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The best and worst orchestras of 2012 – your vote, please

We are compiling two charts of the ups and downs of orchestral fortunes in the year that is dragging to its sorry end. In America, it has been the worst year for orchestras since the great depression. In Europe, there have been wild fluctuations.

What we are seeking in this poll is nominations of improvement and decline in orchestras – not in playing quality, which is often subjectively judged, but in the performance of an orchestra as a public brand – is it on the way up, or down? Are its finances in good shape, is its strategy working, does it stand taller at the end of 2012 than at the beginning?

No prizes for guessing which chart Minnesota and Johannesburg come into.

But what about the Berlin Phil? And Vienna, Chicago, St Petersburg – was 2012 a year of rise or fall? Drowning or waving?

Nominations close on December 17.

And if you care to name the best and worst managers of the year, we may find room for a special prize.

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  1. Rob van der Hilst says:

    The best orchestra of 2012?
    The New Philharmonic Utrecht (Nieuwe Philharmonie Utrecht) in the Netherlands conducted by Mr. Johannes Leertouwer Site:
    Their Brahmsproject – authentic – with a.o. Mr Ronald Brautigam as a soloist in Brahms’ first pianoconcerto reveiled a complete ‘classical’ Brahms: thrilling, sonore, clear and warm at the same time, so ‘new’ even.

    The worst orchestra on 2012?
    I am sure there are bad, even very bad cows in the field, but why spending time and energy by just mentioning them?

    • Rob, the Utrecht orchestra sounds very interesting – but what do you mean by “authentic”? (That has become a fraught and ambiguous word in English, especially with respect to classical music.) Do you mean that the New Philharmonic Utrecht is using period instruments? We can always use more good period-instrument Brahms.

  2. The Malaysian Philharmonic certainly looks like a price winner.
    Not many orchestra managements or music directors around who treat their musicians worse.

    • Gerald Novak says:

      Without a doubt

    • Perhaps we should have a poll for best and worst music directors, too. No doubt Malaysian Philharmonic will take both prizes for the worst orchestra and MD. Funny how the little guy tries to act as if him and the management are not on the same side, making lies about unthoughtful schedules etc.
      No matter how many lies, or actings Flor tries to put on, him and the current management ARE responsible for the catastrophic developement that has landed on MPO, an orchestra that was once great.

    • Terry Carlson says:

      It could be a tie between the Malaysian Phil and the Minnesota Orchestra, which, by the way, was just awarded the “Quickest Plunge from a Great Height” award for 2012 (a special citation) by Alex Ross.

      • Terry Carlson says:

        To be clear, the citation specified that the award “goes to the management and governing board of the Minnesota Orchestra” and not to the music director and musicians.

  3. Best orchestra: Berliner Philharmoniker

    Worse orchestra: Orchestre de la Suisse Romande without a doubt

    • Agree on both counts, Pierre.

      Love what Berlin is doing with Digital Concert Hall, with the great free pre-concert interviews online, They’re opening up their performances to the world in much the same way Gelb is with MET’s Live in HD.

      Never heard OSR, but they are asserting themselves as a pretty cantankarous lot in this forum so I tend to
      side with their critics.

      • Too bad about OSR: the orchestra of Ansermet, Stravinsky….. meanwhile, Zurich’s Tonhalle shines. Are cultural policy differences between French/German Switzerland part of it?

        A bright spot in the US is unquestionably the International Contemporary Ensemble, which is on the way to becoming an American equivalent to London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern.

    • I have to agree with Pierre and Franz, the Berlin Phil. is an amazing high precision ensemble with good programming and dynamic management. Sadly, at the other end of the spectrum, is the out of date, out of time, pretentious and boring Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, who aren’t actually all that good and certainly won’t be anytime soon with their collection of antique conductors and old school management. Definitely, an orchestra to be avoided.

  4. Mr. Lebrecht,

    Although you named some Europeans orchestras for the pool, if we are judging performance as a public brand only, I cannot see LA Philharmonic and Deborah Borda out of the top names. In a year of huge downsizes, the way that they conduct their brand on news (headlines), commercial decisions and budget are outstanding. If things still going in this way, they will be kind of Karajan/Berlin of the next years. (As you requested, I’m not giving my opinion concerning play quality and artistic purposes, but just as a business enterprise)

  5. Justin Geplaveid says:

    What if there are not bad or good orchestras? Only conductors are good or bad…

    • Simply not true, though, is it?
      Sure, conductors vary in quality too, but it is without a doubt that orchestras do so.

  6. What’s the point of this survey? Not even the most educated and travelled classical music aficionado will have heard all the relevant orchestras over the last year in comparable situations and with comparable repertoire to come even close to a reasonable judgement.
    So people will vote for their favorites without knowing about the others.

    • Read the criteria before you leap to judgement.

