Orchestra size vs. Orchestra volume
Posted by: reed23 04:05 pm EDT 04/12/21
In reply to: re: I didn’t notice - Singapore/Fling 01:46 pm EDT 04/12/21

Some conflate orchestra size with with its volume. The two actually have nothing to do with each other.

The average symphony orchestra (say, 75 musicians) can play so softly you could hear a pin drop. And there's a ceiling on how loud a symphony can play. The same is true for a pit orchestra, whether it's 8 players ("The Visit," "Scottsboro Boys") or the formerly traditional 26. So there's not really any such thing as a musician added to any kind of ensemble to make it louder.

Yes, it's more what you describe in terms of orchestra colors, textures, and emotional impact on the ear. I'm recalling the first FOLLIES revival, with the orchestra cut by half, with a third of the impact, ill-serving the show's grand evocation of yesteryear and the emotional complexity of the "book songs." Perhaps the worst example I saw was the A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC revival, reduced to about 8 players, including (incredibly) 2 violin players sawing away out of tune all night. (The smaller the string section, the more out of tune it sounds as you hear every player's pitch variation; the larger the string section, the more the players cancel out each other's pitch variations and form a cohesive new sound.)

I once sat in the pit of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and was surprised and a little amused that as the reveal of the chandelier approached, the musicians sat motionless reading their magazines, or whatever they normally do during long book scenes. The chandelier was revealed and began its ascent, and the orchestra didn't play a note; it was all pre-recorded organ. I forget when the actual pit orchestra played its first note, but it was something like 20 minutes in.

Amplification has been around for many decades. I remember two of the loudest shows I saw, at least to that point, were the original CHICAGO and A CHORUS LINE (and they sounded magnificent – and they were both smaller ensembles than the old-time Broadway 26.) Alas, though sound technology improves annually, its use does not, in general. I had to just laugh at THE BOY FROM OZ and WICKED, the loudest shows I've ever seen, in which someone decided that volume was either the equivalent or component of excitement. It's neither.

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