[From the archive. First posted Nov. 27, 2008 on my blog at the Register (which has gone away).]
Gramophone magazine (which I once wrote an article for) has ranked the world’s 20 best orchestras.
First, here’s the list:
1 Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
2 Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
3 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
4 London Symphony Orchestra
5 Chicago Symphony Orchestra
6 Bavarian Radio Symphony
7 Cleveland Orchestra
8 Los Angeles Philharmonic
9 Budapest Festival Orchestra
10 Dresden Staatskapelle
11 Boston Symphony Orchestra
12 New York Philharmonic
13 San Francisco Symphony
14 Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
15 Russian National Orchestra
16 Leningrad Philharmonic
17 Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
18 Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
19 Saito Kinen Symphony Orchestra
20 Czech Philharmonic
Second, here’s how Gramophone came up with the list:
Ranking the heavy hitters is by no means an easy task, but Gramophone has manfully taken the job in hand. Our panel of leading music critics comprised: Rob Cowan, James Inverne, James Jolly (all from Gramophone, UK), Alex Ross (The New Yorker, US), Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times, US), Wilhelm Sinkovicz (Die Presse, Austria), Renaud Machart (Le Monde, France), Manuel Brug (Die Welt, Germany), Thiemo Wind (De Telegraaf, the Netherlands), Zhou Yingjuan (editor, Gramophone China) and Soyeon Nam (editor, Gramophone Korea).
Thirdly, since a couple of you sent me the link to the story, you must be wondering what I think (even though Gramophone didn’t). Well, I take all such lists with an entire shaker of salt and I also am not that interested in them. The list does name many of the world’s best orchestras (the Philadelphia Orchestra is left off for some reason, though). But to come up with an actual order for them is a fool’s game: like ranking actors. Who was better, Henry Fonda or James Stewart? James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart?
At any rate, orchestras, no matter what their rank, are only as interesting as the conductors who lead them. The New York Philharmonic, for instance, is by some distance a better orchestra (technically) than the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but Salonen makes the latter more interesting and satisfying to listen to. But conductors aren’t mentioned in the list.
Again, technically speaking, the Leningrad Philharmonic (which if I’m not mistaken, has been renamed the St. Petersburg Philharmonic) is by far the superior to the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (aka the Kirov).
If conductors do figure (as they must have, in the L.A. ranking), I think you’d have to consider the Cincinnati Symphony (with Paavo Jarvi), the Royal Philharmonic (with Daniele Gatti), the Philharmonia (with Salonen) and, quite possibly, the London Philharmonic (with Vladimir Jurowski) for ranking. Also, I’d say the State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra (not on the list) is way better than the Czech Philharmonic (at 20), both of which I’ve heard in the last 12 months. And the Cleveland Orchestra is pretty booooring under Franz Welser-Most.