      • The title is very misleading though. And I find no difference to my argument if we talk about “the best” or “the most improved”. I would still need to know all candidates in order to make a judgement. And I would need to know all their backstage managements. I doubt there is even a single individual on this planet qualified to answer this question. Maybe if you break it down into world regions. Britain, Germany, France, Scandinavia, US, Japan, … and vote for each individually, there might people who know a national orchestra scene well enough to judge.

    • Realist,

      Orchestras and managers as an enterprise. If it was not the criteria, I would not vote on LA Philharmonic and Borda. This kind of thing it is not necessary to be on-the-spot to analyzed, as much as many stockholders are not for their judgment.

      I would like to add the great attractiveness to sponsor, as another key factor for my choice above for the pool.

  7. Norman, it’s a shame that many people will probably not read your request properly and simply get on their soapbox to tell us their opinions on the best and worst playing orchestras, as some have hastily done already…

    But it does seem like Berlin is #1 in a majority of people’s minds all over the world, which I think says something about how they’re doing business, aside from how well they play.

    • It’s tricky, Tito. Playisg aside, they’ve made a dog’s dinner of Baden-Baden and triumphed with the Sony tech deal. A very mixed year for Berlin.

      • I suppose it’s fair to say that time will tell regarding Salzburg/Baden-Baden, no? As insolent as it may have been or appeared, these kinds of things can certainly take a life of their own after the initial trauma. I’m certainly not involved (as most people aren’t) with those kinds of wheelings and dealings, nor do most people of the world have an adherence with the orchestra’s connection/history with Salzburg, so I would imagine that public perception of Berlin for most of the world is still untainted. It’s certainly nothing compared to a board locking out its musicians…

      • Mr. Norman, also I haven’t seem Berliner as the news headlines as it was used to be. It is also a fact that can affect deeply the brand. On the other hand, they decreased the risk level for backlash due to excess on promotion, overexposure, as happened in some point at the end of Karajan era. It is better to not be in a headline than in an obviously forged one. The dose amount is the key and very difficult to define.

  8. Best: Berlin Philharmonic. An all-road orchestra, delivering the best playing possible and now making an amazing effort to reach new audiences through community concerts, broadcasting concerts a la carte over the internet, publishing videos on youtube, supporting organizations such as UNICEF, organizing “cultural encounters”, and, while on tour, allowing schools to attend heneral rehearsals.

    Worst: Malaysian Philharmonic.

    • I agree with GPehli. The Berlin is hands down the finest ensemble there is I think and most of my conducting collegures do too. There playing is superb, intonation spot on, especially ensemble, listening to each other, you can clearly see & hear that. There is no boat to push out. Just admiration for a very fine orchestra.

  9. What is the point of this? Is there truly a best and worst orchestra? Is it not more important how an orchestra serves it’s community?

    • That’s the point of Norman’s post, Larry. Go back and read his second paragraph again.

      • Larry Tucker says:

        I still feel the same. First, no one knows all of the orchestras around the world. It is subjective, and impact on the community is also quite subjective.

  10. Christophe says:

    I find these comments unfair. I am an orchestra musician, but I can say without a doubt that some orchestras play badly, regardless of the quality of a conductor, because sometimes mediocre musicians win the jobs until retirement; and vice versa., we can play very well even with a bad conductor, because we must compensate for the bad leadership. This survey, if I understood correctly, was not about orchestral playing, but about quality of an organization and how it serves its community, as noted in Mr. Tucker’s comment. We must also take into account how the circumstances of our economic crisis, available technology, competition in the marketplace and political instability have had an impact on how an organization succeeds or not. Say what you want about Philharmonia or Minnesota, but simply playing the music well or programming is not enough. If it were, Minnesota would not be in lock-out and Philharmonia would not have a deficit. The problem is that the public no longer supports orchestras the way they used to. Management, musicians, board members, subscribers, conductors, agencies, culture ministers- all are implicated in these problems we share. And we must share ways to improve if we are to survive. I think this survey is simply fishing for online commentary and controversy. One could say that EVERY orchestra has its positives and negatives, but the biggest positive is that we make great music and the biggest negative is that not enough people pay to come hear that great music played. If they did, we would have not problems. In that sense, I feel LA Philharmonic has done an excellent job in branding and adapting, as they have catapulted to # 1 of the Orchestras in the USA in terms of musicians salaries, effective management and brand recognition. Taken the criteria, Philadelphia has done the worst as they were the only major US orchestra forced into bankruptcy and are barely coming out of it. Minnesota, Atlanta, Indianapolis, etc….are all just more examples of the symptomatic and systemic dysfunction of our business model. In Europe, there are orchestras consolidated and cut, salaries deferred, budgets reduced and general support has languished as politicians try to understand how to save the Euro, not culture. Therefore, its not about corruption or bad conductors, its about adapting to the times. Darwinian natural selection. Some orchestras will survive, others wont. It has nothing to do with quality. It has to do with adaptability.

