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Gramophone ranks world’s best orchestras

When you compare baseball or other sports teams, there’s only one
statistic that matters in the end: who wins the most games. When it
comes to assessing the respective quality of the world’s top
orchestras, the comparisons are much more complicated to make. Many
different factors and qualities must be taken into consideration, and
assessments are much more subjective. Despite the challenges, and
potential controversy, Gramophone has gone in search of the
“World’s Best Orchestra” and, in its December issue, will publish its
list of the world’s Top 20 orchestras.

To create its list, Gramophone polled leading critics around the world, including Alex Ross (New Yorker) and Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times) in the U.S., Rob Cowan in the U.K, critics from France’s Le Monde, Austria’s Die Presse, Germany’s Die Welt, and the leading paper in the Netherlands. Also included were various editors associated with Gramophone
around the world, including editor James Inverne and editor in chief
James Jolly in London, and the respective editors of the local editions
of Gramophone in Korea, Spain and China.

Depending on the reader’s geographical location and personal tastes, Gramophone’s
list will by turns confirm, surprise, and possibly confound. Three of
the world’s most famous orchestras occupy the top three positions, but
their ordering might surprise some readers. At No. 5, the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra is America’s top-ranked orchestra. While many of the
Top 10 orchestras are more than a century old (and then some, with the
Dresden Staatskapelle, at No. 10, being founded in 1548!), the Russian
National Orchestra (founded in 1990) and the Budapest Festival
Orchestra, this season celebrating its 25th anniversary, are relative

Gramophone’s editor James Inverne observes:

celebrated ensembles on our list represent the triumph of “character”
in orchestras. Too many bands these days have a uniform, slick but
generalized sound, whereas the Concertgebouw (No. 1) is one of the last
to really have an immediately identifiable sound, and to arguably (to
an extent) plumb the character of composers in the way an actor will
with his roles. Others on the list who also have that quality are the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra (that famous brass sound) at No. 5, the very
unsung Budapest Festival Orchestra (No. 9), and the Dresden
Staatskapelle (No. 10).

Iván Fischer, who founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra in 1983, comments:

think it’s a good list and it’s a great honor to be part of it. For me,
the difference between good orchestras and great orchestras is obvious:
in good orchestras musicians may get it right, but in great orchestras
they offer that special ‘extra.’ It’s the musicians’ personal
involvement, imagination, intuition, and ability to take risks that
makes a great orchestra what it is: a group of creative artists.”

Several guest artists and critics offer short written appreciations for
members of the Top 10 Club, including Marin Alsop (for the London
Symphony Orchestra [No. 4], which she has guest conducted frequently)
and Leonard Slatkin (for the Los Angeles Philharmonic [No. 8], where he
was principal guest conductor 2005-2007).

Gramophone’s “World’s Best Orchestra” cover story will be published on November 21 in the UK (November 28 in the US). Gramophone’s
complete list of monthly “Editor’s Choice” recordings, thousands of
archived reviews, breaking news, and much more can be found at the
magazine’s web site:

Gramophone’s complete list of Top 20 orchestras follows.

The Top 10

1) Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam
2) Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
3) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
4) London Symphony Orchestra
5) Chicago Symphony Orchestra
6) Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
7) Cleveland Orchestra
8) Los Angeles Philharmonic
9) Budapest Festival Orchestra
10) Dresden Staatskapelle

The Next 10

11) Boston Symphony Orchestra
12) New York Philharmonic
13) San Francisco Symphony
14) Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
15) Russian National Orchestra
16) Leningrad Philharmonic
17) Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
18) Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
19) Saito Kinen Orchestra
20) Czech Philharmonic

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