Greatest Orchestras in the World: expert views + random comments

Gideon Gartner on The Best Orchestras in the WorldIn my opinion the best music magazine in the world is Gramophone, published in the UK. About a year ago it brought together many of the leading world’s music critics to help determine the greatest orchestras. The order was as follows: best in the world was the Royal Concertgebouw from Amsterdam, followed by the Berlin Phil., Vienna Phil., London Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Bavarian Radio, Cleveland Orch., Los Angeles Phil.,  Budapest Festival,  and Dresden Staatskapelle. The Gramophone magazine also ranked the next 10, but I will leave those out.

My wife and I have seven subscriptions to series at Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls,  where many of these  orchestras visit. Here are my own personal views re the “best” orchestras:

The top three mentioned by Gramophone seem to be ranked in one or another of the top three positions  every year. The quality of an orchestra is a function of many variables, which may change year by year, but very slowly. I believe the orchestra conductor’s skill is a somewhat more critical variable than the average quality of the instrumentalists. Thus I believe that in addition to ranking the world’s greatest orchestras,  critics should rank the world’s greatest conductors (although I admit that evaluating conductors would be much more controversial).  Regardless, there should  be a reasonably close correlation since the greatest orchestras are generally conducted by one of the great conductors.

I am totally blown away by the Royal Concertgebouw, conducted by Mariss Jansons who I have been following for decades, even years ago when he was conducting the Oslo Philharmonic (which was then ranked high, but today is not even in the top 20).  Most people think that Vienna and Berlin are the two best (e.g. better than Concertgebouw) and continually argue about which is on top. Well, neither made it this year. After those three, opinions really begin to diverge. I’ve heard all of the top 10 orchestras, and while I’m an ex-horn player and still tinker on the piano, I don’t presume to have the judgment of professionals. Still, of the excellent others among the top 10, I really adore the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Ivan Fischer.

For me, it’s sad how poorly the American orchestras have slipped . Chicago #5 (it was close to  #1 when Solti was its conductor), Cleveland #7, L.A. #8, Boston #11, New York Phil. #12, San Fran #13, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra #18 (of course, seven of the top 20 ain’t bad).  But I believe the overall international reputations of the U.S. conductors (which of course includes some non-Americans) does not match those conducting the Europeans.

Both at Carnegie and Avery Fisher my wife Sarah and I sit directly above the stage and can see all the musicians below us: the relative discipline and seriousness of the instrumentalists seems quite evident.

There’s obviously no way for a concertgoer to rate individual musicianship, but looking at the whole, I at least note that the Europeans walk on stage energetically, generally do not slouch, their bodies move significantly together with the music (when you watch the string sections, all the musicians seem to be swaying as one body), they show enthusiasm in many ways, and at the end of the concert they often smile as the audience applauds, with members of some European orchestras shaking hands with their counterparts. Sounds silly, but there perhaps arbitrarily seems to be a correlation between the attitudes of European orchestras and their aggregate musicianship.

European conductors can also be quite innovative. We very recently attended a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony in NYC by the Budapest, and as critics emphasized along with us, the vocalists sang  positioned across the entire stage among the string players, the choir was positioned on the floor in front of the stage (several front rows were removed to enable this instead of the normal stage rear), with TV monitors allowing the chorus to follow the conductor’s directives with the result that the voices were unusually strong and clear, while Beethoven’s spirit “rang out with explosive jubilance” (as per NYT’s Steve Smith). This was by far the most exciting and moving performance of the Beethoven 9th that we had ever attended! Yet another example was a concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Lucerne Festival two years ago, where the soloists standing just in front of the orchestra, without staging or semi-staging, nevertheless acted out their parts professionally and without any scores, which was unusual  compared with the U.S.’s almost ubiquitous standing around of the singers, often with music stands before them (some of us are working to change that!)

When I took piano lessons as a child, my Brooklyn NY teacher seemed good; when I continued with lessons in England at age 16, my German piano teacher was better than good, great (a disciplinarian and had I stayed longer, I would have benefitted)! I’ll go out on a limb and say that while we produce excellent musicians in the U.S., the Europeans (with the Asians catching up rapidly) produce even greater ones, quite consistently.


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