Unmusical Chairs

I’m very pleased to share with you the first of five essays that  beginning this week are being published in the Boston Symphony program book. They all have to do with challenges of orchestral string players that often go unobserved by even the most discerning audiences.

Unmusical Chairs

Let’s say you’ve lived in your house for twenty years and one day you arrive home to find all the furniture has been moved to other rooms and turned in the opposite direction. Your bed’s in the kitchen. Your couch is in the garage. Holy feng shui! Just imagine the disorientation. Perhaps that’s an overly dramatic comparison, but it’s not unlike what an orchestral string player feels when a guest conductor decides to switch where the various string sections are placed onstage.

How to adjust to this rearrangement, how to sit in an orchestra, how to turn pages, how to play outdoors, and how to deal with very loud music encompass a litany of issues that can go unnoticed by the concertgoer but are under constant consideration by the musicians.

You’re probably used to seeing the second violins to the left of the firsts, with the violas, cellos, and basses on the other side of the stage. That’s fairly standard these days, though there are some valid historic and acoustic reasons for occasionally rearranging the deck chairs. When I conduct my Baroque orchestra in Salt Lake City, for example, I have the first violins to my left—they’re always the lucky ones: no one ever bothers their seating—and the second violins to my right so they can be seen and heard equally with the firsts. That’s because in Baroque music the violins are the primary melodic carriers. The violas are to the left of the first violins, where their instruments can face outward, helping to expose their inner musical line, and the cellos and basses are to the right of the second violins. This also makes sense because it crucially places the cellos and basses next to the harpsichord player’s left hand, which essentially doubles their part. But I can’t emphasize enough that what truly makes the arrangement work is that I’ve done it the same way for fifteen years and the musicians are used to it.

I’ve experienced some certifiably bizarre seating arrangements. The Utah Symphony once had a guest conductor do Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, Elijah (the German name for which, by the way, is Elias) and had the full chorus standing in the front of the stage and the orchestra sitting behind them! You can imagine the visibility and ensemble problems that ensued. The conductor insisted that was the way Mendelssohn did it, but considering some other dubious historical claims he made, I was far from convinced. (Editorial comment: one major difference was that Mendelssohn was a great conductor.) But even if that guest conductor was historically correct, what conductors sometimes fail to consider is that the orchestra usually has no more than four rehearsals to get an entire program right, and it’s hard enough to achieve perfection under the best conditions without throwing a monkey wrench into the gears.

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The Boston Symphony in 1882

You may ask why it’s such a big megillah to change position onstage. Let me count the ways:

Picture this. As astute concertgoers, you’re probably aware that string players sit in pairs, two to a stand. This makes sense, even though all the other musicians are fortunate enough to have their own individual parts and stands. That’s because everyone within a string section plays the same music and when it doesn’t stop, someone’s gotta turn the page! Let’s say I’m in the second violin section and sit to the conductor’s left, and that I’m on the “inside” of the stand (farthest from the audience). It’s my job to turn pages for the “outside” player. Why is this the tradition? I’m not sure, except that perhaps it’s less distracting to the audience for this arrangement. It would actually be easier for the outside player on this side of the stage to turn pages, because the lower right hand corner of the music is within inches of his/her left hand. But, whatever, if I’m on the inside, I’m trained to lean across the stand and turn pages with my right hand without interfering with my stand partner’s vision or position. When the conductor has us switch to the other side of the stage, I’m now to the right of the outside player and have to turn pages with my left hand. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sitting there playing, patiently waiting for the musician to my left to turn the page and then saying to myself at the last split second, “S—, that’s my job!”

Here’s another issue. In the customary setup, second violins are a bit insulated from the edge of the stage and from the audience, nestled in a comforting, protective buffer the first violins have provided them. When they’re switched to the conductor’s right, they’re suddenly exposed, not only to the audience’s prying eyes (and ears), but also to that vertiginous drop at the edge of the stage. You may scoff, but I’ve known many a second violinist who has opted to sit on the inside of the stand for this very reason. The feeling can be, literally, dis-concerting.

But the main reason is much more critical. When I’m sitting to the left of the conductor, my aural landmarks are the first violins, of course, but also the flutes, clarinets, horns, and harp. That’s how I’ve learned to hear everything from Hadyn to Harbison. When I sit to the conductor’s right, it’s another species entirely. I hear violas, oboes, bassoons, trombones, and tuba. I often cannot hear the first violins, my fraternal twins, at all! I often cannot see the expressive left hand of the conductor, who will also often turn to the first violins, making both hands invisible to the other side of the stage. Even in the best of times, if s/he is facing forward the baton is directed at me in an unfamiliar way. Depending on the repertoire, all of this can be highly disorienting, and in a real way I have to relearn how to play together with my colleagues.

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A  very creative 19th century configuration

James Levine, as BSO music director, used a seating arrangement that—though historically justifiable—is today considered unorthodox. He had the second violins to his right, but had the cellos on the first violin side with the double basses behind them, with the violas remaining in their more traditional position, audience-right. At first it was a challenge, but after a while one got used to it, and I will readily express the opinion that it gave the orchestra a refreshing clarity and balance, at least from where I sat.

With Andris Nelsons, we’re back to a more traditional arrangement, which I believe most of the string players welcome. Yet from time to time, as I’ve experienced recently at Tanglewood, some of the guest conductors have insisted on switching things around. That’s a tall order, especially when the orchestra often works with two or three different conductors every weekend and gets just two rehearsals for each of the weekend’s three orchestra programs. I don’t doubt their sincerity or their convictions, but before they decide where they want us to sit, I would propose they first try conducting with the baton in their left hand.

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The Boston Symphony with Maestro Andris Nelsons

GERALD ELIAS is the author of the six-part Daniel Jacobus mystery series (including two audio books) and of “Symphonies & Scorpions,” which relives via stories and photos the BSO’s history-making 1979 concert tour to China and its return in 2014. An expanded version of his 2017 BSO essay, “War & Peace. And Music,” recently served as the basis for a TEDSaltLakeCity2019 performance, and is included in “Symphonies & Scorpions.” He has also recently released a­ children’s story, “Maestro, the Potbellied Pig,” and “…an eclectic anthology of 28 short mysteries to chill the warmest heart.”


2 thoughts on “Unmusical Chairs

  1. Thanks, Gerald. I learn something new every time I read your blog. I’ll watch the string players with more attention from now on.


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