Monday, January 19, 2015

Musical chairs

The time has come, I think, for a round of musical chairs at the Richmond Symphony: Repositioning its string sections with an ear toward boosting and enriching bass sound.

The usual full-sized complement of strings in this orchestra is 12 first violins, 10 second violins, eight violas, eight cellos and six double-basses. However balanced that may appear in principle, it is not balanced in practice – at least not in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, where the full symphony currently stages all of its local concerts.

As I remarked in reviewing the weekend’s Masterworks program (see previous post), low strings sound weaker than high strings in this hall, even when the fiddles are played within the acoustical shell behind the stage’s proscenium arch. When the strings are moved beyond the arch on the extended stage, as they are for music that requires enlarged woodwind, brass and percussion sections, or for works performed with the Richmond Symphony Chorus, the relative weakness of bass string sound is more pronounced.

When this was observed during orchestra sound checks prior to the reopening of the renovated hall in 2009, the theater’s acoustical consultants said that adjusting the overhead “clouds” and/or tweaking the hall’s acoustical enhancement system would ease or solve the problem.

Five and a half years later, the problem persists. So does the issue of deficient projection and tone quality in piano sound when the instrument occupies the standard front-and-center position with the orchestra on the extended stage – the usual layout in large-scale, late-romantic/early modern piano concertos.

Adam Golka’s sometimes inaudible playing in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto was the latest instance of a pianist being overbalanced by the orchestra in this hall. Previous victims include Jon Nakamatsu, Jeremy Denk, Awadagin Pratt and Dmitri Shteinberg, all of whom are high-powered, assertive performers.

Perhaps there is as yet untried adjusting and tweaking to be done; but I wouldn’t count on it. I’m pretty sure that, by now, what we hear is what we get as long as the symphony performs in the Carpenter Theatre.

So, sound-adjustment duty falls to the orchestra.

The standard seating arrangement for strings in the Richmond Symphony, like most American orchestras (but not all – see photo), places the violins to the left of the conductor, and violas, cellos and double-basses to the right.

Leading Central European ensembles – the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Czech Philharmonic – regularly use “classical” string placement: first violins to the left, second violins to the right, violas and cellos behind the violin sections, with double-basses behind the cellos or on risers at the back of the orchestra (standard practice in Vienna).

That arrangement serves to clarify the musical exchanges between first and second violins that figure prominently in the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – that’s why it’s termed classical. It also puts low-string sound at the aural center or heart of the ensemble, which contributes to the richness and body of string sound so prized in the Vienna Phil and other European orchestras.

I don’t know whether such placement would enhance lower-register fiddle sound with the Richmond Symphony in the Carpenter Theatre; but I think it’s well worth trying – especially as the present arrangement is so chronically prone to imbalance.

And the piano problem?

The symphony may have solved that, at least short-term, by having gone through most of the biggest, loudest concertos in recent years. The popular piano concertos it hasn’t played lately – Mozart, the first three Beethovens, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Saint-SaĆ«ns, the Brahms Second – as well as the modern ones likely to be programmed here, are scored for chamber- to standard-scaled orchestras, and so shouldn’t necessitate extending the stage.

Just steer piano concertos away from programs with space-consuming music, such as big choral works and pieces that call for lots of percussion or oversized wind and brass sections requiring enlarged string sections to balance them.

Want a concerto alongside “Ein Heldenleben” or “Carmina burana?” Book a violinist.