    • Exactly, Christophe. I could not agree more.

    • Christophe, I agree. I cannot provide opinion from a musician perspective, but you can. My only comment is that considering 2012, Philadelphia finally chooses an MD. “Director Appointments do take on significance larger than the sum total of the music-making produced by conductor and orchestra. Fairly or not, they periodize orchestral history, shape long-term artistic and institutional evolution, and of course come to symbolically represent the orchestra in the eyes of the broader public.” I think Boston Symphony is running on this risk for 2013. Perhaps the decision to do not use at least a caretaker until the decision, as much as Chicago and Philadelphia did, can cause some impacts on their brand. Let’s see.

    • Larry Tucker says:


    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      The Philadelphia Orchestra was not FORCED into bankruptcy. Their Board and their managers CHOSE it as a strategy to break the back of the musicians’ pension plan and the orchestra’s rental agreement with the Kimmel Center which houses Verizon Hall, the orchestra’s performance venue. They have forever sullied the once golden name of the Philadelphia Orchestra. When one mentions their name in Europe today, the first topic discussed is not the new conductor, the silken sound of the strings, the legacy of Stokowski and Ormandy, the musical triumphs of Muti and Sawallisch or the turmoil of the Eschenbach/Dutoit years. Europeans remark: oh yes, aren’t they the orchestra that went bankrupt? Hands down, POA wins the bottom prize, in my humble opinion. But, they are in serious competition with Minneapolis for this booby prize.

      The best management? I vote for Chicago Symphony who in spite of a brief strike have kept their reputation in tact, are paying their musicians a just wage, and can see the light at the end of a long dark financial tunnel. Bravo to Deborah Card Rutter, and to your Board, and to the musicians negotiating team.

      Berlin is in a class by itself. Long may they wave.

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        And I agree with others that Cleveland Orchestra deserves at least honorable mention in the category of those who have moved forward during a difficult time.

      • On this basis, shouldn’t Philly win top prize? Management have ensured that the orchestra continues to exist, and has a future. The alternative seemed pretty bleak – carry on loosing money until the whole thing collapses. You might not like the method, but is seems fairly sensible from the management perspective, and has given the orchestra a new chance at a future – that’s strong management.

        • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

          I disagree. That’s desperate management that has ignored its fiduciary responsibilty for decades and then used corporate tactics to fix specific problems which could have been solved by honest negotiation. My top prize still goes to Chicago with Cleveland giving them a run for their money.

    • This blog has always had the most thoughtful comments on the state of the classical music world, and christophe’s is right up there. I wonder, though, why you mentioned the failure of the ‘business model’ when you previously named the lack of public support as the true root of our problems?

    • Well said, Christophe. It has become blatantly evident through the SPCO and MO in the Twin Cities that the existing paradigm or business-model for orchestras has failed. The players have been put in a difficult position because management was unable to fulfill their responsibilities. The public changes and so do their taste in music.

      • Or has management been put in a difficult position by players demanding salaries that are not commensurate with the audiences they are pulling in?

        • @Anon said, “Or has management been put in a difficult position by players demanding salaries that are not commensurate with the audiences they are pulling in?”

          I might have thought that at the start of this dual lockout in the TC, but now my thinking has changed. It seems to me players have every right to ask for the best for themselves. If they are not the orchestra, then who is? What good are soloists or conductors without them? What good is management without them (unless they want to change the focus from having a critically acclaimed symphonic orchestra to just managing a hall with acts passing through it — oh wait, the MO mission statement has just been changed, hasn’t it? :-0).

          That doesn’t mean, however, that, under the current ‘business-model’ (that is failing them) they have the right to bankrupt the orchestra with their demands. Nor can they — they have to be agreed upon by management.

          Negotiations should be made and at the very least cuts should be made across the board – management and players alike. A working model needs to be found in an agreement already made by another comparable orchestra with a similar financial situation (having nothing to do with artistic acclaim). Drew suggested Pittsburgh.

          I am not an expert and could be wrong; this is just my impression at the present time.

    • Or are orchestras in the USA (outside of a few large financial centers) facing systemic problems with their funding system so profound that no amount of adaptation will solve their problems? Why are the problems in America so perennial? Why is the situation in the States so much worse than in Europe?

      • I don’t know HOW much worse it is int he states than in Europe, but would guess it has primarily to do with the lack of education in the US, particularly in the classical arts and the humanistic disciplines. And that again is probably due to an intellectual environment that is ultimately hostile to art and instead nurtures profit making.

    • Emil Archambault says:

      However, from what I understand, Philadelphia is now slowly regaining its status. New music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin reportedly triumphed at Carnegie Hall with the Verdi Requiem, and audiences are up. They convinced Ricardo Morales to cancel his move to the NY Phil and remain in Philadelphia. We’ll see how it unfurls during the next year.

