The RPO, Musical Chairs

It wasn’t earth shattering, but it was mildly surprising.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra switched the positions of the cellos and violas the other night. The cellos are now sitting in the center of the orchestra between the violins and violas, and the violas are closest to the audience on the conductor’s right side.

“[Pinchas] Zukerman had the Orchestra sit that way when he guest-conducted here,” Music Director Christopher Seaman explained via e-mail. “The string principals and I thought it would be worth trying again. The Cleveland Orchestra sits that way (I think), [and so does] the Baltimore Symphony, the Melbourne Symphony (Australia), Columbus Symphony, and many others.”

Seaman added, “No seating is perfect for every section or all repertory.”

“It's an acoustic ‘thing,’” says Andy Cassano, the orchestra’s Director of Artistic Operations. He e-mailed,

“Some conductors prefer to have the violas on the outside. It does a couple of things. In many halls, including Eastman, it can be harder to distinguish their sound from the rest of the section. Additionally, certain repertoire can benefit from their placement. Even if placement that doesn't completely benefit acoustically, it can help in the mind: when you see them you also think you hear them better. Also by moving the cellos to the center the bass/warmth sound moves to the center of the orchestra and it can help balance the orchestra differently.

Through history the setup [of orchestras] has changed from time to time. Stokowski at times put the basses on risers in the center of the orchestra and at the back of the hall, as well as putting the cellos next to the first violins. Of course there are orchestras that have the second violins on the outside. Mark Elder used to do that. Composers used that setup to create stereophonics before there was stereophonics.”

Both Seaman and Cassano point out the RPO’s new configuration is an experiment. They’re seeing how it works.

A random, unscientific poll in the loge and at the office reveals concert-goers liked the change. Three regulars said they could hear the cellos and violas better.

I thought so, too. Plus, I think it’s nice to see Melissa Matson - and all the violists - out in front.

(Excuse the commercial plug, but here's a reminder that you can hear the RPO in a performance from last season broadcast tonight at 8:00 p.m. on Classical 91.5. It's the February 2007 concert with pianist John Lill and conductor Christopher Seaman in Weber's Der Freischütz, Schumann's Symphony No. 2, and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1.)