Listen and Do: Four Great Orchestras

The great orchestras of yesterday were each known for their defining characteristics. Their sound, their musicality, their personalities were usually defined by great conductors, who spent much time with their orchestras developing them. Here are four of the greats:

Known for its opulent string sound, the Philadelphia Orchestra had two music directors with extraordinarily long tenures – Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. These long relationships allowed the orchestras to develop their sound and refine it.

The Cleveland Orchestra was/is known for its lightness of sound, clarity and precision. The orchestra’s wind instruments are particularly integrated and matched, as in this clip:

The Chicago Symphony is the muscle car of the orchestra world, with deep, rich, thrilling brass:

If today’s orchestras work at burnishing their reputations with technical brilliance, Toscanini’s NBC Orchestra was all about heart. In the performance below, you’ll hear some ragged ensemble but lots of passion.

Four great orchestras, four personalities. Each has a defining greatness. There are many orchestras today that play well, and the general level of playing is higher than ever. But do any orchestras have the distinctive “defining greatness” of the great orchestras of the past? Can you tell what orchestra you’re listening to just by listening?


  1. The differences are fairly easy to tell in these examples, but what about when an orchestra is playing a piece that does not include its telltale features? Is it possible to distinguish the Philadelphia Orchestra if the piece does not have a rich string arrangement?

    Or do different orchestras tend to choose pieces that take advantage of their strengths, which makes them easier to distinguish?

  2. There is definitely something to the concept that today many different orchestras are great in terms of technical ability, but difficult to tell apart. Here’s a personal story that relates to that:

    I remember years ago I could hear a recording without knowing which orchestra is performing, and if it was the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner, I would always (always!) guess it right.

    I’m not a professional in the music field in any way, so I remember this just as an anecdote. But I also know that I don’t often get that feeling of the ‘signature sound’ with orchestras these days.

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