Sunday, April 8, 2012

Where You Sit (Babble)

My husband and I actually got out the other night.  Together.  Without kids.  And we weren’t running errands or working at the store or being told to go by the US Army.
We were given a pair of free tickets to a Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concert, were able to find a spur of the moment babysitter, and spend a couple of hours together dressed in nice clothes listening to music.  It was great.

I’m not used to sitting in the audience, though.  It’s a rare treat.  The theater where my orchestra (Festival City Symphony) performs is called the Pabst, and I usually see it from the stage and it looks like this:
It’s a lovely old theater, but I think I’ve only seen it from the audience side of the stage two or three times in all the years I’ve lived here.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performs in a different, much larger space downtown, and Friday night we were treated to a Haydn symphony, a Dvoraak symphony, and the Glazunov Violin Concerto in A Minor performed by Frank Almond.  (For such a shockingly good soloist, Frank is down to earth and quite funny, and when he was in my violin store last he offered to let me look at his Stradivari.  He somehow made the Glazunov look easy which sort of blew my mind.)  I really enjoyed getting to wear a new dress and sitting next to Ian in the audience instead of waving to him discreetly from the stage.  As I said, it was a nice evening.

But beyond the lovely music and the company, I was mostly struck by the way the orchestra was seated.  I don’t get out enough to know when the MSO changed the way they are arranged on stage, so maybe they’ve used this setup for years and I am just hopelessly behind the times, but I was intrigued.

A traditional symphony orchestra is arranged around the conductor in a horseshoe, or half circle shape.  From the audience’s perspective, the first violins are on the left, then as you continue around the horseshoe you have the strings in order of descending voice, so next come the second violins, the violas, and then cellos with the basses lined up behind them mostly off to the right.  Sometimes the viola and cello sections switch places, but the violins stay on the left.

The MSO was set up very differently.  The first violins were still to the left, but next to them were the violas, then the cellos in the middle, and the second violins on the right side of the stage.  The basses were lined up behind the viola section on the left.  I found this fascinating.  (Of course, I’m a nerd and I don’t get out much, so I don’t claim to have a high threshold of what I claim is interesting.)

There are some great advantages to this setup.  Being a violist the biggest one to jump out at me is that the viola section can be heard with more clarity.  When we’re seated on the right we’re actually aiming sound at the back of the stage, not toward the audience at all.  And violas play in the most difficult range to hear, that middle alto/tenor voice that loses out to sounds both higher and lower than what we’re doing, so to point us the proper direction would help a lot.  Cellos, too, being in the center, points them directly at the audience, so that’s also a good idea.  Having the second violins on the right was interesting, because they were pointing their sound toward the back of the stage, but they play in a range where they can still be heard fairly well–better than violas can.  Plus it changed the general quality of their sound which gave them a different identity from the firsts.

In any case, I liked it and kind of want to try it.  I wonder if other orchestras sit this way.  Who started it?  Or is this something that people used to do that has come back?  It didn’t hit me until later that this arrangement is actually how we sit in the mandolin orchestra, so that’s interesting.

Where you sit makes a difference.  From how things appear to how you are perceived by others.  Trying different seating is often a good idea, because having a new perspective teaches us so much.  What I learned this weekend is I need to find more opportunities to sit next to my husband.

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