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        The reasons for Ricardo Morales turning down NYPhil are far from clear. Do you really think that POA convinced him to stay because of their (fill in the blanks: acoustics, quality of life in Phila, access to the airport, cheesesteaks, etc.)? I think he chose to stay (for now) in Philly for personal (not musical) reasons.

        To paraphrase an old story: Ricardo Morales gets in a cab in Paris circling Etoile. The taxi driver, a former clarinetist is totally shocked and says: Senor, where to? Ricardo replies: It doesn’t matter, they want me everywhere! (like Herbie the K.).

        Regarding the choice of the Verdi Requiem for a Carnegie debut with a new orch? Muti’s last concert in Carnegio with POA was the Cherubini Requiem in 1992. What goes around, comes around…

        • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

          PS: POA never lost its status as an orchestra of renown. Only its Board and Administration has suffered a certain downgrade.

    • Stephen Carpenter says:

      I’m not ready to completely agree with Christoph. Here’s why. I see an orchestra as a cultural entity. I think you have to be together and work at making music together for that music to be received by the audience. Tenure and performance evaluations aside, What you have at any given performance is Xnumber of skilled musicians focusing all their skill, musicality and energy in a single direction toward a rendition of a particular and unique piece of music.
      The only branding that can really happen on the street where the audience is, is how successful that single-minded focus works. The sound in music is essentially the only authentic thing that can be branded. So whatever level of playing a given orchestra has- it should be the best that orchestra can produce.
      the other point is administration. Lots of bodies in the road these last couple of years in terms of orchestras, some are trying to come back in various forms. What if, there was a concerted effort on the part of music administrators to force orchestras out of business?
      Think about how the orchestra calendar chokes that municipal edifice so that real “Paying shows” like the proverbial “tour thing” from Broadway or points unknown can’t book the place. A thought much more common than it is unique I’m afraid. That certainly has an impact. And reducing the budget means reducing the ability of an orchestra to perform the repertoire. The absence of scheduled Bruckner Symphonies come to mind. At what point do we reach the last movement of the “Farewell” symphony because that’s all the musician (no s) that can be afforded?
      No- I think an annual measurement could serve another purpose and I’m in agreement that Christoph makes good points. But I still have these nagging ideas. and Western Music has a unique and indelible footprint- in that it has figured out how to elicit an authentic emotional reaction from the production of carefully arranged sounds from a variety of instruments playing in concert with a single purpose.

  11. Late Nomination in the category: single best branding/community outreach/public service effort of the year – Sjællands Symfoniorkester for their Grieg Metro Flashmob. It may have been an ad, but it generated more good will internationally than I’ve seen in a very long time.

  12. I’d like to nominate a plucky and determined little-known orchestra in the remote Extremadura region of Spain, the Orquesta de Extremadura, in the Best Orchestra 2012 catagory!

    The news is full of great orchestras who are unable to resolve their financial crises, musicians who’ve lost their jobs because agreements can’t be negotiated. Here’s a not-so-famous one which could:

    The Orquesta de Extremadura (OEX) is Spain’s youngest orchestra, just 13 yrs. old. It serves a community devasted by Spain’s economic crisis. When it was announced last year that govt. cutbacks would shut it down, the musicians of the orch., with extraordinary intelligence and determination, mounted a campaign to save the orchestra. A petition was circulated online, community support organized, musicians became involved in local govt. and addressed politicians directly, support was sought from important artists and classical music authorities. Mr. Norman Lebrecht himself offered a nod of encouragement to the musicians of the OEX, which gave them tremendous hope!

    Every other professional orchestra in Spain (there are 27) stood in solidarity with the OEX. Following Holland’s “Soldier of Orange” video campaign, Spanish orchestras agreed to post videos playing a well-known Extremadura folk song “El Candil” in support. Not only did this help the OEX, but it created a wonderful sense of unity among Spain’s orchestral players.

    Lionel Bringuier, in the final month of his 3 yr. tenure as Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Castilla y Leon in Valladolid, Spain, was adamant about offering support for the struggling OEX. He enlisted soloists Renaud and Gautier Capucon, who also wished to show their support, in the OSCYL’s video:

    The happy ending to this story is that the campaign was a success! Although the situation required concessions from the musicians, they skillfully negotiated an agreement, which, in a dramatic last-minute save in August, allowed the OEX to continue. Their season is now well underway, and to me this is a big orchestral success story! Orchestras are “Best” for lots of reasons. I believe that the Orquesta de Extremadura is right up there! Bravi!

    • Norman, This was a good question to pose, especially in hard times such as these, and Dianne, your comment has provided a terrific example of the types of measures an orchestra or other arts organization under pressure can take to survive and thrive. The key seems to be in the organization pulling together, meeting the needs of the community (i.e., its market and reason for being), and using whatever political means may be at its disposal for rallying the community to get involved and lend its support.

