I am still tinkering around with my score for the musical theater. Having allowed myself to arrange an old style "full" score, where I could have a large (though not unlimited) string section (6 violins, 2 cellos) I am now turning my attention to reduced versions of the orchestration that I hope will make it more attractive to contemporary producers.
To start with, I am doing a new "full" score, that meets the current minimum requirements for the largest Broadway houses (18 musicians, 1 conductor). That means replacing my string section with a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). I also have a string bass (not an electric bass) that can be part of the string section in some numbers, if needed.
In working on the larger score, I found that using a bigger string section didn't necessarily improve the overall sound. The winds and percussion still overpowered it in so many places that I had to elminate the strings from the tuttis or thin out the winds when playing with the strings. So, I don't think I'll lose that much by going with the quartet. There are enough places in the score where I was using a quartet anyway (2 violins + 2 cellos, or 2 violins + 1 cello) and, to me, in softer passages where strings are doubling keyboard chords, it doesn't sound much different whether I use 2 violins or 6.
That said, I have a few questions about the quartet. There are a few places where I still will need a fuller sound and I want to minimize the intonation problems that will arise when assigning two, rather than three or more, stringed instruments to the same note.
- Are the viola and cello different enough in timber to avoid the a due problem when played in unison, or is this just as bad as when two violins play the same note?
- If two violins play the same not tremelo (or trill) does that minimize or eliminate the intonation problems (since the pitch will be moving slightly anyway)?
- How about if I pair the two violins with another instrumnet (assuming the other player can control his volume)? I am thinking of unisons with the piano or harp + 2 pizz violins. Also of 2 violins + 1 flute (or piccolo, or oboe, or clarinet).
- Finally, if I need a pure string sound, and the range is low enough, can I assign the two violins + the viola to the same note (assuming the viola adjusts its volume so as not to overpower the violins)?
Of course, I can make all of the above sound okay with my sample libraries. What I am asking is how well does this translate to the real world, with live players, in a pit orchestra?
If you have looked at any Playbills lately, you'll note that it's pretty rare to see a string quartet instrumentation in a Broadway musical pit orchestra ... unless ... you are going for that actual chamber sound that only a classical string quartet can give you.
More often than not, you'll see 3-4 violins-1 cello or 5-6 violins-2 celli, etc. Sometimes there's a single viola added, but a lot of times now, it's just violins and celli. I've also seen vln-vla-c (string trio), for really small sections. But not too many string quartet configurations (great exception was LLoyd-Webber's "Aspects of Love" where the entire orchestration revolved around that lovely string quartet sound ... it was, proportinately, a small-ish pit ... 13-14 pcs if I remember).
Current, modern Broadway pit string sections are only a fraction of the size they were in the mega-musicals of the 40's-50's. For example: South Pacific & Paint Your Wagon=14 strings each [8 vln-3 vla-2 c- 1 b]; The Most Happy Fella=22 strings! [12 vln-4 vla-4 c-2 b]; even the brassy The Music Man=13 strings [8 vln-NO VIOLAS-4 c- 1 b] ... these were all 25-40 chair pits ... HUGE by today's standard.
But three things help out the modern, reduced-size string section:
1.- Mics ... The entire pit is mic'd with many shows mic'g every chair. Strings for sure are completely mic'd.
2.- Isolation ... String sections are more often than not playing in plexi-baffled or enclosed areas to completely isolate them for the mix.
3.- Keyboard sampler support ... just a few, well isolated and mic'd 'real' strings + a keyboard chair playing string patches produces a very realistic, large string sound in a modern pit. Did you catch the recent Harry Connick, Jr. revival of "On a Clear Day"? The original 1965 orchestrations called for 15 strings [8 vln-3 vla-3 c-1b] ... the recent orchestrations did it very convincingly with just two violins and a single cello! ... oh, yeah, and a pretty much dedicated sampler keyboard chair. But the overall blend was damn good.
My point is all these new shows/revivals have small-to-moderate sized string sections that compete with brass and reeds blowing ff and they sound good, because of the micing, isolation, and sweetening.
As far as a reduction of the orchestration, it will more than likely be worked-out by the musical director and the producer ... the conversation will go something like this: <producer>: "Ya got $$$, enough for 6 players" [end-of-conversation!]. Seriously, besides seeing a lot of Broadway musicals, I also see quite a few dinner theater and regional versions of the "big shows", and basically they take the Broadway orchestration and start thinning it and/or consolidating it for 5-10 chairs ... and they usually do a great job of it. Rarely is a reduced orchestration available from the licensing house. Realistically, you have to be able to contract the musicians available in that area. That may determine a chair.
Hopefully some of this is at least food for thought ... you must be excited if you have gotten to the orchestrations stage!
Thanks for the feedback. I am a professional actor and I have done a few musicals in my day. (I got my Equity card on one of them). But music isn't my main thing. I sang well enough to get cast in character parts (before they started expecting them to be doubled by the chorus) but have never called myself a professional singer. Nor could I play piano well enough to consider myself a musician. (And now, with my arthritis, I can't play much at all). My training in music theory has been a bit scattershot. And as far as orchestration goes, I am completely self taught (through books, orchestrators I have known or corresponded with, and this forum).
That said, I am just trying to make the best demo that I can, using my computer and sampled sound. The choices and restrictions that orchestrating this piece impose on me helps shape the overall sound of the show. I have corresponded with pro orchestrators (with shows on and off B'way). What I get from them is that, in practice, the sound doesn't get all that much fuller with 1 violin or 3 on a part.
I have tried 6 violins, 2 cellos and a string bass. Now I am trying the string quartet + string bass. Some of the numbers are all ready scored for a string quartet (with one of the cellos playing the viola part). And, in the big numbers, the strings are blown away (pun intended) by the winds anyway. One thing I do NOT want to do with this show is use a synth to reinforce the real strings. The show is set in the late 19th century. Although mic-ing the pit (or at least the strings) is inevitable, I'd like the score to sound as accoustic as possible. So I am looking for other ways to thicken the strings (strings + organ, strings with a reed or two on some of the voices, and sticking with just the winds on the bigger numbers).
My question was if some of the other ideas I had about using the quartet as described above would work in practice. For example, for a number with two string lines (moving apart in parallel motion, over a rythym section and reeds providing intermitent fills and answering phrases to the vocal line), if I put 2 violins + viola in unison on the treble staff and the French Horn on the bass clef with the cello doubling an octave below, it doesn't sound much different in overall feeling than the six violins going up and the two cellos going down.