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 have 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"!)

February 13, 2009 1:39 PM | | Comments (4)




I started out my career working for a major orchestra and have worked for much smaller regional symphonies for the past eight years. In that time I have witnessed some of the most enthralling performances of my life. Hmmm, come to think of it, one of the most exciting performances of "Rite of Spring" I have ever heard was from an undergraduate orchestra!

As I read Andy's post, I am sitting in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where I specifically flew because I wanted to hear them (under their music director Delta David Gier) perform the Mahler 3rd Symphony, having heard a terrific Mahler 4th a year ago.

Mr. Fogel,
What you're saying is obviously true, but no one ever seems to say it. So bless you for saying it so well.
The only real way to know the quality of an orchestra is to hear a dozen or more concerts in its home hall over the course of year. How an orchestra plays day in and day out, how it serves its community, is its true measure. A single hearing on a tour tells you nothing about that, which is another reason that's it so pathetic when "regional" orchestras scrape up the money for Carnegie Hall in hopes of getting legitimacy from those sophisticated New Yorkers.
--Tom Strini
Music and Dance Critic
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

I have heard a lot of orchestras around the world in recent years, and have pretty much come to the view that any orchestra that pays a living wage is, at a minimum, very good.

Given the quality of new entrants into the profession, there should be (and is) increasing parity in the orchestra world, since there is probably very little difference in the skill level of a new player in, say, Baltimore as opposed to Chicago. It seems to me that the difference between orchestras depends in large measure on the quality of its artistic leadership, corporate culture, expected standards of play, and programming approach.

While most like to downplay rankings, I would argue that both orchestra musicians and managements themselves continue to use them, and to perpetuate the Big 5 notion. Musicians still make lateral moves to other orchestras, and surely the perceived quality and reputation of the two groups is a significant factor. And I would imagine managements in a number of situations seek parity with what they consider "peer" orchestras, say in negotiating tour fees or deciding which conductors and soloists to book, or composers to commission. Of course, a lot of this still correlates to budget size.

As for rankings, I remember that TIME survey of 1983. And while a numerical ranking is in principle rather silly, I found that one served a good purpose: By listing St. Louis at #2, it got a lot some people (myself included) to consider your central point: That there are a lot of good orchestras out there. That ranking probably brought a lot of attention to an orchestra people often overlooked (not to mention the St. Louis PR department probably milked it for a few years).

This is a very well-reasoned post Marko, and I thank you for it. A few points, however. Musicians moving laterally from one orchestra to another rarely have to do with perceived ranking. They are either offered a meaningful increase in compensation from the new orchestra, or they prefer making music with the conductor of the new orchestra, or they are personally unhappy where they are. I have never encountered a musician who changed jobs because of a perceived ranking.

There is no question that some managers use the rankings - but others abhor them. When I managed the Chicago Symphony I fought in every way against the "big five" cliché.

But there is no question that some in the orchestra world keep the idea of rankings alive -- and I admit to its usefulness in a limited way when talked about in general terms. But to actually try to rank, from No. 1 to No. 25, different orchestras based on scant evidence and inconsistent standards (i.e., different people hearing different orchestras) is true folly.


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