July 17, 2013 at 11:44 AMThis summer I have an opportunity to play in a different orchestra from what I'm used to. After more than 5 years of playing in a community orchestra, I may have gotten a little comfortable there. That orchestra has had the same conductor for my entire tenure, and longer. Most of the time, my stand partner is the other violinist in my quartet, and we sit together on the first stand of the first violins, right across from the principal cellist, who is also in our quartet. One of my jobs has been to discuss the bowings with the conductor, and eventually send around a scanned, bowed part by email to the rest of the section. While this is some work, I don't mind doing it, and I admit I kind of like the perk of not having to follow anyone else. (The conductor is quite enough). The chairs are good, and a few years ago the church where we rehearse fixed its lighting so I can't complain about that either. Finally, we have concerts every 2-3 months, giving us time to learn the music with a weekly rehearsal that lasts from 7:30 to 9:45 with a short break. In other words, I'm used to the venue, the pace, the rehearsal length, the conductor's beat, and being surrounded by friends.
But with our conductor's impending retirement, things are going to change, and of course everyone wants that change to be for the better, or at least not for the worse. One of the 3 finalists for our conductor position is conducting a summer orchestra at a local university, and I'm playing with that group for the first time. We are playing 2 big symphonies, Dvorak New World and Borodin #2, with a month-long rehearsal schedule.
It is a privilege to play with a group this powerful. While I'm not the most senior member of this group, I'm in the uppermost quartile, age-wise. And while most of the other players are or were not music majors, they are young and agile, and good sight-readers. I'd guess many of them would have been able to major in music or violin performance, had they chosen to. Furthermore, the string sections are more than 50% larger than my home orchestra. It means that, befitting these pieces, the orchestra can fill the large, currently cavernous, hall with sound (and, I hope, with audience members). The chairs are excellent--comfortable, yet not bulky--and the conductor is a model of efficiency and organization. He emails around scanned, bowed parts at the beginning. He sets out the goals for each week's rehearsal both on a handout and verbally before the rehearsal starts. And, he keeps to his schedule, which often goes down to the minute. During rehearsal, which goes from 7 to 10, he schedules short stretch breaks where we are encouraged to shake hands with our neighbor. My stand partner is a delightful, friendly retired college professor who plays with another regional orchestra that performs a lot of contemporary music. We've started carpooling to have company for what is a relatively long and confusing drive through city streets to rehearsal.
While this is not a professional group, and the concert is free, I do have a bit of a country mouse feeling of visiting the big city. The rehearsals, which are a full 45 minutes longer than what I'm used to, feel that way, especially when coupled with a long drive to and fro. And despite the orchestra's substantial size, I can feel dwarfed by the large, dark, empty hall, and the need for a spyglass to really see the conductor. One final difference that is turning out to be a bigger deal to me than I first thought, is that here, the first violins and second violins are seated opposite each other, firsts to the conductor's left and seconds to his right. My home orchestra seats the two sections next to each other. I looked it up on violinist.com here, and found that this topic has been the subject of at least two weekend votes, in 2009:
and in 2012:
Interestingly, both of these polls had "next to the first violins" winning over "opposite the first violins," but the second time, one could also choose the option of "sometimes next to, sometimes opposite," which was the overall winner, and the option I think I chose when I voted.
There are a couple of good arguments for the "opposite" arrangement in those threads. In particular, the ideas that it makes the seconds more confident and less hidden when they have some distance from the firsts, and provides the audience with "stereo" sound, are appealing. I also read on the first thread, that one concertmaster thought it made it easier to communicate with the principal second if they were sitting opposite, and that this was in fact the "traditional" seating at some time in the past.
Nonetheless, I'm still coming to favor the "next-to" arrangement in this particular situation. My main reason for concluding this is the way certain passages in the Dvorak are orchestrated. There are several times when a theme or motif is passed from section to section, from the firsts to the seconds to the violas to the cellos, for example. I think this looks and sounds much better when it goes in order. With the current seating arrangement, the theme appears to be coming from, and going to, an almost random direction and place. I first noticed it in the Dvorak, but the more I thought about it, I realized that there are fugue-like passages in the Borodin, too, that make more sense from a visual and ensemble perspective to be played in the "next-to" arrangement.
The concert is only a few days away, and I don't plan to second-guess the conductor's reasoning, especially not at this late date. But I am curious to understand it better. Do visual cues matter to others the way they seem to matter to me? I mean, perhaps I'm the only one who is upset by having musical motifs criss-cross the orchestra rather than being handed off in an orderly fashion from section to section like a smooth relay baton. This second violin section is strong enough not to get overwhelmed or intimidated by sitting next to the firsts. Nonetheless, I find it, ensemble-wise, easier to sit next to the second violins as a first, and easier to sit next to the violas as a second. What orchestral seating arrangement would Dvorak and Borodin have had in mind when they were writing these symphonies?
No matter what, it's good to be trying new things. No matter what, change is coming.
The issue of second violin placement is an interesting one. I know that when Barenboim was music director of the Chicago SO, the seconds were opposite the firsts, and I know that was historically the practice back in the high classical period. I have no idea to what extent if makes a difference to the audience, but I suspect not much. Our orch has done it on occasion. However, I do not recall whether it made much difference to me as a violin 1. Acoustics are always an issue when we rehearse and play concerts, because we do not normally rehearse where we play. It would be interesting to ask the conductor why he does what he does and see what his rationale is. Let us know if you do.
In re: 1st/2nd vln placement, I agree with those who hold it varies with repertoire. Since I play both vln/vla, I'm used to sitting in any of the 4 positions (some orch. put celli on outside opposite 1sts, but others put vlas there). IMO it does make a difference to the audience if the 2nds are mostly supporting the firsts at intervals, or playing a separate voice (as in fugues). Even in some modern pieces it matters--have your quartet play Barber op.11 sitting in the various configurations--the famous Adagio's voices speak quite differently--and that difference is magnified quite a bit when it's a string orchestra instead of a quartet playing.
Those of you making the f holes facing towards the wall comments (as a violist and mostly chamber musician) I really do sympathize. I'm also quietly chuckling at you. It bites, doesn't it? :)
I think that, in an ideal world, the position of the seconds would be based on the piece. But it never works that way, and this close to a concert isn't a time to be changing something that has such a big impact on the sound and communication.
A lot of the time I feel that orchestral playing is one great long exercise in sucking it up and doing your best regardless of the circumstances.
I have had the experience of playing (as a violist) in different arrangements, as the outside section (weird, I know) where the cellists would normally sit, and with the seconds on the outside and the cellists in between violists and seconds.
In both scenarios I've had a similar response. With us (violists) on the outside my response was, 'get that great flapping twit (conductor) out of my way so I can see/hear', and 'get those idiots (cello section) out of my way so I can see/hear.' My take-away from those arrangements is that, as a violist, I prefer to have seconds right next to me.
So yes, in general I'm predisposed to the 'next to' arrangement for communication reasons, but I *really do* understand the argument for having the seconds opposed to firsts. I nearly always want more of the second violin line, and having them on the outside *does* lead to the section being more extroverted.
One of my favorite chamber coaches (Vartan Manoogian, if you ever studied with him you know this riff) said *many times* that the second violin is the heart of the string quartet (and would always casually add, in an undertone, the viola), and I think that transfers into much of the orchestral repertoire too. The seconds really are the bridge between and the chameleons of the string section. Wherever they happen to sit, MORE COWBELL!!!
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