed, but now that I do I think it's great.

I guess I just assumed that there were musical and/or accoustical reasons for changes in seating for the strings, but how wonderful to have a historical perspective. Thank you!

Just out of curiousity, do you, as the conductor, have a general preference or does it depend on the work being played?

Edward Cumming said...

As to my preference, I do not necessarily have one, for it is the music that dictates to me how I believe the strings ought to be seated. If the violins are treated stereophonically, then I have the two sections opposite each other, in clear view of the audience.

Where my preference comes through would be in how I position the violas and celli/bassi; some conductors like the cellos inside the first violins, with basses behind them (back left) -- this is how Mahler seated his string section, and Christoph von Dohnanyi did this during his years with the Cleveland Orchestra. I like the cellos to my right, and for pops concerts, the cellos are on the outside....this, I suppose, is a preference I give to the cello section (it's what they prefer!), for I am more pre-disposed to having the violas on the outside for classical programs.

On the Hartford Symphony's concerts in early January 2009, we will perform Vaughan-Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. For this piece, the concertmaster and the principal viola have prominent solos, and I want them to be in clear view, so Violin I and Violas will be opposite each other downstage. But then, after intermission, when we play Beethoven's Second Symphony, the violins will be opposite each other, and the violas will return to their position inside the first violins.

It's rare that I make a seating change within the same program, but the players (as do, I hope, members of the audience) understand that there are musical reasons for my doing so.

For this same program, there will be a piece by Giovanni Gabrieli (Canzon X, 1610) originally written for 8 players (two groups of four); I am re-arranging it for three groups of instruments, and those seated in the orchestra section will be treated to a 'surround sound' experience, to simulate the sounds Venetians would have heard in the multiple choir lofts in St. Mark's Basilica.

This is another nice feature of the Belding hall -- there is room in the side balconies for musicians to play without taking people out of their seats!

Jennifer said...

Thank you for taking the time to respond. That sounds like a wonderful evening of music. I don't recall ever attending a concert with instrumentalists in the side balconies; what a treat for the audience! I appreciate, as I'm sure others do, that you attend to the needs of the music even in the seating arrangements.

I have to admit that I often wish I played an orchestral instrument. Of course, I would then have to play it well enough to play in an orchestra, which is an entirely different issue. Now I feel a bit like an "insider," which is kind of fun!

Happy New Year, Maestro!