WHAT’S IN THIS VIDEO: Ranking orchestras is difficult because of geographic distance. There has been homogeneity with mixing of players internationally over the past several decades. But it is amazing how orchestras maintain their traditional quality of personality over decades even long after the original players who established those qualities are gone.
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:
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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.
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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:
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The Chicago Symphony is the muscle car of the orchestra world, with deep, rich, thrilling brass:
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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?
In 2008 Gramophone Magazine took a poll of prominent critics and declared the top 20 orchestras in the world. They were:
1 Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
2 Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
3 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
4 London Symphony Orchestra
5 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
6 Bavarian Radio Symphony
7 Cleveland Orchestra
8 Los Angeles Philharmonic
9 Budapest Festival Orchestra
10 Dresden Staatskapelle
11 Boston Symphony Orchestra
12 New York Philharmonic
13 San Francisco Symphony
14 Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
15 Russian National Orchestra
16 Leningrad Philharmonic
17 Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
18 Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
19 Saito Kinen Symphony Orchestra
20 Czech Philharmonic
Gramophone gathered the following panel for the poll: Our panel of leading music critics comprised: Rob Cowan, James Inverne, James Jolly (all from Gramophone, UK), Alex Ross (the New Yorker, US), Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times, US), Wilhelm Sinkovicz (Die Presse, Austria), Renaud Machart (Le Monde, France), Manuel Brug (Die Welt, Germany), Thiemo Wind (De Telegraaf, the Netherlands), Zhou Yingjuan (editor, Gramophone China) and Soyeon Nam (editor, Gramophone Korea). The magazine’s discussion of the poll is here.