Saturday, 22 February 2014

A quite bizarre orchestral layout in Birmingham

Having noticed in recent reviews that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra had tinkered with their strings layout, I was keen to get along to a concert to see and hear how it was working out in practice.

For those readers not familiar with my blog posts, I am a nerdy student of orchestral layouts and a proselytiser for the use of antiphonal violins. As far as conducting is concerned, these matters are hardly unimportant though there are seemingly some practitioners who do little to demonstrate their engagement with them.

Anyway, I gathered that the CBSO had relocated their double bass section from the right hand side of the stage (conductor's view), behind the celli, to the rear of the stage. This change can be illustrated (very roughly) as follows:



The concert I caught, conducted by Edward Gardner, featured a programme of Mozart and Elgar. For the Mozart, the smaller double bass section (represented by 'CB' in the diagrams above) remained on the right behind the celli. For the Elgar, featuring the full section of eight basses, the new formation was adopted.

Theoretically, this layout makes very little sense to me. Having rear-ranged basses like this is actually ideal as far as I am concerned, though my own orchestra has too few basses to make this a practical possibility. However, this is in the pursuit of making the bass the foundation of the orchestral sound, upon which everything else is built. As such, one would also ideally locate the celli in the centre of the sound picture and stage. This can either be centre-left (as Boult favoured) or centre-right (as Monteux favoured). If one is to follow this to the logical conclusion then the bassoons would be situated on the same side as the celli and the bass brass instruments would be situated more centrally also. My own hypothesis is that locating the celli on the same side as the horns creates the added benefit of underlining their melodic role in Romantic music when playing in unison.

Returning to the new CBSO layout, the bass sound would be expected to lose focus with the celli on the right and their bass colleagues disconnected and relocated to the rear of the stage. This was, indeed, the case in practice. Though the writing for celli and basses became more and more independent through the late Classical and Romantic periods, their co-ordination is still of great importance. At one stage in the concert I attended I saw a front desk cellist, seemingly vexed, straining to see his bass colleagues in order to co-ordinate simple unison pizzicato notes. Of course, when basses are situated behind the celli the latter cannot look at their bass colleagues in order to do this. However, the opposite is certainly possible and the two sections would tend to move as one in that telepathic way that cannot be fully explained in rational terms.

The CBSO previously had a focused and punchy bass sound in their previous formation, even if I did not approve of it being located away from the centre of the orchestra. I feel this was compromised in their new formation. I do hope that the new formation is a mere experiment and that they will either revert to their previous layout or, even better, consider going the whole hog and relocating their cellos to the middle of the orchestra where they can be reconnected with their bass colleagues whilst allowing the violins to be arranged how Elgar would have expected them to have been.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Mendelssohn in Birmingham: Volume One

Having attended the corresponding 'Mendelssohn in Birmingham' concert, I was eagerly awaiting this release by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under their Principal Guest Conductor (and possibly next Music Director, according to me and others), Edward Gardner. 

It is an exciting prospect for a number of reasons. One of which is the fact that the CBSO, arguably, hasn't been recorded in its own right for a major record label for quite a number of years now. It certainly hasn't been recorded by Chandos for a long time. And so what a treat to hear them recorded with such splendid engineering! However, the recorded sound turns out to be both a blessing and a curse.

Now, the field of Mendelssohn symphony cycles is not a desperately crowded one (Abbado's 1980s LSO set was my favourite for a long while) and the first thing to say is that few people will be disappointed by these energetic and zesty performances of the 4th and 5th symphonies (coupled with the Hebrides overture). The 'Italian', in particular, is characterised by a welcome drive. The inner movements move forward, as they should, with tasteful shaping of phrases just as I remember from the live performances that accompanied these studio recordings. This 'Italian' is superb.

The 'Reformation' is actually the second of the full orchestral symphonies that Mendelssohn composed - a fact that aids the listener's understanding of the piece as well as helping explain why it doesn't quite hang together as well as the composer's later works, though its more experimental features are deliciously inventive. In view of this, the work really needs a good advocate, as Gardner proves to be here. The finale, with its working out of a hymnal theme, is particularly thrilling as Gardner injects fresh energy into each new section. My own taste is for a less swift tempo in the Scherzo but that would be my only complaint from an interpretative point of view. This movement really is one of Mendelssohn's most delightful and louche, even, in the Trio section. 

The overture is also thrillingly executed though I doubt the composer himself would approve of the less than subtle tempo changes liberally applied where none are marked in the score, but that is neither here nor there. This performance will appeal to most, I daresay. 

