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"!)