Class #2: Introduction – What Makes A Great Orchestra?

WHAT’S IN THIS VIDEO: What makes a great orchestra, yes. But also what defines a great orchestra. Let’s talk about the orchestral landscape in America. The first orchestra concert was in 1800, but the first orchestra seasons didn’t start till 1842. There are now about 1,800 orchestras in America. In recent decades orchestras have improved technically, but technical proficiency doesn’t define a great orchestra. How an orchestra engages with its audience is also important.


  1. Hi, you said there are about 18,000 orchestras in USA, with 300 professional orchestras and 900 community ochestras. Did I hear it wrong or the numbers do not fit?

  2. I, mean: 1,800 ochestras in USA

  3. Hi: No – you heard right. 1,800 orchestras, with 300-350 professional orchestras and another 900 community orchestras. There are also about 450 youth orchestras and another 250 college/conservatory orchestras. Sorry – I should have been clearer.

  4. I really struggle with even the notion of “great” orchestras and making comparisons. I worry that the label may become in some people’s minds, more important than the actual musical being performed. And I completely agree with your discussion of recordings. I think this is why I particularly enjoy going to hear new music – no preconceived idea of what it “should” sound like. Thank you for these classes! (My students are enjoying as well)

    • The idea of “great” depends on what your definition is. Fifty years ago that might have meant playing all the notes virtuosically – because that was difficult and rare. If you were an orchestra that could do that you stuck out. Now that it isn’t rare, what takes its place as “great?” The commonplace doesn’t stand out from the pack. As you hear others in these videos say – some of the distinct personalities of orchestras have been worn away. Those personalities might also be a definition of great. I think context is very important. Where you are, who’s with you, what you’re doing, what’s happening. An orchestra’s history is certainly part of that context. I’m not so sure there’s any such thing as “no preconceived idea”. Even if you’re hearing something unfamiliar, there’s a context about that. I guess the challenge is to understand the context.

  5. Anthony L. says:

    I agree with Sam M. and the idea that the label can become more important than the music. It would be an interesting study to listen to 3 concerts in 3 nights, blindfolded if you will, and see which performance moved you the most. Without knowledge of the orchestra or the set. Would it be the local community orchestra? I think the answers, although varied, may surpise us.

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