And now we get to the hard stuff. The questions that truly are difficult.
I think there are four reasons.
First: it would be hard to do anything with the information these comparisons would supply.
Second: the ideology of classical music says that everything’s wonderful.
(And yes, of course I know — having, for God’s sake, been a critic–that critics will find fault with performances. But they’re notably circumspect, on the whole, compared with movie critics, let’s say, or sportswriters.)
Third: it’s in orchestra managements’ interest not to have quality talked about.
Fourth; it’s in the musicians’ interest not to have their quality talked about.
I’m not saying there’s a direct line between all of this and the lack of discussion. It’s not as if orchestra managements or musicians or classical music ideologists (whoever they’d be) conspire to suppress talk about quality.
But somehow the entire classical music enterprise — as we know it now — has evolved in ways that make these discussions unlikely.
And one thing I’m sure about. If the public side of all this — what critics say, what members of the audience might say — were more advanced, if discussions of orchestra quality were clear, strong, and closely detailed, then the private side would do better, too. If — and please, understand that this is an imaginary example, something I’m making up — all of Cincinnati talked about how bad the trombones were in the Cincinnati Symphony, wouldn’t the orchestra have to do something about it?
Pushback: someone’s sure to say that all this is niggling, irrelevant. Because orchestras play superbly well! I’m not going to deny that many in fact do play well. But are we supposed to believe that orchestras — alone among human institutions — are exempt from the bell curve, that some aren’t better than others, and that some might not just be pretty bad?
Next (and, I think, the most difficult discussion of all): do orchestras have an internal culture that fosters the highest-quality art?