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The Great Symphony Orchestras

post #1 of 31
Thread Starter 
Would any of our musicians and otherwise knowledgeable members care to rank, or generally outline, the best of the full symphony orchestras of the world for this relative tyro? That is, how the LSO, NY Phil, BSO, &c compare. Not that I want to be vulgar about that level of achievement, but I'd like to have an idea of the opinions of the cognoscenti.

Regards,
Huntsman
post #2 of 31
Quote:
Originally Posted by Huntsman
Would any of our musicians and otherwise knowledgeable members care to rank, or generally outline, the best of the full symphony orchestras of the world for this relative tyro? That is, how the LSO, NY Phil, BSO, &c compare. Not that I want to be vulgar about that level of achievement, but I'd like to have an idea of the opinions of the cognoscenti.

Regards,
Huntsman

That's very difficult... a lot of people think Cleveland is the best band in the USA right now. This is hard to say though, because the level of musicianship is incredible and the top orchestras have incredible music directors. The BSO's brass section is legendary.

The next up and comming orchestra is Seattle, and will be able to get to the next level once the whole Gerald Schwarz thing is resolved.

Most people think Berlin and Vienna are the ultimate, but I think this is very difficult unless you're a jet setter and regularly attend performances of all the orchestras. Pretty much any of the "major 6" (which is very outdated now), or many of the orchestras in Europe will give a wonderful performance.
post #3 of 31
My stupid opinion:

World:
Concertebouw
Vienna
Dresden
Berlin
Oslo (with Jansons)

American orchestras:
SF (haven't heard them with MTT, though)
Philly (when they have a good guest conductor)
Boston
Cleveland
Pittsburgh (but haven't heard them without Jansons)

Honorable mentions to Seattle, St. Louis and Minnesota.
San Diego is up and coming

koji
post #4 of 31
In the U.S., it is difficult to not hear quality orchestras no matter where you go. Even in smaller cities, one can enjoy a first rate performance. Unlike 50 years ago, the playing field is much more level. The days of total dominance by New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland are gone. As for the best of the best, I would vote for Cleveland and Chicago. I would have to also include San Francisco due to its exciting programming under Thomas. The real question, in my opinion, is "Who are the really great conductors?" To be honest, there are no super stars any more as there during the mid 20th century. As I said earlier, the playing field is more level today--even on the podium. Perhaps this is a good thing. Although, I would to have heard a live performance conducted by Szell or Reiner.
post #5 of 31
Quote:
Originally Posted by clarinetplayer
The real question, in my opinion, is "Who are the really great conductors?" To be honest, there are no super stars any more as there during the mid 20th century. As I said earlier, the playing field is more level today--even on the podium. Perhaps this is a good thing. Although, I would to have heard a live performance conducted by Szell or Reiner.

I would put Jansons and Bloomstedt up in that company. Rattle is quite good, too.

koji
post #6 of 31
I'd say Abbado is the a superstar.
post #7 of 31
I know the director of the Berlin Orchestra, but I do not know anything about music. I enjoy going to the symphony in San Francisco, but again, I don't know if it is good or bad.
post #8 of 31
Regional orchestras now are light-years better than they were 50 or 60 years ago. St. Louis, Detroit, Atlanta, and Los Angeles all have wonderful symphony orchestras that aren't mentioned along with the Big 5 (Boston, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia), but are really almost as good. The Minnesota Orchestra also made waves during their tour a few years ago and are in the midst of recording a Beethoven cycle; the first discs have received great reviews.

Insiders say that the SF Symphony players aren't all that found of MTT, so we'll see how long he actually stays at the post. Herbert Blomstedt did wonderful things while he was there, though.

Levine seems to be reenergizing the BSO after Ozawa's unwelcome and overlong stay with the orchestra. Chicago just lost Barenboim and have yet to announce his replacement...either way, Barenboim is probably the closest thing to a superstar conductor nowadays, since he's got his gig in Berlin, almost got the Berlin Phil job a few years ago and is now apparently the interim head at La Scala.

As for what orchestras are worth hearing out of the Big 5 - Levine's BSO, the Cleveland Orchestra, and Eschenbach's Philadelphians. Chicago's sound has changed under Barenboim; gone is the Solti glare, the brass are still glorious but there is a wonderful string sound now, too. The NY Phil under Maazel I could take or leave - he is not an inspirational conductor.

The Berlin Philharmonic - I simply don't understand everyone's obsession with this orchestra. Karajan butchered their sound, Abbado didn't do anything for it in terms of repertoire (though he did replace a lot of the players), and there is a long-overdue critical backlash now against Simon Rattle, as people are finally beginning to realize that he's not all that talented.
post #9 of 31
For American orchestras, LA and SF are up there, and along with Boston, have the most exciting, interesting programs. I don't think there is such a thing as the big 5 anymore.

--Andre
post #10 of 31
As far as technical ability goes, the top slice of US orchestras-- the Big 5 (Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, NY, Phila) plus 4 or 5 more-- blow most others out of the water. Reputations change slowly in this group; Boston is much rejuvenated, though, and NY seems to be playing at a pretty high level also. For some time, they had been the "problem children" of the Big 5.

