Yesterday, I received an e-mail from an old friend with a question about orchestral seating arrangements. I wrote a rather extensive response and thought that some of you may be interested in my thoughts. So, I have copied it below. I welcome your comments.
Hey Scott! I hope that you are enjoying your summer. I have a question and I thought that maybe you'd have some good input. Can you shed some light on the various orchestra string arrangements? I've been having long discussions about it and I would like some more input. What I mean by that is I see the following set ups and I would like your input.
I have actually tried all of these. I think they can all be effective in various settings.
The following is from the Wikipedia Entry on String Orchestra Seating:
The most common seating arrangement is with first violins, second violins, violas and cellos clockwise around the conductor, with basses behind the cellos on the right. In the 19th century it was standard to have the first and second violins on opposite sides (violin I, cello, viola, violin II), rendering obvious the crossing of their parts in, for example, the opening of the finale to Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.
If space or numbers are limited, cellos and basses can be put in the middle, violins and violas on the left (thus facing the audience) and winds to the right; this is the usual arrangement in orchestra pits. The seating may also be specified by the composer, as in Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta which uses antiphonal string sections, one on each side of the stage.
I have reverted to the traditional 1st-2nd-Vla-Cello at this point in my conducting life - most because I have a set of gestures that seem to be most effective with that set up.
Having 2nds on the left outside seems to bring them into a more prominent role, but the downside is that they are sort-of set up for their sound to go backwards into the stage. It is good, however to get the fundamentals that are being played by cello/bass into the middle of the orchestra. Everyone seems to tune differently/better with them in there.
The other set up - with the violas on the outside/left grows from a string quartet set-up. Same deal though - the viola sounds tend to get swallowed up, in my opinion. It is hard enough to get their sound out there. I would only use this if I was doing string quartet literature with a string ensemble - like a Mozart Divertimento or something.
It is funny - because I was working at a camp this summer where another conductor was using the set up with the 2nds on the left and I felt the ensemble was really lacking between the 1sts and 2nds. Anyway, I sort of revisited the arrangement issue and, again, decided that the traditional arrangement works best for me.
I don't like switching around, especially when conducting difficult literature, because I throw cues to the wrong place. Also, if I used one of the other set-ups in my orchestra and then go to guest conduct with a traditional arrangement, it is easy to get confused and I just don't like that. I want my gestures to be accurate and predictable from the first rehearsal.
I hope this helps.