Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Orchestra Plays Flat!

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.


nocynic said...

Mike is in the last row; nobody is behind him, certainly no trombones. For those of us in the middle of the orchestra, the absence of risers does indeed put us into Dante's hell. The trombones are no longer shooting over our heads, they are going right through our skulls! I would strongly suggest that any survey our anonymous orchestra does about the risers would also take input from the audience. If you are on the main floor, all you see without the risers are the players on the very outside. If there is an oboe or a horn solo, you cannot see who is playing. This would strike me as an inferior experience, and could well further decimate our audience.

Michael Hovnanian said...

One minor correction: with risers, when we sit stage left stand 3 of the bass section is rather notoriously right in front of the trombone section, with their bells at precisely the same height as our ears. Otherwise I can agree with everything else you say.

If we want to stress the visual aspect of our performance to the detriment of the sound, we might want to put Andre Rieu in charge of auditions. Let’s get some eye candy up there!

MK said...

From the audience perspective, I can't unequivocally say whether or not the absence of risers increased or decreased clarity. One would have to hear performances with the same conductor with and without risers. I want to say that the orchestra didn't sound as clear and the voicing not as differentiated as usual (e.g. in the Rachmaninov last week). But in the case of the Tchaikovsky of two weeks ago, that can easily be blamed on your guest conductor that week as well.

He of Great Ambition said...

Visual stimuli have always been important in the concert hall for me, perhaps most so when a more modern piece is being played. Watching the faces of various members of my local "major" orchestra during a piece that no one (less the Old Snake) is enjoying is good fun. I would give my vote, barring a major improvement in overall sound, for the continued use of risers.

jason said...

At the Tchaikovsky 4 concert the section sounded really amazing without the risers. The bass sound was warm and had much more presence than usual. Like you mentioned in your post, there is a level of clarity that really helps project. Did the section use the risers under Solti?

Michael Hovnanian said...

Risers were brought in by the next music director.

Anonymous said...