      I can’t help but recall reading how this was done many decades ago by the London Philharmonic under its manager, Thomas Russell. The orchestra played a key supportive role in the war effort during WWII, even programming French music to bolster the morale of the resistance movement across the Channel; and, after the war, when Britain was under huge economic pressure, the orchestra took many of the actions described in your comment, Diane, to arouse the support of the community it had been serving. So, yours are excellent points. It might also be helpful to go back to Russell’s own writings to gain additional insight into what might be done today, even though the technology has changed in the interim.

  13. Iain Scott says:

    The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Stunning playing. Great houses. Great music making and super new Music Director Peter Oundjian

  14. Alway the big names. Berlin. LA etc What about the Allentown Symphony under the splendid Diane Wittry!!

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Yes, how could we forget, Robert. Berlin, LA, Allentown (perhaps alpha-order would be more fair). What about Reading, PA or Harrisburg?

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        Sorry, my sarcasm is showing. Certainly there are mainly fine regional orchestras in the USA. They tend to be rather stable and dedicated to serving their community or region. Allentown is a area challenged financially because of the collapse of industry over the years. It is amazing that they field a respectable symphony orchestra with a short season which serves the musical needs of the audience at a good level. There are some dedicated local donors with deep pockets (I personally know a few) who are dedicated to the orchestra’s mission.

  15. My vote is mainly for the German Orchestra’s: 1. Staatskappelle Dresden with Thieleman; 2. Leipzconcertgebauwig Gewandhaus; 3. Bayerischer Rundfunk; 4. Munchner Philharmonike; Wiener philharmoniker; 5. Concertgebauw; 6. Zurich Ton Halle and The Israel Philharmonic.

  16. It’s amazing how quickly most people forget what the question was. It wasn’t about “the best” or “the worst” but rather about “the most improved” and “the worst declining” between last December and now.
    Even though Realist was imprecise about the “rules” of this game, his objection is still valid: not a single human being – not even NL – is likely to have enough information to compare and judge either rise or fall during the past twelve months of each and every orchestra on this planet, no matter how you define the criteria. Also, in spite of this particular criteria specifically excluding the quality of playing, it is simply impossible (and imo unnecessary) to completely separate that most important factor from the overall success or failure of an orchestra. For example, imagine that Berlin Phil was doing all those wonderful things as described in some of the comments here, but the quality of its playing was deteriorating rapidly and it was by now playing like a bunch of amateurs – do you think that in that case many people here would still call it “the best” or “most improved”? Of course they wouldn’t, because it would be absurd. The bottom line is – in the arts, any kind of explicit ranking is a pointless and futile exercise.

    • It’s seems that at the end no one can understand clearly the criteria for this pool, including me. I was one of the first to reply and I was not thinking about musical achievement, but the development as “brand”. It is the exactly name that appear on Lebrecht question. However even the ones that are criticizing the others replying on musical terms (supporters) are not even barely talking about “brand”. The exception is Christophe. The idea that you must be in spot to really understand achievement as “brand” is completely out of purpose. It is not a craftsman work. How do you think all hugest company builds their brands? What are the greatest brands in the planet now-a-days? The owner/president runs like a crazy horse through the whole world? No. So, how they do it with major accurate results. Do you really know the term “brand”? Berlin? No doubt they got an extremely strong brand. No matter what happens they are always at the top of any pool. Voted by people all over the planet. Even the bad pools ones such Mr. Osbourne presented to us, they are in the top side. How to build it? Do you think it easy or not good for business purposes?

      There are some techniques to achieve it, and they are not really connected to artist world. Perhaps it is the reason Lebrecht ask for managers manes and not MD ones here.

      Mark, you had been absent recently. Did you have some new contracts for MDs around there? Please, keep us aware. Regards

      • Now, Riagarola,be nice. MarK is a valued member of this forum. He has every right to express his opinions, which happen to be quite wise and insightful, as an individual here. Discretion is the better part of valor, so please be respectful. And discrete.

        • Franz,

          Mark got more than the right to express his opinion. He changed my own recently here in the forum. He knows it. Please, don’t misunderstood and I’m sorry if it’s sound agressive.

          • More than the right? Wow! What is it then – an obligation? Thank you very much, but i would like to respectfully decline such an honor. Anyway, rgiarola, any time you feel like asking me a question like the one at the end of your previous comment here, please reread my response at the bottom of the thread under the post about young conductors changing the rules (December 2 this year). What i wrote there is still valid and will probably continue to be so for several more years. Thanks to Franz for the compliments.
            My insightful wisdom tells me that this poll is pointless for the reason that was already mentioned here by Realist and me. Not a single mortal human being has enough information about all of the world’s orchestras to determine the most improved and the worst declining, regardless of the criteria and no matter how subjective. Also, do all those people who nominated Berlin Phil, for example, really believe that twelve months ago it was in a considerably worse shape than it is now? Find an orchestra that played its first ever concert in 2012, and it would be the one that is truly most improved – from nothing to something.