What of the orchestral, and recorded, sound? The disc had me turning to its main competition in this field, Andrew Litton's cycle with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, curiously enough whose music directorship is to be taken on by Gardner in 2015. Though there is little difference in the interpretations, the difference in orchestral and recorded sound is significant. Firstly, the renowned Chandos reverb ensures that the Birmingham Town Hall acoustic is as anonymous as any of their other recording venues, though doubtless the acoustic did not hinder the sound terribly, accommodating and spacious as it is. Prominence is given to the martial trumpets, horns and timpani as well as the strings, meaning that the 'middle range' of woodwind is difficult to make out in the tutti sections. This is a shame, as Mendelssohn's orchestration really is quite delightful in these works. You'd be hard pressed to identify the orchestra, too, aside perhaps from Peter Hill's characteristically enthusiastic and thrilling timpani flourishes! I hope it's not too cruel to say that the sound of the orchestra conforms to the brilliant but anonymous standards of the label's flagship Royal Scottish National Orchestra of the 1980s and 90s. 

The Bergen Philharmonic have the benefit of a rather more characterful wind section (those tangy bassoons, in particular!), which are ever-present in the recorded blend, and antiphonal violins. I can't emphasise the importance of the latter in this music enough. Now, Mr Litton is not one to arrange them as such regularly but he must have realised that for his Mendelssohn recordings to be competitive nowadays they'd need this arrangement to aid contrapuntal and fugal clarity. Curiously, Mr Gardner used to arrange his violins thus earlier in his career. I do hope that he does not feel afraid to institute this with the orchestras he works with now and in the future. Finally, the BIS sound is a little flatter and drier, which does seem to suit the music a little better than Chandos's resonance but this will be a matter of personal taste.

I suspect that this series will represent an important addition to the Mendelssohn discography and it is thrilling enough on its own terms, so I would not hesitate to recommend it. However, Litton's cycle remains the modern benchmark for me and I'd urge you to have both in your collections. 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

On orchestral layout at the BBC Proms 2013

Readers of my previous blog posts will need no reminder that I have something of an interest in orchestral layouts. This summer (2013) I took it upon myself to try to document how the string players were seated in all of the BBC Prom concerts. Though I did not attend a single one of these concerts, I did listen to the majority on the radio or online. I was kindly assisted in my task by various Twitter colleagues including Mark Berry (@boulezian) and Jane Shuttleworth (@altojane), who attended some of the concerts in question and so I am grateful for their help. There are a few concerts for which I was unable to reliably confirm the seating plan and they are indicated with a question mark in the 'layout' column. If anyone is able to supply the missing information then please feel free to comment and I will modify the table.

You can access the data here. I have named the various string layouts according to conductors I strongly associate with them, as follows, as arranged left to right from the conductor's working point of view:

Adrian Boult*                1st Violins       Cellos/Basses        Violas                 2nd Violins

Pierre Monteux             1st Violins       Violas                   Cellos/Basses      2nd Violins

Henry Wood                 1st Violins       2nd Violins            Violas                  Cellos/Basses

Herbert von Karajan       1st Violins       2nd Violins            Cellos/Basses      Violas

Some Facts and Figures

Antiphonal violins featured in 38% of the concerts included in the study vs. 62% in which the first and second violins were seated together. Of the two antiphonal violin layouts, the 'Boult' was most often employed (16/22 concerts). Of the two violins together layouts, the 'Wood' was most often employed (28/36). This seems somehow appropriate considering that Wood and Boult were towering Proms figures in the first half of the 20th century.

bearded man in evening dress seen from his left, conducting an orchestra and making a dramatic gesture, holding the baton high over his head
Henry Wood in 1908 as painted by Cyrus Cuneo

Of the twelve British conductors featured in the verified concerts, seven employed antiphonal violins. These were: Jonathan Nott, Donald Runnicles, Daniel Harding, Mark Elder, Robin Ticciati, Andrew Davis and Antonio Pappano.

All of the Wagner Operas were performed with antiphonal violins.

Of the thirteen orchestras performing with antiphonal violins, seven were British. Of the seventeen British orchestras performing, seven employed antiphonal violins some or all of the time.


Two conductors generally not associated with antiphonal violins employed them in at least one of their concerts: Andrew Davis and Marin Alsop. I daresay that they were respecting corporate layouts as I doubt the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment would be too happy about seating their violins together, particularly in the music of Schumann and Brahms. Also, the production of Billy Budd was part of a Glyndebourne tour and the orchestra was laid out this way for the tour, I believe.

Arch-antiphonalist, Valery Gergiev, opted for the 'Karajan' layout with the recently-formed National Youth Orchestra of the USA (Prom 13). Again, this may have been a corporate layout that Gergiev was respecting.

