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!


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Lovely DVDs worthy of your attention

Just a short blog to share my thoughts on two wonderful recent DVD releases that have a few attributes in common. Both feature conductors and players passionate about the music they are playing (and it shows!), both feature behind the scenes documentary sequences that offer real insight and both, er, feature antiphonal violins.

First up is Schumann at Pier2, which features performances by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, one of my favourite chamber orchestras, and their music director, Paavo Jarvi. The film documentaries their project of taking the four symphonies of Robert Schumann and performing them at a warehouse that is mainly used for exhibitions and rock concerts. Pier2 turns out to be an ideal concert space and an informal one, too, with the front-most audience members sitting in sofas.

I was a little disappointed at first that the DVD did not feature complete performances of the symphonies (I will seek out the CD releases). It does, however, follow the symphonies in chronological order. The concert performances are interspersed with footage of Jarvi (clearly a passionate advocate of Schumann) talking about the composer, rehearsals and, most interestingly, sequences of individual players (or combinations of them) talking about their parts and playing them. These played parts are very cleverly segued into the concert performances and offer a fascinating insight into Schumann's writing. As if further evidence were needed that Schumann was not a poor orchestrator then it can be found here. Though, I have to say, Jarvi does make the odd alteration to Schumann's parts. But such is the commitment in these performances that I can forgive this.

Highly recommended, particularly if you want to see passionate and democratic music-making in action.

Next, we have a performance of Smetana's Ma Vlast, performed live at the Prague Spring Festival in 2011 by the Prague Conservatory Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Jiri Belohlavek. This masterwork is performed at the opening of the festival each year by different orchestras. Memorably, it was performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Czech exile, Rafael Kubelik, in 1990. Kubelik was a co-founder of the festival in 1946 but he defected in 1948 when the Iron Curtain came down.

Belohlavek is a fine conductor and is revered much more in his native Czech Republic than here in the UK, where he was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra until last year. He made the BBCSO into a very fine sounding ensemble but his lucid and serious technique was clearly not what the classical music industry were interested in here. They tend to prefer more frantic podium antics, these days.

Anyway, in the accompanying documentary the conservatory musicians were clearly delighted to have had the opportunity to play for Belohlavek and their admiration is obvious both from what they say and how they play. The film also highlights the incredible amount of behind the scenes work that goes into organising such an event, including the intensive courses that the young musicians go through.

The performance itself is a very fine one. It has the essence of an 'event' as tends to be inherent in concerts such as this featuring young musicians after such preparation. The playing is of a very high standard. The string sound is not as refined as in the classier established ensembles but then these musicians are unlikely to have the more expensive instruments that their professional colleagues have, not to mention the years of experience in corporate 'blending'. There are occasional wind intonation issues, which would be expected when using quadruple wind forces (anyone who has tried to tune four flutes will empathise). These are minor quibbles, however. The ensemble and passion are things of wonder here, particularly the opening bars featuring no less than five harps playing more or less in unison. I wonder how much rehearsal time that took?!

A heartwarming experience, then, and a cracking performance. This group displays their enthusiasm for music and nationalistic fervour without the need for coloured jackets and twirling double basses!