acoustics the orchestra world

spatial relationships

If there were only one way (as if!) to raise an orchestral musician’s hackles virtually instantly, it would have to be the issue of the use of space on stage.  This can take many forms.  How far you are from your stand partner (if you have one).  How far you are from the stand (given differing levels of eyesight), how far you are from the nearest instrument capable of deafening you (most often percussion, piccolo, and brass – take your pick), and even which model of chair you are given (if your orchestra made the mistake of allowing multiple type of chairs to be used).

I’ve seen members of my orchestra hold up a rehearsal with a guest conductor for 15 minutes over an issue of personal space, and we’ve had one non-string player protest loudly over their lack of “sonic space” due to their placement on stage.  It’s made more tricky by a couple of factors.  In the US we have a more different conception of how much personal space we need than in other places.  If you look at videos of the average European orchestra, they’re packed together like sardines, but yet they seem to be doing ok, and make more pronounced physical movements than many US ensembles despite this fact.

A major factor is also the size of the stage and any constrictions that are made upon that space.  In our hall, a renovated vaudeville house, we have the proscenium arch to contend with – it cannot be altered for reasons both historical and structural, and you cannot place any instruments behind it unless you simply want them to play into a solid concrete wall and be invisible to the audience.  In turn, this affects where you can place the acoustical shell, which in turn affects the placement of the winds and brass instruments, which then makes life miserable for most of the string players.

One paradox of our set-up is that, with the winds on risers and pushed forward for better projection, the smaller orchestra we use, the less space there is for strings.  And with piano concertos, the piano ends up being sandwiched between the first violin section and violas, instead of having the downstage area to itself and with the strings beginning in a straight line behind the piano on each side of the podium.  This causes lots of ensemble issues due to the fact that many times the principal violist cannot see the conductor (due to the piano lid), we cannot see or hear the second violins (with whom we share a lot of inner voice action), and many times it’s hard to hear or see the concertmaster from the section areas of both cello and viola.

In our concerts this weekend, I have the interesting experience of sitting both in my usual “normal” place on stage for half the program, but for the Dutilleaux 2nd Symphony I find myself sitting behind the timpani (which are located with the rest of the small ensemble at the front of the stage, audience right) at the very back of stage left.  It pretty much feels like I’m playing via internet connection (dial-up, not broadband), just trying to keep the tempo and straining my ears and eyes to the utmost to make sure that I’m with what I need to be in the large ensemble (despite the fact that I cannot see or hear the violins or cellos of the large ensemble).  It’s interesting, I’ll give you that!

I’ll try to give an instrumentalist’s eye view of the set up tonight, and post it Sunday morning so you can see what I’m talking about.

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