Questions and Gowns – Ruthie Snoke

I’m afraid this blog won’t be as entertaining as the last one; I finished 1984, to my relief. (It was very foreboding, and while I enjoyed it, I welcomed the transition to a more stable book: The Death of Ivan Illyich. Joy.)

In any case, I still enjoyed the symphony on Friday night. The Variations on a Theme by Haydn, by one of my fast becoming favorite composers, Brahms, was excellent. It was a change to hear movements that were so short, but it lent emphasis, I felt. The finale was especially enticing, and while my words seem to be running a little dry today, I enjoyed the first piece immensely. Indeed, the symphony is fast becoming not only one of the highlights of my week, but really one of the events that keep my head afloat this semester. As a senior in high school it has been quite difficult to make the switch from the maddeningly busy first semester to this slow, plodding, monotonous tying up of loose ends. The weekly symphonies have been some of the events that have helped me wait out these last few months. So thank you, PSO! 

Anyway, back to Friday night. Would it be too teenagerish to say how
much I liked Chee-Yun’s dress? Well, I don’t care; it was gorgeous.

was particularly striking to see her stride out, dress billowing about
her like she was a goddess from some ancient myth, take a stand facing
the audience with a look of calm, poised assurance, and then begin to
play. I think I forgot, for a moment, that she was a skilled musician,
so awed was I by her beauty. But as she struck the first few notes I
came back down with a crash and listened, open mouthed I am afraid, to
her masterful playing. Not only did she present a striking picture in
fuchsia against the background of white and black, her violin playing
was wonderful. The piece, by Saint-Saëns, also deserves some praise—it
was rich with emotion and contrasting themes.

To tell the truth I was much more interested in the first half of the
program (the dress really did it to me), but Brahms’s Symphony No. 2
was still enjoyable. I did find it funny that, as the program said,
critics in Brahms’s day said that it was not emotional enough; I found
it, as most people nowadays do, to be one of Brahms’s more emotional
I found myself a little distracted, actually, by a question that has
plagued me for some time. In the program there is always a little
section that says, ‘the symphony is scored for two each of flutes,
oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three
trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.’ Each of the pieces has
something like that, telling how many instruments are to be in the
piece. But it always says, ‘strings.’ No number, just, ‘strings.’ So my
query is this: why do some of the strings leave? How do they know? Does
the conductor just feel that some of them need to leave? Does the
composer actually say, and the people who write the programs just don’t
feel like putting that in? Or is there some unspoken knowledge that I
don’t know?

Well, I may never know. Luckily, not knowing isn’t a very large detriment to my enjoyment of the symphonies.

1 thought on “Questions and Gowns – Ruthie Snoke”

  • UPDATE – thanks to Hampton Mallory from the orchestra who pointed out some errata in this response to Ruthie’s question… changes to some of the details are in bold text below.
    And look out next week for a special guest blog from our new Personnel Manager, Kelvin Hill, going behind the scenes into the workings of the orchestra

    So, to answer your question:
    Very few pieces of music list the actual number of string players desired to play the ‘violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello, bass’ parts. In fact, it’s a question that is most normally asked directly to a conductor (usually by our librarians and sometimes by the Orchestra Personnel Manager).
    Most conductors will have a good idea of how many desks (pairs of players, usually two to a stand) of each section they want. For example, in the Brahms performances this week, I believe Maestro Janowski is using:
    16 first violins
    14 second violins
    12 violas
    11 cellos
    9 basses

    This is quite typical for Romantic repertoire like the Brahms. You need a fair few strings to balance the large forces in the wind-section. Other pieces will often require less strings, depending on how ‘big’ the conductor feels the sound should be.
    Now, here’s the interesting thing, most scores are usually very specific about exactly how many woodwind, brass and percussion players are required (each player has they’re own part – i.e. they’re all playing their own unique part of the piece, whereas in each string section all of the players are almost always playing the same thing).
    So, we can specify in the program book what the wind&percussion scoring is but not how many strings are used, as that’s something less definite. The choices the conductor makes in this area can really effect the ‘flavor’ of the performance – it may not always be incredibly obvious from the audience perspective, but having even just one extra desk (2 extra players) in each string section can really change the way that whole section sounds. A violin concerto, for example, will very often use a desk or two less in each string section so that the soloist isn’t swamped in the sound of instruments that have the same timbre.
    Exactly which string players get to play what is decided by selected members of each section, known as ‘Rotation Captains’. Currently, our string section ‘Rotation Captains’ are: Sarah Clendenning & Akiko Sakonju (First Violin), Lorien Hart & Albert Tan (Second Violin), Cynthia Bush (Viola), Charlotta Ross (cello) and Peter Guild (bass). This happens a number of weeks ahead of performances – although it’s not unknown for a conductor to change his or her mind and ask for an extra desk here or there.
    So you see, it’d be sort of difficult to include it in the program book – we’re not trying to dupe you 🙂 and it’s great that you ask as it’s one of those things that takes a little explaining and which I bet most people in the audience wonder about from time to time but are under the impression that they’re not supposed to ask about…
    This is why we like having you around here to blog and ask the questions that never get asked, Ruthie, thanks!
    (There, and you thought you may not get an answer?!)

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