          • Mark,

            Maybe the reason is because you cannot think outside musical terms (Something good at the end). If Lebrecht had ask about “Best Orchestras regarding play quality”, You and Realist would make a lot of sense, however he wrote clearly: “not in playing quality, which is often subjectively judged, but in the performance of an orchestra as a public brand”.
            Coca-Cola is a classical top brand and Apple is the top-notch brand now-a-days. Doesn’t matter if things they sell are good or not, but the construction of their brand put both at the top. There isn’t any need to go on spot in every corner of the planet to know about it, as much as any stockholder do not do it before they make any investment. They don’t care even if exist better competitor’s products. If it is necessary to dig in to obtain any info about something that is barely know by most, this something do not have strong brand (And doesn’t matter if the product is real good). That’s the reason my vote was to LA and Borda, although I was not in LA during 2012. Please, see my reasons on my comment here above (Change the question and I will change my vote for sure, or probably I will agree with you and Realist). That’s the reason most people are voting on Berliner. This can be caused due to the brand Berliner Philharmoniker, strong enough to make people believe that it is the best of the world even if they had never listen to it alive in a concert. Brand can achieve it, but just music alone would be a labor of Hercules to obtain the same result.

  17. I hate a bandwagon, but Berlin wins – hands down. Completely amazing performances at Carnegie Hall this season. Totally daring, and outside-the-box music making also.

    Worst orchestra is not worth talking about.

    You should have more categories:

    Best choir: Monteverdi Choir!

  18. I won’t comment on the “good and bad”, but for sheer class, you have to love the Cleveland Orchestra- contract signed, sealed and delivered with no fussing or fuming. Both sides gave a little bit and the effort that would have been spent in arguing instead went into putting on a terrific season.

  19. Berliner Filharmoniker deserves first prize. Their digital concerthall is quite brilliant. The worst ah well, I would have to say the Malaysian Philharmonic for allowing the mess they find themselves in though it gives me no pleasure whasoever to say this.

    Norman why are you sending me these refusals to print saying “I have said it before when indeed I have not “?

    Oh compliments of the season to you too. Keep up with the most interesting articles in our business.


  20. Brian Hughes says:

    Best? A most difficult choice. Despite its almost misogynistic practices, Vienna (as an entity–regardless of who is at the helm) probably still wields the most “star quality”. It seems–at least from this side of the pond–that it is a well run organization. And yes, I know that the band’s primary gig is as an opera orchestra, but they sure do play everything they muster at an incredible level. Of course, we’re not here to talk about quality, simply the “brand” and it seems as though the Viennese are still on top.

    Worst? Oh Norman, there are simply too many to name although Philadelphia has to be near the top of the heap, even if they have crawled out of bankruptcy (I’m honestly not staying atop the news from the city of brotherly love). Other front-runners would include both the orchestras of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, an embarrassment to their state if not the entire region. As others have mentioned, Malaysia is certain deserving of this dishonor. On a smaller scale shall we include Indianapolis, Louisville, et al? Sorry I cannot speak for European ensembles with greater knowledge of their circumstances.

    How about an award for “most improved player”? Detroit would come to mind, successfully pulling itself up after a crippling six month strike in a city hit hardest by the nation’s economic collapse. New York (thanks in no small part to Alec Baldwin) has certainly improved its image. And of course there is Los Angeles: very strong “brand” regardless of whether or not I am sold by the Dude.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Alec Baldwin?

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        I forgot about this interview, a truly seminal moment in the history of western art music. I do feel that the maestro was toying with an easy prey and might have been showing a slightly condescending spirit. Not sure who won in this duel.

        • Mr. Fitzpatrick, thanks for including this. Sounds like Alan Gilbert would like to raid the NYC Ballet’s “winter market” and turn the Nutcracker into a profit center for the NY Philharmonic instead. Would that also mean relegating the dancers (and maybe some of the dead weight in his less than stellar orchestra) to the pit- with maybe him joining them too?

          You’re right, he did take over the interview. Baldwin’s eyes seemed to glaze over- as if he were in another losing jousting match with Tina Fey- but I thought it was regurgitated fluff from a lightweight conductor, and am half expecting him to get roasted on Sat Night Live (which could be marketing coup for the symphony, even if roasted spam isn’t particularly appetizing).

        • Alec Baldwin definitely holds his own in this discussion. I’ve seen him do it before and it surprised and impressed me. It’s one reason I think he’s such a perfect host for NYPhil. He’s intelligent, he’s not ignorant about music – what he doesn’t actually know, he deduces – and best of all, he thinks on his feet in situations like this. He gives good answers here, and he asks the right questions.

          What Baldwin says about length being a success factor in pop vs. classical music, at least with young audiences, has actually been documented. I believe the study was done at New World Symphony in Miami. Evidently Mr. Gilbert is not aware of the research on the subject.