The second line of US orchestras is getting bigger and better all the time. LA, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, St Louis, SF, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, National SO, Milwaukee, Indianapolis...

There are a handful of non-US bands that hold their own: the LSO and maybe one or two others in London, Amsterdam, the Czech Phil, Berlin PO. Then there are the special cases in Europe-- not always the highest technical standard but a unique sound or culture. Vienna PO and Dresden come to mind for that category. Quality falls sharply in Europe after this level, unlike in the US where there are lots of good regional and part-time groups. I don't know of any in France or Italy that are rated in the very top drawer.

One thing to remember is that these orchestras are full of pros who on a given day can all play really well. There are many stories of inconsistent or downright mediocre US orchestras touring in Europe and playing like angels, just because they were well-rehearsed and feeling wired. Also, there have always been conductors who could get great results from all sorts of orchestras.
post #11 of 31
It also depends on what and where they are playing and who's conducting. For example, I've heard the same orchestra (the Maryinski) in 3 different halls (Carnegie, the Met and Avery Fisher) with 3 different experiences. Carnegie warm, the Met grand and expansive.

Of the Big 5 I think Cleveland stands out. But I am kind of biased toward Cleveland partly because of my rooting-for-the-underdog mentality given that Cleveland has the smallest budget of the 5 and in a city not as big, prominent and affluent as the other 4. If Cleveland can support a world class orchestra, any city could and many do, just look at Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Atlanta.... If the Met Orchestra is a stand-alone orchestra, it'd be right up there.

I think NY is really a great place to sample all the great orchestras. Probably about 80% of the world's greatest orchestras are covered each year between Carnegie and Avery Fisher.
post #12 of 31
Vienna, and Berlin clearly have the pedigree.
post #13 of 31
Quote:
Originally Posted by metaphysician
Regional orchestras now are light-years better than they were 50 or 60 years ago. St. Louis, Detroit, Atlanta, and Los Angeles all have wonderful symphony orchestras that aren't mentioned along with the Big 5 (Boston, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia), but are really almost as good. The Minnesota Orchestra also made waves during their tour a few years ago and are in the midst of recording a Beethoven cycle; the first discs have received great reviews.

Insiders say that the SF Symphony players aren't all that found of MTT, so we'll see how long he actually stays at the post. Herbert Blomstedt did wonderful things while he was there, though.

Levine seems to be reenergizing the BSO after Ozawa's unwelcome and overlong stay with the orchestra. Chicago just lost Barenboim and have yet to announce his replacement...either way, Barenboim is probably the closest thing to a superstar conductor nowadays, since he's got his gig in Berlin, almost got the Berlin Phil job a few years ago and is now apparently the interim head at La Scala.

As for what orchestras are worth hearing out of the Big 5 - Levine's BSO, the Cleveland Orchestra, and Eschenbach's Philadelphians. Chicago's sound has changed under Barenboim; gone is the Solti glare, the brass are still glorious but there is a wonderful string sound now, too. The NY Phil under Maazel I could take or leave - he is not an inspirational conductor.

The Berlin Philharmonic - I simply don't understand everyone's obsession with this orchestra. Karajan butchered their sound, Abbado didn't do anything for it in terms of repertoire (though he did replace a lot of the players), and there is a long-overdue critical backlash now against Simon Rattle, as people are finally beginning to realize that he's not all that talented.

Just so you know, the LA Phil has long been considered one of the majors... the "big 5" is a concept that dates back the 50s, and to everyone in classical music, it is one of the vexing phrases that regular people use. It's now the major 6, and it's party based on pay scale. LA pays as much as any of the "big 5". Winning an LA audition is seen as being as prestigious as winning a place in Philly.

LA's been major league ever since Mehta was there.

About Lorin Maazel, I know a lot of people in the phil who would disagree with that. Same thing with a lot of german players who think Abbado is the most talented and inspiring artist they've worked with in a long time. I guess the public feels differently though.

As for the strings in Chicago... what did they sound like before, if you wouldn't mind telling me? Sometimes I wonder what even some classical musicians are saying when they make such generalizations. Again, unless you're a soloist who is literally hearing a different top orchestra every week, I have no CLUE as to how people assert with great authority this and that about today's orchestras. Is there like a Wine Spectator for people to read about symphony orchestras?
post #14 of 31
I mispoke, the guy I know is apparently director of this orchestra which I cannot even think of pronouncing: Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin
post #15 of 31
Well for a couple other orchestras no one will probably mention for a variety reasons, the Montreal Symphony is excellent. It's the orchestra I've seen the most of in the last 3 years. They've found a permanent conductor, Kent Nagano, to replace Charles Dutoit. The level of playing is about as good you can get, and Nagano is an excellent musician. Not to mention that he's quite famous.

Also, the Israel Philharmonic is excellent. The musicians are top quality. Indiannapolis is emerging as another great and very exciting orchestra.

Baltimore is great... they're having conductor issues with Aslop, but it's a great band.

People love to talk about the LSO, but England has quite a few top quality orchestras. It's a wonder they can do what they do with as little money as some of them have to deal with.

As a funny aside, I think I've still got a sound clip of a horn player from the Vienna screwing the solo in Bolero, for which he got a pretty hefty fine. It was quite embarassing.
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