Wonder what Evan would say about this ... 

Magazine ranks top orchestras in world

OKLAHOMA CITY (OKLAHOMAN) — Gramophone, one of classical music's most highly respected magazines, recently published its list of the world's Top 20 orchestras. The British publication, now in its 85th year, listed nine European orchestras, seven U.S. orchestras, three from Russia and one from Japan. 

The list sparked considerable controversy, triggered not so much by the inclusion of certain orchestras but by the exclusion of others. Noticeably absent was the Philadelphia Orchestra, for decades considered among this country's Top Five ensembles. The list included only one British orchestra and none from France.

Of the seven American orchestras that made the list, the Chicago Symphony ranked the highest at No. 5. Cleveland and Los Angeles took the seventh and eighth slots, followed by Boston, New York and San Francisco topping the second group of 10. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which also records and performs as an autonomous group, came in at No. 18.

Given the complex nature of orchestral music making, compiling such a list is largely a subjective process, something Gramophone acknowledged outright. The magazine sought the input of leading music critics in formulating its list, noting that their geographical locations and personal tastes could likely be important factors in their rankings. 

Few would argue with Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic taking the top three positions, especially when considering their distinguished histories, high musical profiles and first-rate recordings. But every orchestra has its peculiar strengths and weaknesses, particularly in regard to repertoire.

"Would you really want to hear the Concertgebouw play American music vs. the New York Philharmonic?" asked Joel Levine, music director of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. "Would the Boston Symphony play Elliott Carter better than the Vienna Philharmonic? What is the criteria here -- repertoire, intonation, ensemble? These are among the world's great orchestras but trying to rank them in some order is such an arbitrary thing."

Musical traditions vary considerably from country to country, but certain orchestras lay claim to vast stretches of the repertoire. The Vienna Philharmonic is unsurpassed in the music of Johann Strauss, while the Berlin Philharmonic has long been acclaimed for its performances of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann.

"One could argue that the German symphonic repertoire is the acid test of whether one has a world class orchestra," Levine said. "I heard the Berlin Philharmonic play Beethoven's 'Eroica Symphony' (live in concert), and it was absolutely stunning. I also heard them do Strauss' 'Alpine Symphony' with Marin Alsop. I just might put them at the top of the list."

Conductors of the world's top orchestras, past and present, played a major part in shaping the ensembles' unique sound. Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch and even Serge Koussevitzky cultivated a French sound with the Boston Symphony.

Eugene Ormandy, a violinist before becoming a conductor, was largely responsible for establishing the Philadelphia Orchestra's rich, warm string sound. In contrast, the Chicago Symphony has a stellar reputation for its bold brass and orchestral heft. The Cleveland Orchestra in turn has long been praised for its textural clarity and refinement.

"The NBC Symphony (under the leadership of Arturo Toscanini) had this incredible reputation," Levine said. "But when you consider the improvements in teaching, particularly in string playing, there are orchestras today that could outplay the NBC group. The nature of an orchestra is another question to consider.

"The London Symphony Orchestra also happens to be a recording orchestra, with many Hollywood film scores to its credit. Those players can read anything. American orchestras may rehearse less than European orchestras, but they're faster when it comes to preparing a difficult piece. Ultimately, I think there are just too many variables in trying to rank orchestras. It becomes an apples and oranges type of thing."

Gramophone's list
1. Concertgebouw-Orkest (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra); Amsterdam, the Netherlands
2. Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra); Berlin, Germany
3. Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra); Vienna, Austria
4. London Symphony Orchestra; London, England
5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Chicago, United States
6. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra), Munich, Germany
7. Cleveland Orchestra; Cleveland. United States
8. Los Angeles Philharmonic; Los Angeles, United States
9. Budapest Festival Orchestra, Budapest, Hungary
10. Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden (Saxon State Orchestra); Dresden, Germany
11. Boston Symphony Orchestra; Boston, United States
12. New York Philharmonic; New York, United States
13. San Francisco Symphony; San Francisco, United States
14. Mariinsky Theater Orchestra; St. Petersburg, Russia 
15. Russian National Orchestra; Moscow, Russia
16. St. Petersburg Philharmonic; St. Petersburg, Russia
17. Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig (Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra); Leipzig, Germany
18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; New York, United States
19. Saito Kinen Symphony Orchestra; Tokyo, Japan
20. Tschechische Philharmonie (Czech Philharmonic); Prague, Czech Republic

-- Rick Rogers, The Oklahoman (Jan. 11, 2009)

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