On two occasions, two conductors, Fran├žois-Xavier Roth (Prom 4) and Sakari Oramo (Prom 52), opted to switch layouts halfway through concerts. This may have been due to the particular repertoire. Roth was certainly justified in employing the Monteux layout for the Rite of Spring, which was premiered by that late French conductor using that layout. Quite why he opted for the 'Karajan' layout in the French Baroque music I don't know. String layouts were changeable and frequently experimental in the Baroque period but I am not aware of this particular layout being employed from any of the schematic drawings I have seen. Oramo, a more recent convert to antiphonalism, likely employed the 'Wood' layout for the contemporary piece in the programme rather than for the Sibelius.

Violin seating flip-flopper, Mariss Jansons, presented the great Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Proms 33 and 35) in the 'Karajan' layout, which was introduced into orchestras long after the composers whose music was performed (Berlioz, Beethoven and Mahler) were dead. This was a disappointment, frankly, even if the concerts were not.

(Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the 'Boult' layout)


This is the first year I have documented the layouts for the Proms and so I cannot comment on the difference between this year and last. However, I did take a keen interest in this matter last year and I'm pretty confident that there was a significant increase in the number of concerts featuring antiphonal violins. I will endeavour to conduct the same study next year so that a comparison can be made. The Proms is a unique music festival in that it features so many concerts and so many orchestras from around the world. It is, therefore, a useful indicator of trends in orchestral string seating.

I find the fact that more British conductors than not utilised antiphonal violins quite interesting, as well as the significant number of British orchestras deploying them. I think this represents a trend towards our orchestras restoring this layout more generally.

Please feel free to interrogate this data, modest in scale as it is. 


*strictly speaking, Sir Adrian preferred his double basses to be ranged along the back of the orchestra.

Monday, 21 October 2013

My (unsolicited) advice for the CBSO

This post is going to be short (-ish) and to the point. My opinion on these matters counts for very little but I have the following advice for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: sign up Edward Gardner to be your next Music Director and spend no more time searching for the 'next big thing'.

The following is an extract from my most recent review of the orchestra under Gardner (from The concert featured Mendelssohn's fourth and fifth symphonies:

"I was struck, as on previous occasions, by the way in which Gardner generates excitement in symphonies: choosing an over-arching tempo that is just right for a movement with subtle, if any, deviations, ensuring that the architecture of the music is very much in evidence through careful balancing and then really injecting energy and drive into climactic moments."

Earlier in the review I compared him favourably to Bernard Haitink in this respect. I do not make that comparison lightly and there are few younger conductors worthy of it. As with the elder conductor, Gardner is conservative in his gestures - there is nothing flashy or superfluous. 

In contrast with the majority of the Birmingham audience and critical press, it has taken quite some time for me to warm to the present (and now outgoing) Music Director, Andris Nelsons. I had difficulty overlooking his extravagant podium manner (jumping, grunting, leaning on the rail and baton passing are just some of the mannerisms I continue to disapprove of) as it is so alien to my own training and influences. However, it became clear that Nelsons has an extraordinary rapport with the orchestra and an obvious passion for music that is not at all self-serving. His way with dramatic and Romantic music is quite astonishing. I don't think I will ever witness finer accounts of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances or Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony than his in my lifetime.

Where I think Nelsons is least successful, so far, is in the symphonic repertoire. I have seen and/or heard his Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and Mahler and not been terribly convinced. His unique ability to lovingly draw out the singing quality of phrases that many of us might overlook can be at the expense of the overall architecture of symphonic music. The results are often ravishing and spectacular, but not necessarily organic.

I do not wish to bring these two conductors into direct comparison. For one thing, I have not seen or heard Gardner in Beethoven, Brahms or Dvorak. However, his way with symphonies is uncommonly good, which is no mean feat in combination with his fine reputation in the opera house. Excellence in both the symphonic and the operatic is actually rather unusual. It was also obvious on Saturday that Gardner has a good rapport with the CBSO players, who played magnificently for him.

These are just some of the reasons why I offer up my (unsolicited) recommendation. I am sure there are logistical reasons why the choice would not be straightforward. For instance, Gardner begins his Principal Conductor post with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in 2015 and he remains Music Director at English National Opera so he may well be too busy. Also, I don't suppose it would be the 'done thing' for an orchestra to promote their Principal Guest Conductor in this way. Nevertheless, think of being able to have homegrown talent once again at the helm of this very fine British orchestra, not to mention the prospect of having a well-known British record label at hand to record their adventures.