          I think Baldwin loses his temper too easily here. He’s an actor. He should have disguised his irritation. But Gilbert comes off pompous and ungracious, esp. considering that Baldwin is a major NYPhil donor. And why in the world is Gilbert trying to get into a dual of musical knowledge with a tv actor? Baldwin is there as a host, not a musical equal.

          Baldwin’s role here is to ask the questions a typical audience member might ask. His job is to help make the program more understandable to the general public. It’s not supposed to be a war of musical intellects between an actor and a music director. It’s pretty clear that Baldwin understands this and Gilbert does not.

          • Given how much Alec Baldwin has done to publicize the NY Phil (and the classical singers who perform with them) – when so many in Hollywood couldn’t find a concert hall – it seemed rather unwise to pick a fight.

  21. While I have a bias, TwtrSymphony should certainly be listed as an up and coming orchestra, one to watch in 2013!

    • TwtrSymphony is truly breaking new ground. All the professional orchestras ride on the coattails of musicians (whom I love and respect) that have been dead for hundreds of years (in so many cases). Music is a creative, living, art, and I nominate TwtrSymphony as the best because of its commitment too growing and adapting to our modern world.

  22. george brown says:

    I think it would be FAR more accurate to say that in America, it has been the worst year for orchestra governance and administration since the depression.

  23. BEST: The Regina Symphony Orchestra. Proudly celebrating their 104th year (and currently Canada’s longest continuously performing Orchestra) 2012 saw them break new ground with completely unique and compelling concerts while also playing host to Prince Charles & Camilla during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This is an Orchestra you NEED to see (and hear) to believe!

    • Agree with Taron. The support they get from the community is strong, and well-deserved. A great antidote to the doom and gloom stories you hear about the demise of orchestras and classical music. $7 tickets for students to almost every concert, solid financials, charismatic maestro, I could go on.

    • Marc-André Roberge says:

      It might be worth pointing out that the Regina Symphony Orchestra (founded in 1908) is not Canada’s longest continuously performing orchestra. This title actually belongs to the Quebec Symphony Orchestra (founded 1902).

  24. Based on the original question – Is it standing taller at the end of the year than the beginning – I’d say that Berlin and Vienna are probably about the same, give or take. But, they began at such a high level.

    Chicago is definitely taller. They not only dealt with their finances/contracts, they started new music education programs (and helped successfully lobby the city to do even more), did free performances in the community and have a new cooperation with other Chicago arts institutions. It was a huge year for them.

    I also agree with others who mention LA. Their profile is increasing steadily and very positively.

    Philadelphia is sad, but seems back on the upswing. I only hope we’ll see the same from Minnesota in the future.

  25. Neil van der Linden says:

    This must be the most moving and persisting orchestra.

  26. Paul D. Sullivan, Boston US says:

    Using Norman’s stated criteria for this poll, all I can comment on is the one Major orchestra here in Boston; the BSO.

    After the disastrous last two seasons with Mr. Levine, they seem to have weathered that, AND the economic decline (revenues and donation did go down) fairly well. With the offering of steep discounts to students and to a lesser extent those folks under 40, I’m seeing a much more mixed group of ages at the weekly concerts I attend and most seats (though not always) filled. The BSO and it’s alter ego the Boston Pops are still a widely known brand here in the north east, and management has used this very well, using their support for PBS and Public radio to keep the brand out there. When attendance started falling the concert schedules of BSO and Pops were curtailed (particularly Pops) to save money, and this has worked well. No use opening the hall and paying for heat, A/C and staff for a half full (or less) concert. Because the Symphony is owned, it also generates income for the BSO by being rented out to others as a performance venue.
    They continue to update their website, recently offering video interviews with the orchestra’s musicians. I thought this a very good idea as I find that the majority of the audience members have no idea who they are. The website makes it easy to purchase tickets online also, choosing your seats, and even getting a view of the stage by hovering the mouse over it, though at $6.25 per ticket, the handling charge is high.

    They also have a very good Community and Education outreach program:

    The BSO and especially Pops are looked on a a valuable asset by the city of Boston and bring in quite a bit of tourist dollars.

    The orchestra is also fortunate to have an extremely loyal core of patrons and donors, which assures a large part of steady income.

    Financially, from what I can see from their 2010 tax return and other information (see below) they are still seeming to be doing well and the wages for the players continue to rise.

    All in all I’d have to say that the BSO management has done a decent job of getting things on track and improving quite a bit since Levine’s departure and the big economic downturn.

    2010 BSO tax return:

    Info. from up to 2007 only:

    • On the other hand, they have no artistic leadership and seem to have forgotten how to appoint a chief conductor.

      • I’m glad to see Mr. Sullivan’s post. I also think Boston deserves mention.

        The loss of Levine as music director is fairly recent. They didn’t have much warning – it’s not like when an MD announces a season in advance that he’s retiring and a successor can be lined up. Very wisely, BSO is engaging a series of front-running guest conductors this season presumably with the intention of selecting one as MD. It would be foolish for an orch. of this caliber to jump into an appointment in any other way. Naming someone just to fill the immediate void could be a catastrophe.

