One major delight of my years in England was my serendipitous discovery of the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra, resident at St. James’ Piccadilly and now increasingly a fixture at the London’s South Bank as well. Within months of my arrival in the UK, I was playing in the ranks of its violins. I learnt so much from them and still try to time my return trips with opportunities to play in this marvellous ensemble. I can safely say that my decision to remain within commuting distance of London (and even to put to rest my initial plans of moving on to the US) was prompted by the nourishment that playing in this orchestra provided for me.

The rehearsal sessions were like masterclasses for me. I learnt so much from its conductor Alan Hazeldine, delivered in his Scottish burr and with his wicked sense of humour. One particular case that I had occasion to recall recently was Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pathétique’, which I had never played before. Those familiar with it will know how the energetic march-cum-scherzo third movement is followed without a moment’s respite by the anguished falling-figure muted shriek in the strings that begins the fourth. At one rehearsal, Hazeldine asked rhetorically which of us had ‘the tune’ in the opening of the fourth movement. I was in the second violins and I knew we didn’t, so I assumed the first violins did. They usually do. But –none of us individually did, as we realised as we each (first and second violins, violas, cellos) played our opening bars in turn. But put us together, and hey presto, ‘the tune’ magically appeared out of the ether! I still get goose-bumps recalling that dramatic revelatory moment! This was aural sleight of hand, Tchaikovsky the conjuror at his best.

And this passage as well as so much that happens in the earlier movements (the ‘crucifixion’ cross-motif in the first two movements, for example) of the ‘Pathétique’ would have been brought more sharply into focus by the seating plan prevalent in Tchaikovsky’s time (the first and second violins on opposite sides, with therefore from left to right violin I, cello, viola, violin II, with the basses behind the firsts) rendering obvious the crossing of the parts.

I made a special trip to Mumbai last month just to hear the Australian World Orchestra conducted by Maestro Zubin Mehta at the NCPA. Mehta used the seating plan elaborated above, and it made perfect sense even though Tchaikovsky was not on the programme on either of the two concerts; he conducted Brahms’ lyrical Second, and Schubert’s monumentally ‘Great’ Ninth Symphonies, both of which were superbly served by this more historically accurate 19th century seating plan.

Musical chairs

In the Schubert, Mehta went a step further, seating the woodwinds in front of the strings, so that clockwise we had oboes, flutes, bassoons, clarinets. The ‘Great’ C major symphony makes virtuosic demands of the woodwinds, and these colours were thus brought literally and brilliantly to the fore.

What we today consider as ‘standard’ seating, (clockwise violins I & II, viola, cello) is a relatively recent phenomenon. The great conductors of yore used the principle of balance and seated the firsts and seconds on their left and right respectively. Arturo Toscanini considered the firsts and seconds “like a pair of shoulders, and like shoulders they must be strong and equal”.

But one of the few constants in orchestral seating is the placement of the firsts, always to the left of the conductor and therefore the audience. The rationale for the more recent lumping of both the violin voices together is (and Sir Henry Wood ardently believed this) to better allow the instruments’ sound-holes to face the audience. Consequently the ‘lower’ voices (viola, cello, double-bass) went to the right.

But there is also a bio-physiological basis, albeit perhaps instinctive rather than planned, to the principles of orchestral seating and indeed the placement of voices in a choir. Perceptual and cognitive psychologist Diana Deutsch demonstrates in her “scale illusion” that if two different series of tones are presented to each ear, our brain creates the illusion that high tones are being played to our right ear and low ones to the left. There is evidently a right ear advantage for high tones. So for the musicians, it makes sense to have the higher pitch-producing instruments (e.g. first violins) on their right, and the cellos and basses on their left. But it is not so optimal for the audience.

Another interesting phenomenon: musicians who play ‘high’ instruments or even instruments with sharp attack (e.g. percussionists, pianists) have a larger left auditory cortex (the part of the brain processing sound), since the right ear projects largely to the left auditory cortex. And vice versa for ‘low’ instruments, the left ear and the right auditory cortex.

Another aspect to consider is whether musicians should sit at all, if they can help it. Cellists are excused, of course. Many leading chamber ensembles (the Emerson and Artemis string quartets, Australian Chamber and Venice Baroque Orchestras) play standing; it is more natural and comfortable, how one would play as soloists and therefore the sound production is more efficient, and better for posture.

So: is there an optimum seating (or standing) plan that would work for the musicians as well as the audience? It is an elusive ideal, and a subjective one. We at Camerata Child’s Play India have adapted to suit the programme we play: we performed the Corelli Christmas concerto with the first and second violins positioned antiphonally to bring out better their interplay, and we played the Vivaldi Concerto for Two Violins in D minor standing, with a discernible difference in sound quality. One should constantly endeavour to reconcile an informed approach to performance with a personal interpretation of the composer’s intentions as laid out in the score, whilst making use of available resources (in terms of both orchestra and performance space) to best effect.

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 November 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)