How "Good" Is Your Orchestra? The Myth of Rank

Recently a well-meaning citizen of a major American city with a major international orchestra asked me if I thought the orchestra in her city was "the best," or at least "one of the three best."  She never specified whether she meant best in the United States, the world, or the solar system, and I didn't press the point. I gave my usual politically correct answer, pointing out how difficult it is to numerically rank orchestras without hearing them week after week under different conductors in different repertoire, and I also pointed out that different people would use different criteria in their own rating systems. Her reaction seemed somewhere between annoyance and acceptance, leaning more toward acceptance when I assured her that "her" orchestra was certainly one of the great ones in the world.

But the conversation made me realize how many times I've heard variations on this question, and not just from lay people motivated by civic pride (not an altogether bad trait). Serious, knowledgeable music lovers will argue about whether Cleveland or Chicago is greater, or about whether there is a "big five" any longer. (I'm not sure there ever was, if quality was the criterion instead of budget size. And if budget size is the criterion, it may not be the five you think it is.) I remember a number of years ago when Time magazine's music critic (yes, Virginia, Time did have a regular music critic at one time - as did Newsweek) actually went around the country, heard a handful of concerts, and published a numerical ranking of American orchestras.

This is the silliest game imaginable, and one that's indicative of an American tendency to be obsessed with quantification. (I truly believe this trait is stronger in the U.S. than elsewhere.)  What exactly are the standards for such ranking? Intonation? Ensemble? Tonal quality? Blend? Quickness to learn new music? Responsiveness to a range of repertoire and conductors? Adaptability to different hall acoustics on tour? Musicians who smile? Power? Finesse? Passion? Some mix of all of the above? In what proportions? 

The old idea of a "big five" -- which consisted, at least in some minds, of the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia -- came about for one reason only. Those five orchestras had major, ongoing, and copious recording contracts, to some degree connected to the selling power of their music directors. Each of those orchestras issued a significant number of records every year, and no other American orchestra produced anywhere near those quantities. The result was that each of those five orchestras was put before a national and international public (including having their recordings written about, broadcast, advertised, and displayed and sold in record stores - remember record stores?).  While the quality of those orchestras was certainly terrific, if you were to listen to recordings made during that period by the orchestras of Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Minneapolis, to name just three, you would be hard put to observe a qualitative difference in the orchestras. But the smaller record companies for which they recorded (Command, Capitol, and Mercury) couldn't release the quantities of recordings being made by the "big five," nor match the advertising budgets of the larger recording companies.

Today, with music schools turning out far more highly qualified musicians year after year than there are openings in orchestras -- and with major orchestra jobs being lifetime positions for most musicians, thereby minimizing turnover -- the differences between orchestras has shrunk even more than was the case 30 years ago. 

I think what anyone should be interested in is whether the orchestra in their community gives musically satisfying, thrilling performances - not where that orchestra stands in some mythical ranking. Let's leave that for sports, where there truly are wins and losses that allow us the guilty pleasure of quantifying.  (And that leads me to end with "Go Cubs"!)

August 8, 2008 1:24 PM | | Comments (2)

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2 Comments

Dear Henry: Ever the diplomat...just one of the many reasons I like and admire you!

Still being a newbie in Detroit, I have not had the opportunity to experience many performances given by the DSO; however, the ones that I have heard have been "musically satisfying and thrilling" in my opinion, and the audience response reflected that assessment. In talking to people in the city and suburbs, I do get the sense that the orchestra is well-appreciated and held in high esteem, without assigning a ranking.

In closing, I hope the Tigers can get their act together, or they will be given the rank of Motor City Kitties!

I am in total agreement with you here.
Why compare apples and oranges?
It's true different cognoscenti and critics consider certain orchestras superior or inferior to others, and often
this applies to different sections of the orchestras. For example, Chicago is
famous for its brass section, Philadelphia
for its strings, etc. But several years ago I had a corespondance with the rather
opinionated editor of one of our leading
record review magazines who hates the Chicago symphony brass section, and called its playing "crass", and much too loud,
and wasn't fond of the strings either.
This was before e mail. I protested in letters, but he angrily dismissed my complaints. He hates most of Solti's recordings, and I have always been a fan.
Oh well, there's no accounting for tastes.
It's true that the overall quality
of US orchestras is amazingly high.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on August 8, 2008 1:24 PM.

Eyes on the Stage: Why Supertitles are Critical to Audience Involvement was the previous entry in this blog.

Exploring "Non-Standard" Repertoire: Ten Suggested Recordings is the next entry in this blog.

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