on the floor…
The past two weeks found the un-named orchestra in a large midwestern city playing without the risers we are accustomed to using. It should come as no surprise that opinions are divided as to whether or not this constitutes an improvement. The majority of players I overheard discussing the matter seemed to think the orchestra sounded better without risers, but that is far from a scientific survey.
To me, the basses sounded clearer, more articulate on the floor if a little less resonant, and all in all, the orchestra sounded a little less muddy to my ears. I’m curious to know if audience members experienced the difference and had any opinions about it.
Sightlines to the podium were no worse than usual from the second row of the bass section since the conductor was above us, rather than below. Thinking about the symbolism implied by our customary arrangement with the Maestro below much of the orchestra reminded me of something from my student days.
One of the schools where I did undergraduate work had a multi-tiered rehearsal room with a layout similar to the concert hall where I now make my living. (Incidentally, the rehearsal room had the unfortunate number 101, home of ‘the worst thing in the world’ in Orwell’s Novel, 1984) One of my comrade bass students who happened to be reading The Divine Comedy at the time drew up a little chart, comparing the concentric rings of risers to Dante’s division of the underworld (Inferno) into many descending levels. At the top, outermost edge, the bass section corresponded to the virtuous heathen. Going round the orchestra and descending, the other sections grew increasingly wicked, culminating at lowest and most central position of all, wherein dwelled the archfiend, Mephistopheles, the Conductor Himself.
There has been some talk about continuing to play without risers in the future, although this week we are back to using them due to the chorus. It will be interesting to see if anything changes and how the decision making process is handled. Pro and anti riser feelings are pretty strongly held, and I imagine fairly intractable, so any sort of ‘debate’ on the issue might easily take on certain head banging characteristics. This might be due in part to the fact that the use of risers began during the regime and at the behest of our former music director. (His name still escapes me.) Many who opposed him and the changes he brought probably find it difficult to be objective about it. I imagine for them climbing onto risers every day must feel akin to settling onto a sofa purchased together with a now hated ex spouse.
One odd thing about playing flat on the floor is the distance up to the terrace seats. (Our concert hall has seating around the back of the stage, added during renovation.) The height of the terrace seating was probably designed with the risers in mind. Risers raise the back and sides of the stage several feet higher, closer to the terrace seating. Without them it feels like the orchestra is at the bottom of some deep mosh pit. I’ve noticed audience members leaning over the rail, craning their necks to get a look at us. Having recently visited Rome, the other image that comes to mind is of walking through the city and suddenly coming upon a railing around a deep pit where, leaning over the side, it is possible to observe in quiet awe and astonishment a few relics of faded Roman glory moldering in the warm Italian sun.