        Artistic leadership has shown to be be thriving in the hands of the musicians themselves on several occasions this past season. When a guest conductor canceled at the last minute recently, the musicians themselves took over the programming and presented most of the concert themselves. This was such a success they repeated the musician-run program idea again, under planned circumstances.

        The musicians of the BSO are of a high enough level and evidently have a cooperative enough spirit, that, like LSO or Orpheus, or any of the great cooperatively run orchestras, they are quite capable of serving as their own artistic leadership, at least until the music director selection has been made.

        • Well said, Franz. And I think a word for Malcolm Lowe is due. I can think of very few orchestras that could come together and continue to play at the high level of the BSO under its present circumstances, and while it’s down to the players, much depends on Lowe. He’s obviously done yeoman’s work.

          • I agree completely, Janey. Malcolm Lowe is one of the US’s great Concertmasters. His superb playing, his delightful personality which conveys so wonderfully to audiences, and his artistic leadership all make him a tremendous asset to Boston, esp. during this period of transition for the orchestra.

      • True, Norman. But it says something for the overall health and vibrancy of the orchestra that it can continue to thrive going on the fourth year of turmoil at the top. In particular, there are many boards that would have taken advantage of the situation by lowering salaries or otherwise trying to find a “management” advantage. In contrast, this Board appears committed not to financial gains but to it’s mission and players. Of course, it helps that their finances are so strong, and yes, I wonder what they are doing regarding a Music Director.

        Having visited Tanglewood last summer, I can attest that it remains a thriving destination for classical music and is often packed.

        I do not believe it has matched the work done by Chicago and LA this year, but it is a stable, impressive organization.

      • Brian Hughes says:

        How right you are, Norman. How many other orchestras, sans MD’s have appointed same as Boston seems to dawdle. Come on, guys, appoint David Robertson and get it over with!

  27. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Swedish Radio Orchestra and Bamberger Symphoniker are top ensembles. Having a quarter or a third of the budget of other top orchestras like Berlin… It ‘s also about that…
    Would be nice to see what musicians earn at each orchestra, that would change the mind of some people, I guess…
    Barcelona FC is the best football team in the world… and the most expensive one regarding player’s salary.
    Money, as always, makes the world go around.

    • I highly doubt Bayerischer Rundfunk SO has only a third of Berlin Phil’s budget. They have actually very generous pay and conditions. Also a lot of their costs are hidden within the bigger broadcaster’s budget, while Berlin will have to fund media production and PR by themselves. Apples and oranges.

  28. Barenboim was asking a prior discussion on alternatives, not all for nothing. While the economic situation in Spain is understandable, cancelling extravagant events to save more is also understandable, what I am very surprised is how readers response so emotionally just on the financial terms. WEDO’s existence has a goal to induce dialogues between enemies. Is it not something valuable for us all, human beings, to do. When hunger lingers, values is thrown out. Have you reached the stage that Spanish are sustaining basic human needs and no room to think about greater human virtues? This is a surely question worth pondering. Yes, I read a lot about Spain and Euro,and aware that Spanish are in a very difficult situation. But ranting this anguish against WEDO’s ultimate goal is grossly misplaced. Interestingly some even assailing WEDO as the Barenboim’s “political” agenda. Barenboim is a great figure in the classical music arena. If he wanted, tons of world leading orchestras will rush to sign him on as maestro, and he would have been compensated even more. If you were enjoying the pinnacle of career success, would you lower yourself to the hardship of shepherding young orchestra or commanding the towering heights with a world reputed orchestra? (Just close your eyes and answer honestly) Yet, he has chosen a much more tortuous path than a comfortable, high limelight celebrity life and risk himself to be seen as a renegade among his peers and fellow countrymen. I am nobody. I just happen to watch Barenboim’s BBC 2012 PROM. But, I have a dream. As is the WEDO practice now that all WEDO musicians are not being paid any allowance for their participation. I wish one day I can help to pay a good allowance to those bravo WEDO musicians, partly to compensate their sweats, and also to salute their spirit for trying to communicate with their adversaries. This is like planting a seed of peace in them. One day, when some of them become politicians, military officers, or even militants. They might encounter some old WEDO fellows in the adversary camps. They either can resume their congenial talks as happened when in WEDO or settle differences by the hard ways. In any case, this is an attempt for a noble cause.

  29. How about the New Mexico Philharmonic? Up from the depths of bankruptcy last year, the musicians stuck together and reformed the new group. In a few weeks they were able to organize a board and raise enough funds to purchase their own library and instruments back from the defunct previous organization. Community support has been tremendous. They have been able to secure city and county funding, and future seasons planned continue to grow. Bravo! to their vision and passion that saved world-class music in Albuquerque– a great success story for the year.

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