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...