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?