When you compare baseball or other sports teams, there’s only one statistic that matters in the end: who wins the most games. When it comes to assessing the respective quality of the world’s top orchestras, the comparisons are much more complicated to make. Many different factors and qualities must be taken into consideration, and assessments are much more subjective. Despite the challenges, and potential controversy, Gramophone has gone in search of the “World’s Best Orchestra” and, in its December issue, will publish its list of the world’s Top 20 orchestras.
To create its list, Gramophone polled leading critics around the world, including Alex Ross (New Yorker) and Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times) in the U.S., Rob Cowan in the U.K, critics from France’s Le Monde, Austria’s Die Presse, Germany’s Die Welt, and the leading paper in the Netherlands. Also included were various editors associated with Gramophone around the world, including editor James Inverne and editor in chief James Jolly in London, and the respective editors of the local editions of Gramophone in Korea, Spain and China.
Depending on the reader’s geographical location and personal tastes, Gramophone’s list will by turns confirm, surprise, and possibly confound. Three of the world’s most famous orchestras occupy the top three positions, but their ordering might surprise some readers. At No. 5, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is America’s top-ranked orchestra. While many of the Top 10 orchestras are more than a century old (and then some, with the Dresden Staatskapelle, at No. 10, being founded in 1548!), the Russian National Orchestra (founded in 1990) and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, this season celebrating its 25th anniversary, are relative youngsters.
Gramophone’s editor James Inverne observes:
“The celebrated ensembles on our list represent the triumph of “character” in orchestras. Too many bands these days have a uniform, slick but generalized sound, whereas the Concertgebouw (No. 1) is one of the last to really have an immediately identifiable sound, and to arguably (to an extent) plumb the character of composers in the way an actor will with his roles. Others on the list who also have that quality are the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (that famous brass sound) at No. 5, the very unsung Budapest Festival Orchestra (No. 9), and the Dresden Staatskapelle (No. 10).
Iván Fischer, who founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983, comments:
“I think it’s a good list and it’s a great honor to be part of it. For me, the difference between good orchestras and great orchestras is obvious: in good orchestras musicians may get it right, but in great orchestras they offer that special ‘extra.’ It’s the musicians’ personal involvement, imagination, intuition, and ability to take risks that makes a great orchestra what it is: a group of creative artists.”
Several guest artists and critics offer short written appreciations for members of the Top 10 Club, including Marin Alsop (for the London Symphony Orchestra [No. 4], which she has guest conducted frequently) and Leonard Slatkin (for the Los Angeles Philharmonic [No. 8], where he was principal guest conductor 2005-2007).
Gramophone’s “World’s Best Orchestra” cover story will be published on November 21 in the UK (November 28 in the US). Gramophone’s web site is at www.gramophone.co.uk
The Top 20
1) Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam
2) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
3) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
4) London Symphony Orchestra
5) Chicago Symphony Orchestra
6) Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
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 Theater Orchestra
15) Russian National Orchestra
16) Leningrad Philharmonic
17) Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
18) Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
19) Saito Kinen Orchestra
20) Czech Philharmonic