At the behest of the conductor, the bass section is set up on the ‘wrong’ side of the stage this week – stage right, behind the first violins. The seconds are across, on the outside, with the cellos and violas in the middle. This arrangement has its pluses and minuses, detractors and supporters. The issues are many and varied; I become weary merely thinking about them, and so have no desire at this point to delve into the matter beyond my usual glib observations. We used to sit this way all the time under some guy who was music-director here; his name escapes me.
When we first made the change there were some interesting moments as we introduced members of the first violin section to the experience of having a bass bridge a few inches behind their heads. The firsts are a prim and proper lot, at least in contrast to the bass section, so a certain amount of ‘shock and awe’ was involved. Not all of them were happy to see us. I overheard two first violinists (both of whom, perhaps coincidentally, retired not long after the bass section moved into their neighborhood) discussing the new state of affairs. “The pizzicatos, they go off like bombs!” one of them complained.
It is always interesting to see what happens when creatures, almost deformed by habit, are asked to do something a little bit different. Moving across the stage and facing the opposite direction sometimes feels like entering a sort of ‘Bizzaro World’ where everything is as it was before, only backward. Inevitably the first few divisi passages get mishandled as players who forgot to look up and notice their surroundings beyond which side of the stand they are sitting on choose to play the wrong line.
Beyond the divisi passages, there is the issue of who turns the page. For the uninitiated, I should explain that in string sections, where we play two to a stand, there is an inside player and an outside player, referring to the one closer to the edge of the stage (outside) or away from it (inside). The players on a stand are also defined as ‘top’ or ‘bottom’, which isn’t as deliciously wrong as it sounds, referring only to the line a player should play (upper or lower) if the part is divided. This designation makes more sense for the sections in the middle of the orchestra, where both might be equidistant from the stage edge.
I had always assumed the universal rule in string sections was inside or bottom players should turn pages. That was until our section moved across to stage right and some of the inside players (who were playing the bottom line) sat on their hands, making the argument that the player on the right hand side of the stand should turn, because that was the way we did it on the other side of the stage. The seconds, the other section that gets ‘flipped’ when they move across the stage like the bass section, seem to have the flexibility to let the inside player turn, no matter where they sit. But everybody knows violinists are more agile than bassists. In the middle of the stage, the cellists, always the clever ones, solved the problem by having the principal sit on the left hand (driver’s) side of the stand, making the shotgun position (on the right, the ‘inside’ or ‘bottom’ of the stand) turn pages.
I cannot help but point out that since a principal player should never sully his hands turning pages for a subordinate, when we sit stage right, the assistant (on the inside) turns for the first stand while the rest of the section does the opposite. The result is that the entire string section adheres to the ‘inside (or bottom) player turns’ rule except for stands two, three and four of the bass section. I’m curious to know if this sort of thing comes up anywhere else.
Disagreeing with the way things are done, I see no point in pursuing the matter. Although, for the most part, we are an easygoing bunch, this is precisely the sort of issue our section could not discuss amicably.
Delving into what seems like trivial issue – who turns the page – is revelatory in that it underscores the alienation of the bass section from the rest of the strings. A number of things more serious than who turns a page, bowings, articulations, phrasing, tend not to apply to the basses. In fact, recently, I had occasion to recall one of my old teachers, Ronald Simon (Seattle Symphony) who once told me his autobiography would have the title “Except the Basses.”
Physically, the closest the front of the bass section ever gets to the conductor is equivalent to the back of the other string sections. We are pointedly not represented in the ‘inner circle’ (the first stands of violins, violas and cellos surrounding the conductor) that Algonquin Round Table where bowings, articulations, and other lofty matters pertaining to the strings are discussed. Often the results of those discussions reach the bass section late, not at all, or worse, in distorted form. Our section is often like the poor fellow at the end of the long line in the game of ‘telephone’ who has to stand up and deliver the absurd transformation of the original whispered message. In another sense, one might compare the bass player to a cat who, when separated from his littermates and turned out into the alley, reverts eventually back to its feral state. But the same animal, kept indoors and given love and training equal to his siblings is quite possibly capable of domestication.