July 2013

Country mouse

July 17, 2013 04:44

This 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:

Where to put the 2nd violins

and in 2012:

Where should the 2nd violins sit

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.

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