Orchestras have a long story and has been changing their size, formation and tone, if I may say, over the centuries. Modern orchestras, mainly film orchestras that I mostly deal with, can be almost of any formation you can think of, including the traditional but also un-conventional instruments.
We all have an idea of the orchestra as a formation though, as an instrument of its own.
Undoubtedly different schools of composition have given more prominent roles to different sections of the orchestra, with modern masters of orchestration balancing them in a remarkable way. I must admit that I find orchestration one of the most important virtues of a modern composer. Without it there is no atmosphere, no surprise, no emotional landscape to bring your themes in.
Most of the times though, I find that traditional formation of the string section 1st Violins, 2nd Violins, Violas, Celli & Contra Bassi, even with their divisi parts giving us 7-8 different lines for them is not enough. I find it necessary, more and more often, to have a 3rd and a 4th section of the violins, to have 2 Celli sections of 12 players each, and so on. Sometimes I end up composing for almost 100 string players before I add my other sections (wood, brass, percussion and so on).
And then bring the soloists that can ‘cut through the mix’ as we say, and allow their voice to be dominant inside this huge selection of players, playing all together at more than 120dB. Obviously in a live performance one needs to think carefully about it…
Well… yes, I must admit: we’ve gone (I’ve gone) to extremes! From a soft breathing whisper of an oboe to the gigantic blasting sound of a huge force. That’s the ideal orchestra for me. When you record it, it is extremely difficult to recreate the sensation you get from the live sound of such an orchestra, inside the digital domain. And when playing live, it is almost impossible to balance them out without the digital domain playing with how much ‘light’ (presence), we allow to each section…
Yes, the modern orchestra couldn’t be different than anything else in our life: has a new absolutely necessary element to it – sound engineering, mixing automation, compressors, expanders, and so on!
So, where is the best place to enjoy it? In modern theatres, opera houses, concert houses where a huge top notch orchestra and conductor can be ‘choreographed’ sound-wise (close micing and so on) by imaginative and skilled engineers. That’s most possibly the only places in this universe, one could experience in max the modern orchestra.