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Q: Ranking of American symphony orchestras? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   4 Comments )
Subject: Ranking of American symphony orchestras?
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Music
Asked by: nautico-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 25 Feb 2005 02:34 PST
Expires: 27 Mar 2005 02:34 PST
Question ID: 480594
Have any classical music critics recently ranked the top ten symphony
orchestras in the United States?

Clarification of Question by nautico-ga on 25 Feb 2005 04:41 PST
Markj: make it your answer.
Subject: Re: Ranking of American symphony orchestras?
Answered By: markj-ga on 25 Feb 2005 06:12 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
nautico --

Thanks for your clarification.  While there undoubtedly are other
top-ten lists out there in newspaper and magazine archives, my strong
suspicion is that they are also hedged in some way.  Indeed, that is
the only intellectually honest way to approach such a subjective

Anyway here is the relevant paragraph (hedges and all) from a
September 8, 2002 article by critic Michael Anthony in the Minneapolis
Star Tribune:

"Once there was a Big 5: the New York Philharmonic, the Boston
Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland
Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Now there's a Top 10,
and the Minnesota Orchestra is probably on that list, along with the
orchestras of Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Francisco."

Minneapolis Star Tribune: Ranking orchestras is no easy feat, but many
still try (Google-cached page)

Since the above article not only contains the top-ten list, but also
is about the ranking of orchestras in general, you might find it to be
especsially interesting.

Additional Information:

While it is outdated (1998) and of questionable authority, here is a
link to a fascinating list of the 100 top world orchestras according
to a 1994 Japanese  book described as "'Sekai no Okesutora 123'" (The
Orchestras), published by the authority in classic[al] music, 'Friend
of Music' (Ongaku No Tomo, or Ontomo Mook), Dec. 1994."

The Listing of World's Greatest Orchestras

Search Strategy:

This search proved to be the most useful:

symphony orchestras rank OR ranked OR ranking

Thanks for yet another interesting question, and if anything is
unclear I would be happy to clarify it for you.


Request for Answer Clarification by nautico-ga on 25 Feb 2005 07:13 PST
One of my uncles did a stint as principal trombonist in Toscanini's
NBC Symphony Orchestra. I wonder how that orchestra would stack up
against the ten listed here.

Clarification of Answer by markj-ga on 25 Feb 2005 07:48 PST
nautico --

First, high praise from eminent critic Irving Kolodin:

"The orchestra which Toscanini came to conduct was unique among its
kind, for it was created to serve expressly as the instrument of one
man's genius. No effort was spared in combing the world for the finest
instrumentalists. Individually, they had few peers. Collectively,
under the Maestro's exacting standards, they became a legend."

A Tribute to Arturo Toscanini

As for a direct comparison between the NBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic:

"The NBC Symphony Orchestra was Toscanini's child and certainly
superior to the New York Philharmonic then or even later. It was a
virtuoso of orchestras and Stokowski, even more than Toscanini, used
that to the fullest. " Review: Leopold Stokowski Conducts the NBC Symphony

You might find your uncle on this list:

NBC Symphony Orchestra: Players Under Toscanini (1937-54)

nautico-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $5.00
Many thanks!

Subject: Re: Ranking of American symphony orchestras?
From: markj-ga on 25 Feb 2005 04:11 PST
nautico --

The closest I have been able to come using freely accessible online
information is a 2002 article by a major newspaper's music critic.
However, he is only willing to offer a "top-ten" list that is not
ranked in order and is qualified by the word "probably."

This sort of hedging by a serious music critic is not surprising, of
course, since listings of orchestras by "quality" is so subjective. 
Maybe another researcher can find a critic who is willing to stick his
neck out a little further.

Subject: Re: Ranking of American symphony orchestras?
From: siliconsamurai-ga on 25 Feb 2005 07:04 PST
Having worked for PBS in Boston and had a good friend who was a
principal at the orchestra, I have to vote for the BSO to be near the
very top (GRIN).
Subject: Re: Ranking of American symphony orchestras?
From: markj-ga on 25 Feb 2005 07:06 PST
nautico --

You're quite welcome and thank you for the five stars and the nice tip.

Subject: Re: Ranking of American symphony orchestras?
From: nautico-ga on 25 Feb 2005 12:47 PST
I asked the same question of an old friend who's knowledgeable about
the quality of symphony orchestras. Here are some excerpts:

"I generally don't rank orchestras. With the wonderful conservatory
training musicians have, the differences tend to be much less
pronounced. Traditionally, the Big Five have been New York, Boston,
Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland in order of seniority. All are
top notch, but have their ups and downs, so ranking one as #1 changes
with time. The New York Philharmonic declined under Zubin Mehta, but
has greatly improved under the batons of Kurt Mazur and Loren Maazel.
The Boston Symphony lost much of its lustre under the much too lengthy
Ozawa regime. James Levine, if he can keep his health, has already
restored much of its lost glory. Chicago under Fritz Reiner and Georg
Solti was at one time considered the best in the world. Daniel
Barenboim has proved to a disappointment and his tenure is about to
end. Cleveland has never completely recovered from the death of George
Szell. Philadelphia, which Rachmaninoff famously proclaimed "the
greatest orchestra in the world." also suffered from a music director
who had been there too long, Eugene Ormandy. Obviously, the conductor
is crucial. My saying that an orchestra has declined, does not mean
the quality of the playing was deteriorating, but the music making was
routine...on autopilot if you will. The exception was in New York
where the playing had declined under Mehta, a conductor who seemed
bored and rarely strived for anything more than the acceptable.

I believe the Minnesota Orchestra must be considered near the top. Edo
deWaart rebuilt the orchestra, but suffered morale problems under the
shallow direction of Ejii Oue. The Finnish conductor, Osma Vanska,
already becoming a superstar, has restored the quality of the former
Minneapolis Symphony.
I think it's basically silly to rate orchestras as they do have hills
and valleys. All of the ten mentioned have superb ensembles. They must
have first rate and inspired conductors to reach Olympian heights.
The quality in all symphonic ensembles has markedly improved in the
last 25 years. We have the best music schools in the world, and their
graduates prove it. Forget about the ranking and enjoy the music
making. Most US orchestras, thanks to the mucic schools, are quite

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