Well, that's my twopence worth. I have no conflict of interest to declare. I have no connection to Gardner whatsoever and have never met the man. My only interest is in my local orchestra making the right choice! Of course, there may be some unknown, hot property waiting in the wings to be snapped up by the orchestra over the next year or so. Who knows - perhaps they already have been...

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Sakari is back, and not before time.

It seems like an age since Sakari Oramo was announced as the next Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In fact, it was only back in February 2012. My impatience to see/hear him take up his new position, which commences in the 2013/14 season, has been tamed by his recent appearance at the First Night of the BBC Proms this year with the orchestra. It was an impressive showing and offered an intriguing preview into what we might expect from this formidable partnership in the years to come.

My enthusiasm for the understated Finnish conductor has only grown since his tenure in my home city of Birmingham. My first visit to Symphony Hall as a teenager happened to be to one of Sir Simon Rattle's last concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As such, I did not witness the orchestra's oft-trumpeted transformation at his hands. After becoming hooked on concert-going (no surprise given the splendid local hall and fine orchestras performing there) I was fortunate to observe how the sound of the orchestra evolved under Oramo's leadership.

It is true that following in Rattle's footsteps would never be easy but I seem to remember that Oramo was welcomed quickly and warmly by local audiences. His experience as a violinist helped him and the orchestra to develop their string sound in particular. This influence is still keenly felt to this day, under the present incumbent. Oramo also endeared himself by frequently addressing the audience over the PA system, despite his spoken English not being entirely perfect. This is something that Andris Nelsons has been feted for but he is evidently not the first here to have done so.

Oramo's Birmingham Sibelius cycle: an underrated classic
Oramo developed a reputation for excellence not just in Scandinavian repertoire but also in English music, well known and otherwise. His work with Elgar's music has earned him a medal from the Elgar Society. He presided over a gargantuan Stravinsky cycle and recorded one of the finest Sibelius cycles I have heard. There was nothing flashy about his style or performances and this, perhaps, explains why audience numbers during his tenure in Birmingham dipped to middling levels. It is my feeling that he was not liked by all orchestra members and that he was under-appreciated by local audiences. This is, however, my own perception and probably not the whole story.

I was particularly intrigued when Oramo began to experiment with seating the CBSO violins antiphonally in some of his later concerts. I remember a very good Mahler 2 towards the end of his tenure in which this arrangement was employed. It also brought to mind Rattle's own experimentation towards the end of his own stint there. The orchestra very rarely employs this layout these days; only under the baton of more enlightened conductors. This is most frustrating when the programmes often feature two juxtaposed photographs of the modern-day orchestra, sporting violins together, with the orchestra under one of its earliest conductors, Sir Adrian Boult, with the violins very much divided. It's all terribly disingenuous.

Since leaving Birmingham, Oramo has worked with a number of different orchestras. His principal position has been Chief Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he has made a number of very successful recordings. His Schumann symphony cycle is, to my ears, one of the very best digital full orchestra versions available - no mean feat given that excellence in 'core' repertoire is so elusive among the younger generation of conductors. It is splendidly recorded and there are, as one might expect in these more enlightened times, no concerns regarding any 'difficulties' with Schumann's orchestration. A recent Elgar 2 is also well worth a listen. All of these recordings benefit from antiphonal violins, Oramo's now-preferred orchestral layout.

Sakari Oramo with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra in his favoured 'Monteux' layout

I was delighted to see that he has imported this layout (incidentally the 'Monteux' layout with, left to right, 1st violins, violas, celli/basses, 2nd violins) to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which his First Night concert confirmed. The layout for this concert is significant as the programme featured contemporary, modern and Romantic works. Clearly, Oramo perceives modern and contemporary works, quite rightly, as no barrier to antiphonal violins. As I have argued before, there are surely very few composers who have written their music specifically for the 'violins together' layout and so why should antiphonal violins (with all the aural benefits they bring) not be employed more universally? I am currently listening to a fascinating new recording of Seppo Pohjola's first and second symphonies, performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Oramo, in which the violins are divided to good effect and no detriment. The same goes for a recent recording of Prokofiev's fifth symphony with the same forces.

I feel sure that the use of this layout, at least, will help to inject some much needed personality into the sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is undoubtedly a great orchestra. Like many of its BBC, and indeed British, colleagues it needs particularly inspired leadership to develop a distinctive sound. That is to say, whilst an orchestra can be very good, brilliant even, it can still be wanting in personality. I look on, hopefully, at my local orchestra with this sentiment in mind.

Exciting times lie ahead then, hopefully, at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. So, welcome back Sakari, and I hope to see you conducting in Birmingham again soon!